'Wicked' claims top spot, 'Billy Elliot' No. 2

Broadway’s finally hit a billion.

In year-end figures compiled by the Broadway League, the cumulative Main Stem gross for calendar year 2009 hit the fabled benchmark of $1 billion — although it’s as much a feat of bookkeeping as anything else.

Last year the league began reporting Rialto sales as “gross gross” rather than the lower “net gross” tally — the total weekly sales minus credit card fees, pension fund deductions, group sales commissions and other such fees. That fact alone, along with the creeping inflation of ticket prices overall, could account for much of the year’s jump from the $941 million net gross logged in 2008.

To nobody’s surprise, “Wicked” topped the heap for individual sales during 2009, grossing about $78.3 million. “Billy Elliot,” the 2008 offering that played its first full year on Broadway in 2009, claimed the No. 2 spot with $66.2 million. (Individual production figures rep a combo of the “net gross” reported to Daily Variety for the second half of the 2008-09 season and the “gross gross” posted this season.)

Attendance slipped from 12.32 million in 2008 to 11.95 million, a discrepancy that looks a bit wider when taking into account the fact that in 2009 the league began reporting total attendance (including comps) vs. only the paid attendance for 2008 and prior years.

The calendar year also saw a sizable drop in playing weeks, defined as the sum of the total number of weeks performed by each individual show. The 2009 frame logged 1,440 playing weeks vs. 1,653 reported for 2008.

That decline seems logical given the increased caution of both producers and consumers during an economic downturn. It also makes the year’s gross and attendance figures look more robust, since the 2009 tide of theatergoers was packed into fewer playing weeks.

As usual, it was the tourist-draw tuners that pulled in the highest annual numbers, including “The Lion King” ($63.2 million), “Jersey Boys” ($56.5 million) and “Mamma Mia!” ($47.1 million). The newest member of the top 10 was “West Side Story” ($52.2 million), which began perfs in February, while the oldest was enduring juggernaut “The Phantom of the Opera” ($41.9 million).

Plays are generally less of a money-minting proposition on the Rialto, but it’s worth noting that “God of Carnage,” which opened in March, logged an impressive $29.9 million, with sales driven by a starry original cast and a Tony win in the spring. The year’s strong-selling limited runs of plays included Daniel Craig-Hugh Jackman starrer “A Steady Rain” ($15.2 million), “Blithe Spirit” ($11.6 million) with Angela Lansbury and Jude Law topliner “Hamlet” ($10 million).

Thanks both to an increasing tide of tourist auds and steadily rising ticket prices, calendar-year grosses have been on the rise for the past several years. Sales hit $906 million in 2006 and $936 million in 2007. (Both those numbers are net gross.)

The 12.32 million theatergoers logged in 2008 set the record, up slightly on the 12.29 million reported in 2007. The 2009 tally, 11.95 million, is a bit lower than the 11.97 million attendance from 2006. That year’s playing weeks were similarly comparable to 2009, with 1,465 recorded vs. 1,440 for last year.

(Sam Thielman contributed to this report.)

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