Broadway boffo…with an asterisk

Strike KO'd any chance of a record haul

Well, we almost made it.

Broadway sales during the 2007-08 season didn’t hit the billion-dollar mark that seemed within grasp after the prior year’s receipts. The $937.5 million tally fell just short of the $938.5 million logged by the 2006-07 season.

Legiters can blame the shortfall on the stagehands strike, which darkened more than 25 productions over a 19-day stretch in November that included the ultra-profitable Thanksgiving frame.

The strike and its repercussions provide the grains of salt to be taken with many of the observations gleaned from the 2007-08 season — from how much money was made to how many straight plays Broadway can sustain.

Factor in the anomaly that “Young Frankenstein” grosses are estimates of numbers the producers refused to release publicly, and you’ve got a whole heap of salt to season your seasonal post-mortem.

Even without the strike, the billion-dollar barrier likely would not have been broken. The Broadway League — the new name for the trade association of legit producers and presenters — estimates that sales would have hit $975 million.

According to the League, attendance would have been 12.9 million. In reality, the tally reached 12.27 million, slightly less than the 12.3 million of the prior season.

Consistently rising ticket prices always contribute to climbing sales, but the average price per ducat rose only a bit last season, from $76.23 to $76.41. The steady figure reflects the continued prominence of variable ticket prices, which can balance a $120 top ticket — not to mention a $350 premium — with hefty discounts on the other end of the pricing spectrum.

Average ticket price for tuners, the broad-appeal genre most likely to benefit from premium sales, rose slightly to $78.20, while the average for oft-discounted plays fell a buck and a half to $62.60.

Anyone doubting it was a strong season for straight plays can look to the numbers: While there were 12 musicals to open — eight new and four revivals, plus the holiday return of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” — there were almost double that many nontuners. The 23 plays broke down into 10 new works and 13 revivals — five more in total than the 18 plays that went up last season. (Overall, 36 new productions hit the boards this season, versus 35 in 2006-07.)

The season cume breaks down to $782.5 million in musical sales (a sum that rises to $823.7 million including the “Frankenstein” estimates) and $117 million in play receipts.

While the story of the season seemed to be the continuing surge of smaller-scale musicals finding their way to Broadway and dominating awards attention, box office didn’t necessarily follow where the press led.

One exception is “In the Heights,” the hip hop-infused Washington Heights-set tuner that leads the Tony race with 13 noms. It has managed to pull in relatively strong biz, hitting a season tally of $7.6 million since its January start.

But proving that critical hosannas don’t always translate into box office glory, “Passing Strange,” the unconventional rock tuner from single-monikered creator-performer Stew, has had a tough time carving out an advertising and marketing strategy, attracting only $3.2 million in total B.O. since it began perfs in early February.

Even after fellow Tony nominee “Xanadu” surprised the Rialto by winning strong reviews when it opened last summer, the movie spoof has yet to set the box office on fire, bringing in about $12.7 million for the season.

Then there’s the ignominious flameout of “Glory Days,” the four-man musical about a reunion of high school buddies whose opening night was also its closing. Rushed in after a well-received D.C. run, the show served as a cautionary tale warning producers that maybe not all small, promising offerings plucked from Off Broadway or the regionals deserve a place on the Main Stem.

However, the season’s diverse play lineup provided a rare instance in which good reviews and box office coincided. “August: Osage County” began picking up buzz in its Chicago preem last summer before the Steppenwolf Theater Company production transferred to Broadway in the fall.

Reviews helped drive sales, and the sprawling family drama, which racked up $12.3 million over the season, overcame a strike-hobbled preview period to become the must-see play of the season — the way “The Coast of Utopia” did in 2006-07.

With a playwright largely unknown to Broadway audiences, a cast of more than a dozen actors with little name recognition and a running time topping three hours, Tracy Letts’ “August” has countered the argument that plays can only make it on the Rialto with star thesps in limited engagements.

