B’way: A very long engagement

Long-running shows find new ways to draw auds

A correction was made to this article on Jan. 8, 2006.

“Now and Forever” doesn’t just apply to “Cats” anymore.

After 18 years, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical “The Phantom of the Opera” surpasses the feline-friendly tuner to become the longest-running show in Broadway history Jan. 9.

But shifts in the legit biz over the last two to three decades have made long runs more common, and the Broadway theater circuit is becoming increasingly crowded with entrenched tenants.

“Beauty and the Beast” is well into its 12th year, while “Rent,” “Chicago” and “The Lion King” are fast approaching a decade. “Mamma Mia!” has raked it in at the Winter Garden for more than four years and shows no signs of letting up, while “Wicked,” the new smash on the block that preemed a little more than two years ago, doesn’t look likely to vacate the Gershwin anytime soon.

“Had it opened in the ’70s, a show like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ probably would have had a great three-year run,” says Alan Wasser, the longtime general manager of “Phantom,” among other shows.

Even the modest performers, insiders agree, last longer. Shows that close in a week or less are much more rare than they once were.

So what has changed?

Wasser points to the broadening of the Broadway aud, precipitated in part by the global hits of the 1980s that include “Phantom,” “Cats” and “Les Miserables.”

“The megahits pushed the envelope of mass appeal in this country and beyond,” he says.

At the same time, New York — and therefore Broadway — have drawn increasing crowds of tourists.

According to the League of American Theaters and Producers, ticketbuyers from outside the metro area made up 41% of Broadway biz in the 1980-81 season. By the 2004-05 season, that figure rose to over 60%.

Innovations in ticket handling have made it easier for all those tourists, not to mention locals and groups, to buy.

Old-timers remember the days when the two ways to purchase a Broadway ticket were to do it in person at the box office, or mail in an order with a self-addressed stamped envelope.

With the advent of phone sales about 25 years ago, and then the proliferation of Internet sales in the last decade, ease of access has increased dramatically.

“No matter how far from New York you are, you’re at no disadvantage on the Internet,” says Nancy Coyne of the Broadway ad agency Serino Coyne.

Technological advances in tickets have also given producers “an instant ability to make a long-term range of tickets available,” says Emanuel Azenberg, the vet producer whose latest project is the blockbuster revival of “The Odd Couple.”

Ticket inventory used to be limited to the couple of months’ worth that could be racked in the theater box office. Now producers can, if they choose, sell tickets farther out, a tactic that could help them boost their advance.

The last 15 years have also seen a rise in the practice of variable pricing or discounting.

In the 1960s, when a show didn’t sell out, there was nothing to be done. Now unsold tickets can go to the 30-year-old TKTS booth, while producers tempt other ticketbuyers with reduced price offers.

“Discounting is the way in which long-running shows have made it there,” Coyne says. “It’s a way of letting the market dictate pricing.”

And with the proliferation of new-technology marketing tactics (including direct mail and email), producers have an ever-expanding array of options for building their aud.

Meanwhile, targeted advertising has become ever more precise, thanks to the wealth of consumer info — where you live, what you saw last year, what you’ll see next week — yielded by electronic ticketing.

In addition to these more concrete explanations for the growth of Broadway runs, some legiters wonder if there hast been a psychological shift among producers who, in the face of climbing producing costs, get into the game knowing they’ll have to hold out longer to make their money back.

Higher costs have also made multiple producers more common, and it’s always difficult to bring a group to a consensus — especially the consensus to close a struggling show.

Azenberg suggests that the inflation of top ticket prices ($110, not counting pricier premium sales) gives shows an extra cushion to endure dips in biz. “Costs have skyrocketed, but not as fast as ticket prices,” he notes.

In the current climate, musicals, long the bread and butter of Broadway, have come close to fully eclipsing plays. As of this week, there are just two commercial productions of plays on Broadway, vs. 19 musicals.

The logic is simple enough: Even the most successful play — “Proof,” say, or the current hit “Doubt” — won’t do the kind of global B.O. of a tuner that crosses language barriers, a la “Mamma Mia!”

But it means that musicals not only fill the larger theaters meant for them, but are taking up the prime real estate of smaller venues that used to be considered play houses, such as the Golden, now the home to the 2½-year-old “Avenue Q.”

And with so many shows running longer, there’s a logjam on Broadway: Too many shows, and not enough stages for them. “The Drowsy Chaperone,” fresh off a well-reviewed run in L.A., and the Earth, Wind & Fire tuner “Hot Feet” are among the Gotham-bound productions hoping to claim a rare vacant space before the end of the season.

Among all the shifts over the years, though, one thing has remained constant. “The statistics about how many shows recoup haven’t changed,” says Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters & Producers. “Only one out of five shows breaks even.”

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