Season sets $ record, but attendance stalls and flops abound

Broadway has another big number to ballyhoo this year, as total grosses for the season, which concluded May 30, hit a new record of $771,012,298.

But that gleaming figure more or less constitutes the whole of the good news. In most other respects, Broadway had a mediocre, even substandard year.

The numbers are particularly tricky this year, since the 2003-04 season marked one of Broadway’s extra-credit seasons, with 53 weeks of grosses rather than the usual 52. Still, even without that additional week, the total B.O. for Broadway would be slightly ahead of last year. As it is, the total gross rose by 6.9% this year, a respectable figure.

Combined with the strong road figures for the season (see story, this page), the Broadway and road grosses totaled a record $1,522,277,733, a healthy 11.2% increase.

Broadway’s attendance figures aren’t quite as upbeat, however. With Week 53 included, the numbers rose a minor 1.85% from last season to 11,600,203. Subtract that last week and the numbers are dead even with the prior year — actually down about 35,000 ducats, or a minuscule 0.3%.

The discrepancy between the record dollars being collected and the static ticket-sales figure is becoming a familiar story. The explanation is simple: higher prices. The average price for a Broadway show rose again this year, hitting a new high of $66.47. It wasn’t the leap of nearly $5 registered last season, but it’s still a rise of $3.20, or 5%.

Breaking it down

Look past the overall totals to the numbers pertaining to individual shows, and the picture darkens considerably. While flops always outnumber hits on Broadway — particularly when the accounting is taken at the end of May, when spring shows are new to the boards — this year’s winners-and-losers tally looks even more lopsided than usual.

Just two shows that opened during the 2003-04 season had returned all their money to investors by the finish line: the small-scaled, star-less musical “Avenue Q,” capitalized at $6 million, and the revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which turned a profit (despite dreary reviews) thanks to the marquee allure of Ashley Judd and Jason Patric. Not since the 1997-98 season have there been just two in the winners circle.

Meanwhile, the list of money losers numbered 10; that 5-to-1 ratio of flops to hits is grim even by Broadway’s uncertain standards. Last season, there were just two flops to every hit by this reckoning point (11 flops, five hits); the year before, there were almost as many hits (eight) as flops (nine).

The long list of losers is partially due to the lopsided nature of the season, with a heavy influx of fall openers and a relatively lighter diet of spring entries. But it also reflects the overall impression that Broadway kept firing blanks this year, with few shows catching on with audiences and critics dispatching brickbats with fatiguing regularity.

After an absence of several years, the season even saw the return of a pair of ignominious legit phenomena: the show that closes on opening night (“Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All”) and the show that closes before opening night (“Bobbi Boland”). And then there was the spring arrival of “Prymate,” which had more than one critic drawing comparisons to that now-legendary disaster of the ’80s, “Moose Murders.”

It wasn’t all gloom and doom, of course. A handful of shows managed to connect with audiences behind the backs of the critics, and the list of the season’s profitable shows ultimately will reflect that. And there were shows for critics to rally around, too: Revivals of “Assassins” and “Jumpers” had most cheering.

Among the lucky few likely to emerge as financial winners, sooner or later, are the $14 million musical “Wicked,” which is doing $1 million a week and filling one of Broadway’s most daunting houses, the Gershwin; the first Broadway revival (go figure) of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which reaped priceless publicity from the Broadway debut of rap mogul P. Diddy (treading the boards as Sean Combs) and is setting house records at the Royale; and, possibly, the Hugh Jackman starrer “The Boy From Oz,” which is playing to near-SRO auds, although it dipped considerably during the winter months.

All three were panned by the New York Times’ Ben Brantley (and some others), who evinced his pronounced dissatisfaction with the season as a whole in a pre-Tony piece for Arts & Leisure.

And it was hard indeed to find the silver linings on Broadway this year.

Looking just at the number of new productions, the season could be hailed as a banner year for new plays on Broadway — in recent years nearly an endangered species. There were 12 new plays produced on the Great White Way during the season (not including “Bobbi Boland”). That figure is the highest in a decade.

