Broadway bounces toward billion

Diverse lineup spreads wealth

Well, there was no runaway hit.

That’s how most legiters begin their assessment of the 2006-07 Broadway season, with the disclaimer that no single production scored all the ticket sales, got all the good press and upped the national profile of the Rialto, a la last season’s Tony and box office champions “Jersey Boys” and “The History Boys.”

But the lack of a juggernaut isn’t entirely a bad thing.

After all, Broadway was more popular than ever, with paid attendance rising to a record 12.3 million. Thanks in part to consistently climbing ticket prices matched by the continuing growth of high-end premium ticket sales, total receipts crept closer to $1 billion, hitting a record $938.5 million.

With big-budget commercial spectacles like “Mary Poppins” and “Legally Blonde” running alongside smaller-scale, edgier fare such as “Spring Awakening” and “Grey Gardens,” and brainy plays like “The Coast of Utopia” and “Frost/Nixon,” the season saw a broadening variety of offerings sharing the spoils of sales and media attention.

“The diversity on Broadway this season really made a difference in attendance,” says Charlotte St. Martin, prexy of the League of American Theaters & Producers. “It was real growth. We had the same number of seats as last year, and we sold more of them.”

With climbing attendance and ever-increasing grosses, the rewards of a hit are bigger than ever. But thanks to rising production costs, the risks also are greater.

The season saw what are likely the costliest failures to flame out in history — both on the musical and the play front. “The Pirate Queen,” the dismissively reviewed tuner from the creative team behind “Les Miserables,” rumored to have been capitalized at $16 million, shutters June 17 after sinking sales and zero Tony nominations. “Coram Boy,” an ambitious 40-performer play reportedly budgeted at $6 million, closed May 27 after just six weeks and a lukewarm critical reception.

Keeping box office pumped, however, were strong commercial performers such as the two top-grossing entries of the season. “Mary Poppins,” Disney Theatrical and Cameron Mackintosh’s adaptation of the 1964 pic, grossed $33.7 million, while the ultra-faithful revival of “A Chorus Line” brought in $26.2 million and was the only one of the past year’s new tuners to recoup by season’s end.

Also contributing to the seasonal tally were holdovers from prior years, with still-hot “Jersey Boys” ($58.5 million this season) joining “Wicked” ($72.6 million) and “The Lion King” ($55.2 million) as the top three Broadway sellers. And after starting to flag at the box office, “The Color Purple” has seen a healthy uptick with the arrival in the lead role of “American Idol” alum, Fantasia Barrino.

Creatively risky output sold more modestly but staked a claim in the spotlight. “Grey Gardens,” an unconventionally structured riff on the 1975 Maysles brothers doc about eccentric fallen American aristocrats, sold $13 million over the season and got a major publicity boost from the lead perf by Christine Ebersole. “Spring Awakening,” the tuner pairing 19th-century teen angst with contempo rock, brought in $12.4 million but turned into an industry fave.

“It was a real struggle during the preview period,” says Ira Pittelman, one of the lead producers of “Spring.” “What really started our momentum was the support we got from all of the critics, and right behind that the support we got in the theater community. From opening on, we’ve been in the black.”

Both “Spring” and “Gardens” were considered risky transfer prospects when they bowed Off Broadway. Neither show has yet recouped, but they are two examples of the trend that sees producers thinking outside the box in an effort to shake up traditional strategies and tap new auds.

Due in part to the challenging economics of commercial Off Broadway, legiters are readjusting their idea of what kind of musical can make it on the main stem, following a trail of smaller-scale hits blazed by enduring 2003 entry “Avenue Q.”

New business models are cropping up as well. Last fall, “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” settled in for a seasonal run, unusual on a Broadway landscape filled with open-ended musical productions. With an unorthodox but union-approved performance sked of a whopping 12 shows per week, “Grinch” racked up $13.3 million in two quick months at the Hilton and will be back next Christmas at the St. James.

“Grinch” not only had the benefit of a much-loved Dr. Seuss property, but it also took advantage of the holiday frame, traditionally the best sales week of the year. That was no different this season, when the Dec. 25-Jan. 1 sesh achieved a stellar $29.1 million gross overall. (The same week the prior year brought in $25.2 million.)

Overall, tourist-friendly tuners remain by far the biggest draw, with musicals claiming nearly 90% of the season’s sales. Average ticket prices for musicals — which, as the most popular genre, yields the greatest benefits from premium pricetags — climbed a hefty $5.13 to $77.88.

But the average ticket price paid for plays, with their narrower audience base, actually fell by around $2.50 to $64.14. That’s likely the result of the variable pricing strategies that have become more common on Broadway in recent years. The boosted price of hot tickets is countered by the increased availability of deals offered for ducats to less in-demand shows.

Because this spring was loaded with straight plays, it seemed as if the 2006-07 season was unusually crowded with non-tuner offerings. Not so: Only 18 plays (11 new, seven revivals) bowed during the season, vs. the 23 or 24 of each of the previous three frames.

A handful of producers kept commercial productions of plays alive. Scott Rudin proved the season’s one-man band for new non-tuners, concocting canny star packages for “The Vertical Hour” — which squeaked out a recoupment despite lackluster reviews — “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Deuce.” Producing duo Boyett Ostar ponied up for “Journey’s End,” which earned great press but foundered at the box office, as well as for “Coram Boy” and the revival of “Inherit the Wind.”

The standout, however, was the Lincoln Center Theater production of Tom Stoppard’s three-play epic “The Coast of Utopia,” a saga of 19th-century Russian intellectuals that, at $11.2 million, was the top-grossing play and the cultural event of the season.

“Coast” qualifies as the season’s straight-play champ, but LCT’s status as a nonprofit not only softened the risk of the ambitious production, it also diffused the rewards.

As for commercial juggernauts, this season saw the closing of former heavyweight “The Producers” after a period of dwindling sales (although the show still brought in $26.1 million before it shuttered April 22).

Among other long-running fixtures, “Beauty and the Beast” closes shop this summer after 13 years, and “Rent” is looking increasingly vulnerable at the box office in its 11th year. “Hairspray” has been up and down but stands to get a boost from New Line’s release this summer of the screen version, while “Chicago” and “The Phantom of the Opera” continue to chug along nicely.

However, with new Mel Brooks tuner “Young Frankenstein” due in the fall, as well as Disney’s legit version of “The Little Mermaid,” there may still be room for a new breakout smash in Broadway’s future.

And a galvanizing hit can bring advantages that spill over to other offerings. “It traditionally brings a lot of attention to Broadway,” says John Breglio, the veteran entertainment lawyer who produced “Chorus Line.” “Without a smash hit, there isn’t the excitement that gives a high profile to the season.”

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