Big Broadway finish

... but no B.O. record, despite tix inflation

NEW YORK — Despite several record-setting weeks during the past three months and higher overall attendance figures, Broadway did not set a box office record for the 2004-05 season, which ended Sunday.

Most new shows in the season’s first nine months generated lackluster box office, and boffo product didn’t arrive until the final quarter, pushing total receipts to $768,555,109 for 2004-05. That tally falls just under the championship season of 2003-04, which produced $771,012,298 in receipts.

The 2003-04 season was one of Broadway’s extra-credit calendars, containing 53 weeks. Averaged out per week, 2004-05 wins at $14,777,790 a session, compared with $14,547,401 in 2003-04 and $13,855,360 in 2002-03, which totaled $720,578,750 for the standard 52 weeks.

Pricey tix

Due to ever-inflating ticket prices, paid attendance remains the better barometer of the Stem’s success. By that measure, the season just concluded looks even rosier — 221,687 per week in 2004-05, compared with 218,871 in 2003-04 and 217,035 in 2002-03. More tickets were sold, in part, because more shows opened: 38 last season compared with 36 in 2003-04 and 29 in 2002-03.

More upbeat news: Ticket dollars rose less than usual, from an average price of $66.47 in 2003-04 to $66.66 in 2004-05. Obviously, premium ducats were not a huge factor.

The ultra-pricey variety was introduced with “The Producers” in autumn 2001; more shows offered them the following season, but they didn’t take effect across the board until 2004-05. Disney’s long-running “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, held off making the high-priced tix available until November. Their impact on the box office was minor in most instances, though significant in a few.

Several shows reported selling fewer than 100 such tickets on a typical nonholiday week. The plays “700 Sundays” and “Julius Caesar,” however, reported respective average-price tickets of $105 and $85 for most weeks, pushing them to recoupment in a speedy seven to eight weeks. “Wicked” also benefited mightily from its $300 top, as producers there upped the number set aside per week from 300 to 500in May.

For the first season since its 1997 preem, “The Lion King” ($55,578,372) was outgrossed by another show, “Wicked” ($61,434,749), which had the slight advantage of playing the Gershwin, which has 30 more seats than the New Amsterdam.

Who needs the Tony?

The 2004-05 season got off to a surprise bang when little “Avenue Q” beat out “Wicked” for the year’s top prize for a musical. The winner suddenly went from doing good biz to performing at 100% capacity.

“Wicked” had been doing 100% for months, but proved its real B.O. mettle as the current Broadway champ when its receipts actually rose a bit during the week of the Republican Convention.

Every season seems to have its cross to bear: an especially cruel winter, a musicians’ strike, a terrorist attack. In 2004-05, it was the Republican Convention. But right-wing politicians couldn’t be blamed for all of Broadway’s woes. For the first half of 2004-05, weekly receipts often lagged behind levels set over the past two seasons. And it’s no wonder why.

Even on paper, the summer and autumn looked soggy with weak entries (“Dracula,” “Brooklyn”) and the kind of one-person shows (“The Good Body,” “Laugh Whore”) that often take up space for a few months before the big-ticket items can materialize. The exception was Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays,” which, at $1.06 million (May 16-22), set the weekly Broadway record for a nonmusical.

Original plays looked especially endangered last fall when “Gem of the Ocean” delayed its November preem due to money problems, then left town in February after the shortest run of any August Wilson original drama. Then there was the British import “Democracy,” which, despite several strong reviews, failed to find an audience and closed after recouping only 50% of its capitalization.

‘Doubt’ restored

But just when the Rialto buzzed with the annual doomsday report on the future of Broadway plays, “Doubt” and “The Pillowman” opened back-to-back in the spring to set house records at their theaters. They are expected to recoup this summer, as will the revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

In recent weeks, Broadway has continually set B.O. records thanks to lots of strong-selling new musicals. The danger sign there is that most of these big musicals break even at $600,000-plus a week, meaning current grosses of between $700,000-$900,000 for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot” leave a rather narrow window for profit. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” capitalized at only $3.5 million and grossing in excess of $400,000 per week, might be quickest to recoup.

While the first half of the 2004-05 season suffered from not enough new good product, a few long-running shows were reborn to take up the slack. Box office at “Beauty and the Beast” was up 9% from the previous season. “The Phantom of the Opera,” goosed by the movie version released at Christmas, grew 13%. And “The Producers,” which some observers predicted would tank after Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick ended their return engagement in April 2004, secured the lofty No. 4 slot on the top 10 chart for most weeks of the just-ended season.

The League of American Theaters & Producers reports slightly higher figures for 2004-05 and other seasons. The Broadway trade org includes receipts from one-night galas that Daily Variety does not report.

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