First time in 5 seasons that road B.O. hit $700 mil

CHICAGO — Despite a delayed but virulent backlash against the proliferation of non-Equity shows, the Broadway road enjoyed a boffo 2003-04 season, with the final total gross of $751,265,435 representing a healthy 16% bounce from last year’s anemic $648,214,795. It was the first time in five seasons that the road B.O. topped $700 million, as it regularly did during the boom years of the late 1990s.

Most of that cash came from the four proliferating pillars holding up today’s road: “The Lion King,” “Hairspray,” “The Producers” and “Mamma Mia!”

There’s some evidence the Abba tuner might finally be slowing down in return engagements, but that high-powered quartet remains capable of snagging seven figures a week — even $1.5 million where seating capacity allows.

But the good news doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious worries on the road.

Exhibit A: There are no new pillars on the immediate horizon.

“Our problem is that we’re now officially done with all the big shows,” says Randy Weeks, who programs the Denver Center. “The next example of what I would call a legitimate Broadway hit is ‘Wicked,” and that’s still a year away for us.”

The current season hasn’t spawned any immediate contenders. “Avenue Q” opted to wait a year, and it’s a quirky, smaller-scaled show. “Bombay Dreams” has no announced plans — and it’s likely only to work in markets where Bollywood has plenty of resident fans.

Exhibit B: The second tier of shows is in a whole different fiscal universe from the leading lights.

“Urinetown,” which made the mistake of waiting until its Broadway buzz had been replaced by hinterland unease flowing from the title, largely was a disappointment. Besieged by bad reviews, “The Graduate” was spotty. “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which has lowered its prices for the upcoming season, is hanging in there.

On the other hand, “Chicago” proved very popular in its post-movie incarnation. “You never know what a movie is going to do,” said Gina Vernaci of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Center. “But in this case, the movie created a whole new audience for that show. It became like a national branding campaign.”

Similarly, albeit oddly, some presenters saw a benefit for “Jesus Christ Superstar” from the success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

“Movin’ Out,” which has benefited greatly from a national campaign supported by Visa, far exceeded expectations in 2003-04. Not only did Twyla Tharp turn out a top-tier show, but local presenters discovered Billy Joel’s name was enough to get the male dates of dance-loving women into the theater.

There were other fringe benefits, too: Rock-oriented auds are more willing to buy in the balcony than the families and pearl janglers who show up for trad Broadway attractions. And since rock one-nighters have taught audiences to come out on a Tuesday night if that’s when the act is in town, “Movin’ Out” sold heavily on those all-important midweek evenings. All of those factors made for big profits.

The big story of the 2003-04 season, of course, was the ongoing fight over the production contract. In a PR offensive, Actors’ Equity ratcheted up its opposition to non-union tuners by sending out letters to members of the media pointing out that the performers coming through town hadn’t ever been seen on Broadway.

“We’ve been doing some educating,” said Equity exec director Alan Eisenberg.

That effort resulted in less-than-favorable press coverage for some Broadway slates — especially in smaller markets like Palm Beach, Fla., where Broadway in Palm Beach announced a 2004-05 season anchored by the non-Equity duo of “Oklahoma!” and “Oliver!”

“Non-Equity shows, drab lineup hurt series,” moaned the Palm Beach Daily News.

How all the union issues will play out remains anybody’s guess. Equity has made some deals with producers inclined toward non-Equity productions, but so far has shown reluctance to cut deals with top-tier producers. Still, conventional wisdom has it that there will have to be some give in the per diems and work rules.

In the long history of the road, 2003-04 might well turn out to be the high-water mark of the non-Equity tuner.

And then there’s the price of gas and other such macro concerns.

“Had the increase taken place in the fall instead of this spring,” says Lyn Singleton of the Providence (R.I.) Performing Arts Center, “I hate to think what it would have done to the figures.”

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