Broadway en route to becoming $1 billion business
The 1980s brought the rise of the imported Brit mega-musical — think “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”The 1990s ushered in a family-friendly vibe, both to the formerly sleazy, now refurbished Times Square and to the Main Stem lineup — think “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” So how will legiters remember Broadway in the ’00s? As decades go, it’s been an eventful one, with “The Producers” becoming a super-smash in the early years, Broadway landlord leadership changing hands in the latter half, and in between, a return to popularity of American musicals after a fallow period. Here are the shifts and trends whose influence will be felt into the next decade. The premium ticket and breaking a billion The massive success of “The Producers” in 2001 eventually petered out six years later, but one of its innovations, the premium-priced ticket, looks to be permanent. While pundits gasped back then at the notion of boosting the top price by a couple hundred dollars to outwit scalpers, premium tix of $350 or more are now a major factor in the success of both perpetually sold-out longrunners such as “Wicked” and limited-engagement star attractions like “A Steady Rain.” The pricey ducats have introduced upward elasticity into a show’s maximum gross potential, while being regularly instrumental in setting house records at many theaters. The extra coin brought in during high-demand periods such as the holidays also can contribute to shows’ ever-lengthening lifespans, with boom weeks helping to sustain productions during slower frames. Premium tix also will be key in helping Broadway crack the elusive $1 billion season B.O. mark, which looks firmly within reach. The redemption of the jukebox tuner Maligning the “catalog musical” used to be a popular industry sport, with the assembly-line construct generating a string of short-lived clunkers such as “Lennon” or the Beach Boys-inspired “Good Vibrations.” Although the ongoing global success of “Mamma Mia!” — the collection of Abba hits linked by only a nudge-and-a-wink of a plot — provided the ample commercial temptation to keep at it, no one really expected that by mid-decade “Jersey Boys,” the 2005 biotuner about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, would redeem the genre with rave reviews, B.O. success and Tony wins. By 2009, “Fela!” proved that a career-jukebox score and arthouse ambition aren’t mutually exclusive. The movie and the musical, reconsidered Conventional wisdom used to hold that the minute a stage producer let a musical be adapted into a movie was the minute the stage original died. After all, who wants to pay top Broadway dollar for a product they can see onscreen at a fraction of the cost? But the past 10 years have shown that, as musicals become enduring brands with international appeal, a movie version — even if it’s not very good — can reinvigorate the show that inspired it. The revival of “Chicago” got a needed boost from the Oscar-winning 2002 pic, while feature versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” (2004) and “Rent” (2005), both contributed to Broadway B.O. bumps even though the pics themselves underperformed. The fresh twist has been the recycling of properties from movies to stage adaptations and back to movie-musicals, beginning with “The Producers” and “Hairspray.” The resurgence of the movie-musical after two or three moribund decades was led by “Chicago,” its charge echoed in smallscreen successes such as “High School Musical” and “Glee” — all of which helps breed a new generation of Broadway musical audiences. The strike strikes back It used to be that the legit industry never really had to suffer through a strike. But that changed in 2003, when the musicians union picket lines shut down the Rialto for three days until the mayor stepped in to get the two sides back to the table. But it was the 2007 stagehands strike, which darkened most of Broadway for a whopping 19 days over the traditionally ultra-profitable Thanksgiving frame, that was the big one: The extended standoff proved producers, while sometimes struggling to put up a united front, weren’t afraid to push for changes to old, slowly evolving labor deals — and that unions were unafraid to band together and push back. The knowledge of how far both sides are willing to go still hangs over negotiations today. Producers multiply like rabbits Gone are the days of a single titan like George Abbott or David Merrick above the title. The past 10 years have seen lists of producers lengthen into absurdity, with most musicals regularly mustering a field of 20 or more. This culminated in the population of a small nation flooding the stage in 2008 when “Spring Awakening” won the top Tony. Spiraling production costs have helped necessitate the involvement of so many, with the post of producer made more attractive by the eligibility for an actual Tony trophy. In most cases, not all these producers (or even many of them) actually take a hands-on creative role. And some in the industry wonder if the Tonys will eventually take a stand like the Oscars, separating the minority stake holders from the real producers at awards time. Non-profits stake a Broadway claim The Roundabout Theater Company, Manhattan Theater Club and Lincoln Center Theater all have established one or more permanent Broadway houses, allowing them to compete directly with commercial producers — who (like network TV honchos lamenting the creative freedom of cablers) aren’t always happy about it come awards time. Off Broadway mainstay Second Stage is looking to join the fray with the Helen Hayes Theater as its Rialto base, while Roundabout is operating a bit like a Main Stem landlord by “programming” the rentals that go into the Henry Miller’s Theater. That gives the occasional tensions between not-for-profits and commercial producers a couple of potential new flashpoints. Wicked’ good Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s musical backstory of “The Wizard of Oz” baddie is without doubt the big daddy of commercial properties birthed on Broadway in the past decade. And it’s probably the only one that looks to have the potential to rival “The Phantom of the Opera” for durability, international lifespan and endless franchise possibilities. Universal has kept plans of a movie adaptation on the back burner while the stage show continues its box office domination, regularly setting new records. The tuner recently became the first Broadway production to gross more than $2 million in a single week, and on Dec. 15, it became the 20th-longest-running show in Broadway history. A dose of reality While purists tend to be sniffy about “American Idol” alumni (and everything else on the planet), that show and other TV talent contests have yielded a proving ground for potential stage talent. Although reality recruits have so far been brought in as replacements more often than opening stars, you can’t argue with the boffo sales spike “Idol” winner Fantasia Barino brought to “The Color Purple” in 2007. Meanwhile, across the Pond, Brit TV casting contests have injected major box office steam into revivals of “The Sound of Music,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Oliver!” But on Broadway, the chief attempt to mimic that formula, “Grease,” received such a critical savaging that the trend might be DOA. The changing of the guard The 2008 death of Gerald Schoenfeld, longtime head of the Shubert Organization, and the 2009 departure of Jujamcyn’s Rocco Landesman for the top post at the NEA brought leadership changes at two of the three major holders of Broadway real estate. While the Shubert Org, which owns or operates 17 Broadway theaters, handed the reins to vets Philip J. Smith and Robert E. Wankel, five-venue Jujamcyn went to young turk Jordan Roth. With the higher-ups at Nederlander Org (owner of nine houses) holding steady, it remains to be seen how the current mix of old guard and new will shift what shows up on the Rialto in the coming decade. Broad
way breaks the mold Or at least bends it a little. The David vs. Goliath smackdown between “Avenue Q” and “Wicked” at the Tonys in 2004 opened the industry’s eyes to the fact that smaller-scale, offbeat, edgy fare can carve a niche on the Rialto alongside more traditional razzle-dazzlers. With Off Broadway becoming an increasingly difficult landscape for commercial producers, unorthodox offerings such as “Avenue Q,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Spring Awakening” found success both during awards season and at the box office, tapping an increasingly diverse range of niche auds the same way cable TV has in recent years. Not all nontraditional outings make it into the black, of course — witness “Passing Strange,” “[title of show]” and “Grey Gardens” — but the potential for Tony love and B.O. rewards will ensure that producers keep trying.
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