But don’t break out the Champagne just yet. The quality of the crop — and their B.O. achievement — was another story entirely. Seven of 10 commercially produced new plays have already entered Broadway history as flops (“Anna in the Tropics,” “Match,” “Confederate Widow,” “Prymate,” “The Retreat From Moscow,” “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” and “Sixteen Wounded”). The reviews for all seven were mixed at best, with some collecting across-the-board pans.

“Frozen,” “Golda’s Balcony” and “I Am My Own Wife” are still running. But while all received generally good reviews — particularly Pulitzer Prize winner “Wife,” the odds-on favorite to take the Tony for new play, too — none is a breakout hit.

The other two new plays came courtesy of Manhattan Theater Club, and did that stalwart company no favors in its beleaguered first season as a Broadway player at the Biltmore Theater. The new play from last year’s Tony winner, Richard Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour,” arrived in a deeply flawed production, and Regina Taylor’s “Drowning Crow” had MTC subscribers sashaying up the theater’s nice wide aisles and out the door at intermission.

The score for new musicals isn’t much better. “Avenue Q” was both a critical and a modest commercial hit, and “Wicked” and “Boy From Oz” are crowd-pleasers, but there were some resounding flops, too.

Rosie O’Donnell’s production of “Taboo” earned more headlines than money, and closed as a total loss of more than $10 million. “Never Gonna Dance,” the Fred-and-Ginger retread, was a bust, too. And the Bollywood tuner “Bombay Dreams,” which opened to some of the severest notices in a season hardly short on them, will need to rope in every South Asian on the East Coast to turn a profit.

The season also lacked the kind of event revival that can put a stamp of significance on a year devoid of well-received new product. The Roundabout’s revival of “Assassins” probably comes closest, but given its dark subject matter, it will never be a long-running money-spinner along the lines of “Chicago” or Studio 54’s previous tenant, “Cabaret.” The other major musical revivals — “Wonderful Town,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Little Shop of Horrors” — have collectively failed to set the box office on fire, despite largely positive notices.

Broadway’s lackluster season looks even more unimpressive when you take into account the fact that it was pretty much smooth sailing, in contrast to recent years. Last season was marred by a musicians’ strike that shut the whole Street down for a weekend; the season before was interrupted by Sept. 11, which had a calamitous effect on the box office. With no such impediments this time around, the modest B.O. increase and largely flat ticket sales look even more feeble.

Still, optimists can find some news to cheer. Two of the shows connecting with audiences this season are actually connecting with new audiences.

“Avenue Q” is bringing in plenty of traditional theatergoers, but it also has scored with a demographic that doesn’t usually find its way to Broadway, the 20- and 30-something kids who figure in the storyline about post-adolescent angst in New York.

And “Raisin in the Sun” is packing the Royale with largely African-American audiences.

Indeed, the success of “Avenue Q” and “Raisin” — in contrast to the season’s many flops in more standard Broadway models — can be seen as a promising sign that the future of Broadway could be healthier if more producers trusted new audiences and new voices.

“Raisin” producer David Binder, making his Broadway producing debut after success with Off Broadway prodcutions (notably the long-running “De La Guarda”), says he was just dong what comes naturally.

“I’ve never really reached a traditional theater audience with my productions,” he says. “I’ve always existed on nontraditional audiences, ethnically diverse crowds with wide age ranges.”

“When I set out to do ‘De La Guarda,’ people said you couldn’t get young people into the theater,” he recalls. “With ‘Raisin’ we were told you couldn’t get a black audience to come.”

“Raisin” is getting both. Of his decision to cast Combs, TV star Phylicia Rashad and movie ingenue Sanaa Lathan, Binder described it not as a canny financial move (which it has proven to be) but as a way of bridging the distance between Broadway and pop culture.

“These are popular artists. People feel a connection to them, so they have an investment in the event,” he says. “They don’t feel like they’re a guest here. It’s their party.”

Following a Broadway season that gave little grounds for general festivity, it’s good to know someone’s definitely having a good time.

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