B.O. sets record but war woes, economy raise fears

There were plenty of speed bumps along the way, but Broadway finished the season with a number to celebrate. Box office receipts set a new record, totaling $720,578,750, a rise of a healthy 12% from last year.

The upward B.O. trajectory continues a decadelong trend interrupted only last season, when 9/11 walloped ticket-buying for several months.

But the other numbers for the season paint a complicated picture more in tune with a year plagued by uncertainty. Paid attendance was up by a smaller 3.9% from last season, to 11,388,848. That the figure rose at all, during a season marked by continuing economic malaise, Broadway’s first strike in a quarter-century and a rainbow assortment of terrorist alerts, is cause for relief, if not exactly celebration. Last season, the admissions figure fell by some 1 million.

But Broadway still hasn’t gained back all the ground lost: This year’s attendance figure is still down by 500,000 from the heady days of the 2000-01 season.

“The fact that we’ve survived the war and the economic downturn is good,” says producer Emanuel Azenberg, who opened two shows, “Movin’ Out” and “La Boheme,” in the fall. “But you can’t get away from the fact that there are no tourists in New York. You can tell by walking down the street. Before 9/11 we had a couple of banner summers, but now nobody knows what’s going to happen this summer, and I think we’re all very nervous.”

The smaller increase in attendance also means the B.O. gain of some $60 million was caused primarily by rising ticket prices, not growing audiences. Indeed the season’s average ticket price leaped by almost $5, to $63.27. It was the largest single-season jump in more than 20 years. Nine shows on Broadway now boast a $100 top ticket. When the season closed last year, there was just one, “The Lion King.”

As always, money-losing shows outnumbered the profitable ones. This year five shows recouped during the season (as compared to last season’s unusually large crop of eight). The starry pairing of Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci made “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” the first hit of the season, followed in short order by the season’s biggest smash, “Hairspray,” which went into profit in April. Jackie Mason’s latest solo show was joined in the cozy winners circle by two more star-driven revivals, “Our Town” with Paul Newman and Al Pacino’s very peculiar “Salome: The Reading.”

Twice as many shows closed as flops during the season, with “Dance of the Vampires” repping the season’s most spectacular loss of more than $10 million. Other expensive losers included the first Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song,” the Shubert-produced Michel Legrand musical “Amour” (the season’s swiftest-shuttered) and “Urban Cowboy.” The latter made headlines by rescinding a closing notice at the last minute before loping along until a dearth of Tony nominations finally shut it down.

But production levels held steady, a sign that Broadway investment continues to be healthy despite the continuing grim economic news. There were 35 Broadway shows last season, the same number as last year. Playing weeks rose to 1,501, up 71 from last season and 16 from the previous one. Theater occupancy was at a healthy 77.5%, up slightly from 72.4% last season and the standard of 75% in prior years.

“Artistically there was greater variety than usual,” says League of American Theaters & Producers prez Jed Bernstein. “The folks who like to write and talk about nobody taking chances on Broadway couldn’t say that about this season, with ‘Movin’ Out,’ ‘La Boheme’ and ‘Def Poetry Jam,’ just for starters. And until the start of the war in March, we were running about 10% ahead in both attendance and grosses. That’s a testament to Broadway’s resiliency, given the economy.

“Now, the recession is not over,” he adds, “and Broadway may ultimately feel the effects of it, even if it hasn’t so far. But overall I’m pleased and relieved and guardedly optimistic going forward.”

Great divide

The overall Broadway story this year might be called a tale of two seasons. With “Hairspray” and “Frankie and Johnny” leading the way, the fall season got off to a rollicking start. “Movin’ Out,” Twyla Tharp’s ballet set to Billy Joel’s songs, opened to strong reviews and major B.O. in October, and the momentum continued into December, which saw seven openings, an unusually large number. Rapturous notices made Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme” the highbrow hot ticket of the Christmas season, and the show’s box office grosses looked promising.

During the Christmas week (Dec. 23-30), Broadway grosses set a weekly record of $21.35 million.

But Broadway’s winter doldrums set in quickly, and severely, this year. New York endured one of the chilliest — and seemingly longest — winters in years, dampening B.O. just when the fall openers needed to find their legs.

Then came the musicians’ strike, sapping what little momentum the season had left. The dispute over mandated minimums for Broadway orchestras turned into a pitched battle played out in the press as much as across a conference room table. The musicians union secured the goodwill of their fellow actors’ unions by loudly decrying the producers’ threats to keep shows running with “virtual orchestras.” So when the musicians walked, so did the actors and stagehands, and Broadway shut down for a tense weekend. The cost to the actual B.O. total appeared to be $10 million or so, but it’s impossible to calibrate any lingering aftereffects.

Hot on the heels of the strike came the war in Iraq, which boosted the terror alert levels to orange and doubtless had a chilling effect on tourist business for some time.

Add to the mix the continuing bad news on the economic front and, unless taxpayers all decide to spend their $330 billion in refunds on theater tickets, Broadway could be facing a wan summer.

It didn’t help that the spring season didn’t supply a hit to rival anything from the fall, except the starry revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which snagged the best notices of the season and is doing stellar biz. Grossing almost $600,000 a week (with seven perfs), it’s outperforming the likes of “Aida.”

The much-anticipated “Gypsy” seemingly made headlines every time Bernadette Peters coughed, and now is doing healthy but not sellout business at the Shubert. Its chief spring rival, the Antonio Banderas-led “Nine,” is likewise a strong draw but more a theater lover’s show than an all-purpose hit on the order of “Hairspray” or “The Producers.” And they can’t both take home the Tony for musical revival (in fact, “Boheme” might just capitalize on their rivalry and take home the gold June 8). New plays were particularly thin on the ground this season, a recurring but alarming problem.

And both Bernstein and Azenberg also says the recent trend favoring last-minute ticket sales over advance buying, a pronounced development after 9/11, has continued this season. “We saw it last weekend,” he says, referring to the rainy Memorial Day frame. “It rained all weekend and the shows were packed. Now I guess we have to hope for a really rainy summer.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more