Spring flings B.O. bling…

…but Broadway's no record setter

Even the most rousing 11 o’clock number is only semi-effective if it comes at the end of a so-so musical. Still, after a dismal start, the strong final quarter and overall hike in paid attendance made the 2004-05 season a solid one for Broadway.

Thanks largely to the bonanza of spring musical openers like “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and hit plays “Doubt,” “The Pillowman” and “Julius Caesar,” the past three months generated several record-setting weeks.

These were further pumped by Billy Crystal’s solo show “700 Sundays,” which opened in December and has sustained sell-out business since; and previous-season hits like “Wicked” and “Avenue Q,” continuing to draw capacity houses.

But despite the good news, the current season that ended Sunday failed to set an overall box office record, its tally of just over $768 million falling a whisker short of the championship 2003-04 season’s $771 million haul.The marginal difference is more than accounted for, however, by the simple fact that the 2003-04 season ran 53 weeks, seven days longer than the go-round just wrapped.

On a weekly average, the 2004-05 stint pulled in $14.8 million, beating the previous season’s $14.5 million and the 2002-03 B.O. of $13.9 million, which totaled over $720 million for the standard 52 weeks.

But ticket-price inflation makes paid attendance the best gauge of the season’s health, and by that measure the results came up roses: 2004-05 clocked 221,687 ducats per week, against the previous season’s 218,871, and 217,035 in 2002-03. That increase is due partially to the greater number of shows that opened, with 38 bowing last season compared with 36 and 29, respectively, over the previous two seasons.

Surprisingly, ticket prices jumped by less than usual, going from an average $66.47 in 2003-04 to $66.66 in 2004-05. Clearly, the boost this past season in premium-priced tickets upward of $200 as standard practice for hot shows has had minor impact.

Several shows sold fewer than 100 such tix on a typical nonholiday week. But “700 Sundays” and Denzel Washington starrer “Julius Caesar” proved exceptions.

Those shows reported a respective average-price ticket of $105 and $85 for most weeks, helping them to recoup in a brief seven to eight weeks. The $300 top price also boosted receipts for “Wicked”; starting in May 2005, the show’s producers have increased the number of those seats available each week from 300 to 500.

Although pundits like to compare one season to the next, in reality, they spill over to affect each other’s tallies. For example, from the 2003-04 season, “Wicked,” “Avenue Q” and “The Boy From Oz” all recouped.

“That’s an amazing three out of seven musicals,” says “Wicked” producer David Stone.

The same overspill into the new season will be true of this year’s best musical Tony noms, “Spamalot,” “Scoundrels,” “Spelling Bee” and “The Light in the Piazza.” With all four Tony contenders opening late in 2004-05, their success bodes well for B.O. over the coming months.

“It has been a long time since we’ve had all four be this strong,” notes Stone, who also produced “Spelling Bee.” “It will be a very good summer.”

While holdovers “Avenue Q,” “Wicked” and “The Boy From Oz” powered the 2004-05 season to a solid start, other factors conspired to keep the sector from soaring.

High among these was the Republican Convention in August, which dampened receipts for all but two shows: “Wicked,” which proved its clout with a B.O. hike; and “The Boy From Oz,” stoked by Hugh Jackman’s Tony win and its posted September closing date.

But the chief reason for the B.O. slump in the first half of 2004-05, during which weekly receipts often lagged behind those of the past two seasons, was the shows themselves.

Clunkers like “Dracula” and “Brooklyn: The Musical” did little to ignite the summer or fall; nor did play revivals “‘night Mother” and “After the Fall.”

Likewise the solo shows Eve Ensler’s “The Good Body” and Mario Cantone’s “Laugh Whore,” the kind of vehicles that often occupy theaters during the months before big-ticket draws materialize. Its winning formula of Jews, jazz, baseball and family made Crystal’s “700 Sundays” the stellar exception. With a $1.06 million haul for May 16-22, the show set a new Broadway weekly record for a nonmusical.

Original plays looked especially endangered last fall when the November bow of “Gem of the Ocean” was placed in jeopardy and then delayed after a key investor dropped out.

Despite generally positive reviews, the play closed prematurely in February, registering the shortest run of any August Wilson original drama.

And critical support only buoyed British import “Democracy” through its initial weeks. The National Theater transfer failed to find a New York audience and closed after recouping only 50% of its capitalization.

“We were doing fine until all the spring plays were announced, and they went out with their direct mail and emails,” producer Bob Boyett says. “Our sales leveled off. There’s a market for six plays, but not 10 plays.”

Boyett’s production of “The Pillowman” now plays to over 90% capacity, while “Spamalot,” which he also produced, is at 100%.

“The new musicals are doing well, but musicals are a whole different animal to market,” he adds. “It’s hard to come up with a copy line to describe a play,” says Boyett.

But the arrival of Pulitzer-winner “Doubt” “The Pillowman,” back-to-back in the spring reversed the grim pronouncements about the future of new drama on Broadway.

Both shows set house records at their theaters and both are expected to recoup over summer, as will the well-received revival of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.,” on track to hit profit by mid-July.

“There had never been a Broadway revival of the play, so it seemed fresh,” says producer Jeffrey Richards, who looks to have the season’s most commercially successful redux with “Glengarry.” The production scores the same way the nonprofit Roundabout’s longrunning “Twelve Angry Men” did, their bravura all-male ensembles bringing an invigorating shot of testosterone to Broadway.

To quote “All About Eve,” nothing is forever in the theater. Original plays and musicals looked endangered last fall. Now they are breaking house records.

“It is always the story,” says producer Carole Shorenstein Hays, who had a miss with “Gem of the Ocean” but hits with “Doubt” and Denzel Washington starrer “Julius Caesar.” “We all have a short memory,” she says. “We keep asking, ‘Where’s the new audience?’ It’s here!”

But from the critically mauled”The Glass Menagerie” to the lauded “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” the commercial prospects of most other play revivals this season appear less certain. Most have been oft-staged on Broadway or, in the case of “On Golden Pond” and “Steel Magnolias,” their movie versions are on frequent TV rerun cycle, all of which could account for underwhelming ticket sales.

Musical revivals have continued to have an even tougher time than plays at recouping. But given the comparatively elevated costs of staging tuners, fewer revivals make it to Broadway.

In 2004-05, only three musical revivals opened, barely populating the Tony category. These include “Sweet Charity,” which bowed last month to steady if unspectacular biz; and “La Cage aux Folles,” struggling in its seventh month.

Also during the freshly concluded season, the revival of “42nd Street” closed in January after a seemingly healthy 1,524-perf run but failed to recoup its $12 million capitalization, making it one of the longest runs in Broadway history not to turn a profit.

With play revivals outnumbering tuner reduxes by four to one this past season, pundits are speculating that the well of classic musicals may be drying up.

“There are more straight plays to be rediscovered than musicals, but that, too, will change,” says Richards. This season, 2005-06, the producer gambles on one of each: “The Pajama Game” starring Harry Connick Jr. and “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” directed by Jerry Zaks.

Also due early in the fall are revivals of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” reuniting the beloved original team from “The Producers,” Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick; and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” headlining Patti LuPone.

In recent weeks, Broadway has continually set B.O. records thanks to strong-selling new musicals. But most of these tuners break even at over $600,000 a week, meaning that current grosses of between $700,000-$900,000 for, say, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Spamalot” leave a narrow profit window.

Capitalized at only $3.5 million and grossing in excess of $400,000 per week, “Spelling Bee” is shaping up to inherit the “Avenue Q” mantle as the next little show that could, and stands to be the fastest of the new musicals to recoup.

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