Packed season of shows drives record grosses

Showing that 2009-10 was no flash in the pan, Broadway logged its second straight billion-dollar season, registering a record $1.08 billion and rising attendance of 12.5 million.

A brawny 42-show season slate kept seasonal tallies high and the Rialto unusually crowded with large-scale new musicals targeted at a broad swath of theatergoers, ranging from edgy comedy “The Book of Mormon” to comicbook spectacle “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” to feel-good drag-queen road trip “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”

As has become more and more common in recent years, plays contributed their fair share of coin to the pot, with such star-driven revivals as “The Merchant of Venice” joined in recent weeks by strong-selling shows including “War Horse,” a rare play title that’s hitting B.O. heights without the benefit of a celeb in the cast.

And then there are the success stories that rake it in year after year.

“Wicked” is the Main Stem’s perennial top-grosser, and it was no different during the 2010-11 season, despite a few frames of healthy competish from both “The Lion King” and “Spider-Man” for the No. 1 spot in the weekly Top 10. “Wicked” racked up $86.1 million over the season, outpacing the “Lion King” tally of $79.8 million.

Also notable this season: “Wicked,” which bowed in late 2003, broke the half-billion dollar mark in overall cume for its Broadway incarnation, while the Gotham outpost of “Lion King,” running since late 1997, topped three-quarters of a billion.

The season’s newer offerings rarely make it to the top of the annual sales charts, simply because most of them haven’t been around very long. However, “Spider-Man” ($28 million) managed to swing a spot this year, thanks to hefty weekly tallies for perfs that began back in November. Not bad for a show that’s still in previews.

Year-on-year comparisons are muddied slightly by the fact that the 2010-11 season is made up of 53 weeks rather than the usual 52. An extra week is tacked on once every seven years in order to mitigate the calendar variables that arise over the course of individual years.

Even at 52 weeks, though, Broadway box office came in at a record $1.06 billion. Rising ticket prices and the now-commonplace sale of premium-price seats are among the factors that help pull in extra coin, particularly for high-demand shows. “Merchant of Venice” ($15.3 million) benefited from premium sales in its limited engagement, and more recently “Book of Mormon” ($12.5 million) has logged premium-powered weekly tallies well above the potential gross for sold-out houses at standard top-ticket prices.

The season’s attendance, on the other hand, didn’t break any records based on a 52-week comparison, with the total at 52 weeks hitting 12.26 million. That’s well ahead of the 11.89 million posted in 2009-10, but not as high as the 12.31 million hit in 2006-07 (and about on par with the 12.26 million for 2007-08).

The 42 productions that crowded into the Rialto made this one of the busiest seasons in the past 20 years, seeming to confirm theater owners’ assertions that these days there’s no shortage of product angling for a berth on Broadway.

Despite a spring packed with new tuners, the 14 musicals that opened over the course of 2010-11 were easily outnumbered by the 25 plays to hit the stage. Those totals in part reflect the continuing predominance of the limited-run play engagement — a la “Merchant,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “That Championship Season” — a production model that’s now a staple on the Main Stem thanks both to the season sked at Broadway’s not-for-profit houses and the rise of star-driven productions with strictly curtailed skeds.

Joining “Wicked” and “Lion King” in the upper reaches of the season’s sales chart were usual lineup of hits including “Jersey Boys” ($55.7 million), “Billy Elliot” ($53 million) and, among the newer additions to the list, the 2009-10 offering “The Addams Family” ($50.1 million).

Holdover “Memphis” parlayed last year’s Tony win into a $44.1 million season. Both “Promises, Promises” ($34.3 million) and “American Idiot” ($33.4 million), two now-shuttered shows from 2009-10, also did well, powered by Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth in “Promises” and the extended thesping stints of Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong in “Idiot.”

With the season wrapped up over Memorial Day weekend, Broadway can look ahead to the tourist influx that traditionally keeps box office healthy all through the summer. It can also look forward to “Spider-Man” — which, after its drawn-out, publicity-magnet preview period, is skedded to open June 14. Though with this webslinger, nothing is certain.

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