Stage struck

B'way's hot numbers steal sizzle from fading tallies of rival media

It’s Broadway’s turn to smile.

This season’s paid attendance topped 12 million for the first time, with grosses soaring to a record $862 million.

The results are the envy of other showbiz sectors, as Hollywood can’t get a handle on its tentpoles, DVD is confused, the videogame biz is bobbing and weaving and new-media zealots are warring over pipelines.

While Hollywood is getting bashed for its addiction to sequels and remakes, Broadway has seen an outpouring of high-energy, commercially appealing musicals, as well as smart plays that are finding audiences.

Broadway has created its own version of Hollywood’s tentpole strategy, while providing a diverse diet of specialized fare for its other constituencies. Not since the 1980s, when the “Cats”-“Phantom”-“Les Miz” explosion helped reignite Broadway, have there been so many popular hits.

There were 39 new productions of plays and musicals this season, the 52-week period ending May 28. And while that number is consistent with most recent years, a significant increase in long-running successes has bolstered the Broadway panorama. The current bounce is the capper to a long-term upswing.

After the artistic and financial bounty of the midcentury Golden Age — beginning with the blockbuster “Oklahoma!” (1943) and extending through “Guys & Dolls” (1950), “My Fair Lady” (1956), “West Side Story” (1957), “Gypsy” (1959), “Mame” (1966) and “Hair” (1968) — Broadway took a downturn in the 1970s and 1980s.

The influx of Brit hits in the ’80s began the turnaround, which was fueled by the redevelopment of Times Square in the 1990s. The current climb back from the knockdown of 9/11 is the continuation of those two decades of growth.

These days, big-name celebs are lending cachet and media clout, from Denzel Washington and Hugh Jackman to this season’s Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts. They’re helping to spread the “brand” of Broadway.

“There’s an overall trend toward a re-popularization of Broadway,” says Drew Hodges, prexy of legit marketing firm SpotCo.

And theater is becoming more user-friendly.

According to Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters & Producers, “Broadway has made itself more accessible in a logistical sense” — with, for instance, the ease of online ticketing — “and in an artistic sense.”

Other factors that have played a role in today’s Broadway buoyancy:

  •  Gotham tourism has bounced back since 9/11, and more tourists means more auds. This season more than 6 million tickets were sold to N.Y. visitors, both domestic and international.

  •  Following the lead of worldwide smashes like “The Phantom of the Opera” and Disney’s “The Lion King,” more shows are developing global presences, which helps brand them for overseas visitors.

  •  In a world where most entertainment is delivered on increasingly convenient screens, the ritual and social aspects of theater are driving up the value of the form.

  •  And Broadway has recently undergone a “cable-ization” of its offerings: Its slate has diversified to include shows that appeal, like niche cable channels, to specific groups that are not traditional theatergoers.

The season’s four Tony-nommed tuners are a prime example.

“Jersey Boys” draws baby boomers and home-state enthusiasts; “The Color Purple” attracts black audiences; “The Drowsy Chaperone” pulls in lovers of old-fashioned musicals; and “The Wedding Singer” aims for a younger demo for whom the 1980s were formative years.

“You’re seeing shows and marketing techniques push out into different demos,” says Hodges — sectors outside the prime theatergoing demo of fortysomething women.

Disney revitalized the family market for Broadway, bringing in droves with kid-friendly mega-musicals such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and the upcoming “Mary Poppins,” while the Monty Python antics of “Spamalot” hold unusually high appeal for straight men, among the most elusive auds for tuners.

Meanwhile, the success of young-skewing, edgier productions such as “Urinetown” has helped stretch the boundaries of Broadway musicals. “Avenue Q” confirmed that hipster irreverence can find its place, and the lean, mean “Sweeney Todd” is capturing an aud for its arty, minimalist take on a challenging tuner.

With the economics of Off Broadway becoming tougher, producers are increasingly willing to take risks by moving cult fare into the Broadway spotlight — take the outrageously bloody comedy “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” for instance, or the upcoming incarnation of Playwrights Horizons’ hit tuner “Grey Gardens.”

“A very diversified group of shows have gone to Broadway, and not with any organized effort from producers, because we are such a cottage industry,” says Scott Sanders, the lead producer of “Purple.”