Of course, bolstering the argument in favor of the celebs-and-short-runs formula is the fact that other than “August,” which announced it had recouped its initial $2.56 million investment last month, the four other shows to recoup by season’s end were plays with name talent: “A Bronx Tale,” starring Chazz Palminteri; “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” featuring Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose, James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad; “Cyrano de Bergerac,” toplined by Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner; and “Macbeth,” with Patrick Stewart.

Meanwhile, the Roundabout engagement of “The 39 Steps” sold well enough to inspire producers to give it a commercial run that began in April, switching from the American Airlines Theater to the Cort. Both David Mamet’s “November” and Matthew Warchus’ revival of the ’60s sex farce “Boeing-Boeing” have logged fairly robust sales.

“There’s life for straight plays on Broadway,” says Jeffrey Richards, whose play output this season included hits like “August” as well as financial misses like the well-received revival of “The Homecoming.” “There are people who are hungry for that kind of theater, an audience that can be nurtured.”

Like “Homecoming,” plays such as “The Farnsworth Invention,” “The Seafarer” and “Is He Dead?” had strong selling points or received largely favorable reviews but never found an audience.

Observers wondered if this season was an unusual case study of a busy play lineup proving too crowded to sustain. But how much those challenges can be attributed to the intense nontuner competish of the season — or to a strike that interrupted vital word-of-mouth momentum during the preview periods for a number of those plays — remains a matter for speculation.

In the spring, musical revivals emerged as the season’s hot tickets, with productions that had critics swooning as well as ticket-buyers flocking. Lincoln Center Theater’s lush remount of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” has become one of the New York cultural events of the year; Patti LuPone’s bravura turn in the Arthur Laurents-helmed “Gypsy” defied conventional wisdom that it was too soon to revisit that warhorse; and Roundabout’s “Sunday in the Park With George” rendered one of Stephen Sondheim’s more difficult works accessible to a new generation.

Like last season, there was no new musical blockbuster to galvanize both critics and box office. The two hotly anticipated megabudget spectacles, “Frankenstein” and “The Little Mermaid,” fared well in the grosses but both took hits in the press, while critical attention largely focused on smaller-scale, quirkier fare that often had trouble drawing crowds. And none of the season’s tuners has yet recouped.

Last summer, “Frankenstein,” Mel Brooks’ follow-up to his Tony-sweeping 2001 smash “The Producers,” looked like the show to beat. While estimates for the show contributed around $40 million of theoretical coin to the seasonal pot, the production suffered from an industry and critical backlash fueled by the perceived arrogance of, among other gambits, its now-aborted $450 premium ticket and producers’ refusal to follow the long-standing tradition of reporting ticket sales.

That backlash, plus rumors of half-filled houses on week nights, have contributed to industry chatter questioning the show’s legs, further pumped by reports that Julie Taymor has been sniffing around the Hilton Theater — where
“Frankenstein” is playing — while shopping for a home for her upcoming “Spider-Man” musical.

Delaying its planned December opening due to the strike, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” took a beating from Gotham critics in January but fared a little better in national press. Either way, reviews haven’t seemed to hamper its B.O. much. The show remains a consistent member of the top five, along with Disney stablemate “The Lion King,” and has pulled in nearly $26 million since beginning previews Nov. 3.

Another critically lambasted musical, “Grease,” has sustained decent biz, with an NBC reality-show launch bumping up the already high profile of a title that is a consistent audience fave. Helmed by Kathleen Marshall, the tuner has proven the top-grossing new entry of shows reporting, accumulating around $29 million since it began perfs in July.

Even if it proves impossible to nail down all the strike aftershocks, it appears likely that next season the 2006-07 record will be broken, and a billion could once again be in reach. Legiters’ confidence is pumped by a slate already crowded with potential blockbusters — London smash “Billy Elliot”; inaugural DreamWorks Animation legit outing “Shrek”; “9 to 5,” with new tunes by Dolly Parton; a revival of landmark “West Side Story”; and “Equus,” starring Daniel Radcliffe, to name a few.

“We are confident we will have the best season in recorded history,” says Broadway League exec director Charlotte St. Martin.

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