Despite odds, Broadway scores a haul of fame

In the face of economic doom and gloom, Broadway boomed.

During the 2008-09 season, productions logged a cumulative sales tally of $943.3 million, breaking the record held by the 2006-07 season — and managing to do so during the most unsettling fiscal downturn in decades.

Restaurants may be closing, European vacations are being cancelled, alimony payments may be late, and prestigious private schools are losing students. But for various reasons, folks are still turning out for theater.

After a turbulent fall and a particularly worrying winter that saw the shuttering of more than a dozen shows, the season snowballed to 43 new productions, the highest count for a single season since 50 shows launched in 1982-83. (Thirty-six shows opened during the 2007-08 season.)

The lineup became so packed that the Tony ceremony, set for June 7, looks likely to include some actual surprises, with multiple categories featuring viable contenders and some tight races, particularly actress in a play, already controversial for the thesps who were crowded out of the noms.

Though attendance was down slightly in the season (May 26, 2008-May 24, 2009), the dip was far less than that experienced by some other forms of entertainment.

Legiters remain prepared for the other fiscal shoe to drop, with Gotham tourism expected to slip this summer from a year ago and industry watchers worrying that a tougher money-raising climate could threaten incoming productions. But with theater owners reporting no noticeable decline in the number of shows angling for venues, that bleak scenario is beginning to look less and less like reality.

There are a slew of takes on why, in these belt-tightening times, the tide of theatergoers hasn’t dried up.

Many legiters embrace the “staycation” theory, positing that consumers who decided to forgo a pricey European vacation instead treated themselves to a night (or several) at the theater. Others cite the axiom that in times of trouble, entertainment in general — and theater in particular — offers a means of communal escape.

“Restaurants may be hurting a bit because people have a kitchen at home,” says producer Jeffrey Richards, repped on the Rialto by “Hair,” “Blithe Spirit,” “Reasons to Be Pretty” and holdover “August: Osage County.” “But they don’t have a stage at home.”

And then there’s the fact that the season was an unexpectedly rich and diverse one that earned an extraordinary level of critical support.

“There’s literally something for everybody,” says Charlotte St. Martin, exec director of the Broadway League, the trade association of legit producers and presenters.

There are caveats to Broadway’s 2008-09 figures, notably in that the $943.3 million receipts include estimated grosses for “Young Frankenstein,” for which producers never released official sales data. Without coin from that show (which shuttered Jan. 4), the season cume drops to $919.8 million.

Either way, it’s an improvement on the 2007-08 season, which was hampered by the 19-day stagehands strike over Thanksgiving and posted sales of $937.5 million (or $897.3 million without “Frankenstein”).

The average ticket price was $77.62, up from $75.55 a year ago.

Overall attendance was down slightly to 12.15 million from 12.27 million in 2007-08 (or 11.84 million from 11.87 million, not counting “Frankenstein”). Box office nonetheless surpassed prior totals with the help of now-common premium priced tickets — and the season’s top-selling productions, including “Billy Elliot” and “West Side Story,” proved that folks remain willing to shell out for a hit.

For many shows, familiarity became a key selling point. Prompted by economic worries, theatergoers, like everyone else, appeared to grow more cautious.

“When the fear factor set in this winter, people went toward the things they could be sure of,” says Drew Hodges, prexy of Broadway ad agency SpotCo. Marketing became increasingly transparent, with a wealth of content (songs, backstage interviews, Twitter feeds) made available online to help persuade potential ticket buyers that a show is worth the price of admission.

Being perceived as a strong-selling, well-reviewed hit only contributed to sure-bet status. It took only a few weeks of performances for Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage,” buoyed by strong reviews and a starry cast, to become the must-see new play of the season.

“God” was one of a slew of nontuners, many featuring big-name actors, to materialize in the spring to attract those who prefer theater sans singing and dancing.

The proliferation can be explained partly by the fact that plays are generally smaller-scale productions than tuners and able to mobilize more quickly.

Thus, once shows began to shutter in the winter, nonmusicals could pull together to snatch up the vacancies.

And star-driven, limited engagements of plays are among the most reliably profitable of legit offerings — making such outings doubly appealing to producers in an uncertain fiscal climate.

“The Seagull,” starring Kristin Scott Thomas; “All My Sons,” with paparazzi magnet Katie Holmes; and “Speed-the-Plow” with Jeremy Piven (for a while) are among the season’s plays to have announced they have recouped — although none quite matched the barn-burning biz of Will Ferrell in his satiric takedown “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush.”

But so many plays opened around the same time that neither a star nor good reviews guaranteed powerhouse sales.

Jane Fonda’s return to Broadway after 46 years yielded only so-so sales for “33 Variations.” And despite glowing reviews, revivals of “The Norman Conquests” and “Mary Stuart” have still had to work to fill seats.

“Reasons to Be Pretty” seems most indicative of the conundrum. The play by Neil LaBute earned great press, but its consistently low box office shows the difficulty of standing out in a crowded spring slate.

Looking ahead, legiters acknowledge there’s uncertainty around the upcoming season given the pervading air of continued economic instability. And this summer may not prove as boffo as in prior years thanks to an expected decline in tourism compared to the previous summer.

Among this season’s offerings, the jury is still out on the durability of shows such as “9 to 5,” “Shrek the Musical” and “Rock of Ages.” Still, each of those shows appeals to a distinct demographic — women, families and ’80s hair-metal nostalgists, respectively — beyond standard musical-theater fans.

A number of potential juggernauts loom on the horizon, including “Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark” and the “Phantom of the Opera” sequel “Love Never Dies,” along with promising properties such as “The Addams Family” and “Catch Me if You Can.” On the nontuner side, a rumored staging of Keith Huff’s play “A Steady Rain,” starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, could prove a B.O.-busting smash.

“Things look no different than they have in the past,” says Philip J. Smith, co-topper of Broadway landlord the Shubert Org. “Of course, when winter sets in, it may dry up, but right now I don’t see how it could happen.”

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