“Do you think the health of Broadway could be as vibrant as it is today without thinking about going after a diverse audience?” he asks. “It’s all about programming.”

The road to success, many legiters say, is to tap a new demo — African-Americans, families, baby boomer devotees of the Four Seasons — while appealing to traditional theatergoers at the same time. Such hits are the equivalent, in film marketing speak, of multiple-quadrant movies.

As for the foreign prospects of Broadway’s slate, “Wicked” and “Spamalot” are prepping London incarnations, while “Tarzan” is planning productions in Holland and Germany.

Those new installations can add fuel to the Gotham originals. Since “Mamma Mia!” has a dozen productions running worldwide, from Vegas to Osaka, Japan, people around the world know what it is — and that familiarity helps sell the Broadway incarnation.

And, rather than waiting years for an overseas version, producers can boost chances of quicker (and bigger) profits. The globalization is a variation of the major studios’ strategy at putting an increasing emphasis on foreign B.O.

On top of that are the shows that piggyback on properties that are already well known, such as Disney’s slate based on its hit animated pics; “Wicked,” the witchy backstory of “The Wizard of Oz”; or “Mamma Mia!,” which has the familiar hits of Abba going for it.

Add to the mix the recent spate of movie musicals — “Chicago,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent,” “The Producers” — that, successes or not, helped push up the visibility of the Broadway shows that inspired them, and the Rialto is all over the world in a way it’s never been before.

“Broadway has always been famous,” says Nancy Coyne, co-head of Broadway ad agency Serino Coyne. “But it’s really famous these days.”

Another strongly held explanation for the surge in popularity is the increased value of live entertainment in a media-saturated world.

“As technology continues to push us, the need for live experience becomes greater,” McCollum says.

Brian Collins, exec creative director of the Brand Innovation Group at Ogilvy & Mather, agrees. He spends much of his time devising ways to turn a brand into a tangible experience, as he did with the heavily trafficked Hershey’s store in Times Square.

“The old time-based rituals around much of our entertainment — cartoons on Saturday morning, ‘The Brady Bunch’ on Friday night, ‘Seinfeld’ on Thursday — have become unstuck in time,” Collins says. “Entertainment — gaming, TV shows, movies — is now digital and so much more convenient, so it’s not as emotionally charged, and not as socially driven.”

The ritual of theater, he adds, amplifies the emotional experience. “As more and more of our time-based protocols around entertainment collapse, temporal, communal experiences like theater are becoming more significant.”

It’s true that, on Broadway at least, an increasing number of people are willing to pay more and more money for a night at the theater. Premium tickets, many of which cost $250 for access to good seats at the last minute, have become common, and this season the sales of such tickets helped push the grosses for shows like “Three Days of Rain” into the stratosphere.

There are those who argue that premium tickets are a quick, inadequate fix to skyrocketing production costs, which is one of the caveats mentioned by those who take the good news on Broadway with a degree of skepticism.

“There is an expanded audience for musicals: That’s all the numbers are a reflection of,” says Emanuel Azenberg, one of the producers behind the season’s other big straight-play hit, “The Odd Couple.” “What’s going to happen to the plays?”

Musicals, after all, reap the biggest benefits from the tourist influx that’s so crucial. The Broadway experience is most strongly identified with big tuners, and while plays require a strong grasp of English to appreciate, no one needs to be a polyglot to enjoy “Mamma Mia!”

Many of the Rialto’s new tuners provoke worry from a strong contingent of legiters about a lack of creative vitality in a genre dominated now by jukebox compilations or screen-to-stage adaptations.

Other industry folk point out that, after a jam-packed spring, things are starting to normalize, as shows that couldn’t hack it in the competitive atmosphere — “Ring of Fire,” “Well,” “Lestat,” “Festen,” “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” — begin to shutter.

Not to mention the fact that the number of productions that break even remains very low: one in five.

Still, there’s a fair amount of optimism in the air. “As with an ocean liner, once you get it steaming in the right direction, it’s pretty hard to turn it around,” Bernstein says.

But Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Org, notes that high hopes, at least, are nothing new.

“Come September, everybody’s optimistic,” he says.

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