Strong holdovers, flexible pricing helped season sizzle

When it comes to the 2011-12 Broadway season, there’s one thing everybody’s talking about: the fact that there isn’t one thing that everybody’s talking about.

Although it was a busy season, with record-breaking box office and strong attendance, there wasn’t a single juggernaut show that galvanized media and consumer attention in the same way as last year’s smash hit “The Book of Mormon” — or, for that matter, as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the musical whose tortured, troubled road to opening night made Broadway the fodder of international headlines.

The 2011-12 lineup — which saw tuners “Once” and “Newsies” draw plaudits, and “Other Desert Cities” and “Clybourne Park” spearhead a broad pack of worthy new plays — had no such attention-grabber (even if “Spider-Man” did finally manage to emerge from previews and open at the very start of the sesh). As if hammering home the point, the opening performance slot at this year’s Tony Awards — the most-watched seg that sets the tone for the ceremony — was given to “Mormon.”

In the wake of the publicity magnet that was 2010-11, a lot of Gotham legiters tend to take a moment to lament the current lack of a fresh offering that can draw new auds to the Main Stem in the same way “Mormon” brings out “South Park” fans. And regional presenters acknowledge the potentially troublesome absence of a must-see title that can spur subscription sales when a show hits the road.

But for all that, the 2011-12 season yielded plenty to talk about, from stellar B.O. (and the sky-high ticket prices that fueled it) to a broad slate of new straight plays that firmly countered the conventional wisdom that such fare is dead on commercial Broadway.

Rialto’s cume hit $1.14 billion, a record that beat the $1.08 billion logged in the 2010-11 frame, despite the fact that, due to a bookkeeping fillip, that previous season was one week longer. Attendance came in at 12.33 million, a step up of about 3% when you figure the number of visitors per playing week (i.e., the overall tally of weeks played by each individual production, all added together).

Driving the boffo overall cume was the emergence of at least one, and possibly two, box office powerhouses that look poised to join “Wicked” and “The Lion King” as top-dollar Broadway sales engines for years to come.

The first, of course, is “Mormon,” which proved over the course of the season that its out-of-the-gate success last spring was no fluke, with the production regularly topping itself at the registerand keeping ticket demand high thanks to a theater that’s unusually small for a musical, much less an ultra-successful one.

The second addition is “Spider-Man.” Given its high running costs, the show’s longevity is a bit more of an open question, but there’s no denying that the production has emerged from all the bad publicity and snarky reviews largely unscathed at the box office.

And in the spring, the mega-selling revival of “Evita” became a fifth regular member of Broadway’s weekly millionaires’ club , although those numbers, driven by topliner Ricky Martin, are far from certain to continue once the thesp exits the show at the end of his year-long contract.

Another highly visible — and more controversial — factor keeping B.O. elevated is the increasing prominence of premium tickets, which sees auds shell out big bucks for prime seats to in-demand titles. “Mormon,” for instance, attracted attention with premium tickets of $477. The ultra-hot revival of “Death of a Salesman” hit a whopping $499.

Meanwhile, the ceiling for non-premium tickets has achieved an unusual spread among individual shows. In past years, it was common for producers to set top ticket prices all within about $5 of each other, inching upward only after someone else did it first. This year, though, top pricetags range from $155 at “Mormon” to $140 for “Evita” to $125 for “Mamma Mia!”

All those numbers taken together prompt many observers to bemoan a Broadway landscape that’s pricing itself well out of the range of average consumers. It’s a valid point — but on other hand, as the 2011-12 season has proven, people remain willing to shell out for the hottest shows.

The asking price for top tickets is part of a larger strategy that has seen a number of productions tinker with variable pricing at the lower end of the spectrum as well.

For instance, the astonishing longevity of “The Phantom of the Opera” isn’t just due to well-heeled auds willing to pay $140 — or $200 premium — to see the show during high-demand frames. Fallow weeks are boosted by an increase in the availability of lower-priced options, with tickets to be had for as little as $26.

As usual, the season’s grosses were dominated by tuners, from long-running ones like “Phantom” to such later arrivals as “Evita.” But the frame also saw an unusually large number of producers go to the mat for what conventional wisdom considers the hardest sell on Broadway — a new straight play with an untested title.

As musicals and star-driven play revivals came to dominate the Rialto in recent seasons, industry types began to worry that commercial productions of new plays were being crowded out for more reliable moneymakers. But with a 2011-12 slate that included not just the four Tony nominees — “Clybourne Park,” “Other Desert Cities, “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Venus in Fur” — but also “The Lyons,” “Chinglish,” “Seminar,” “Stick Fly,” “Magic/Bird” and “The Mountaintop,” it’s tough to argue that there are no producers left willing to take a commercial risk on a new play.

No one will call it a trend just yet, since it remains to be seen how many of those shows will make it into the black. (At the end of the season, “Mountaintop” was the only new play to have recouped.) But for now, many legiters see the variety and bounty of the lineup as a promising sign.

The year may have technically ended for the bookkeepers May 27, but everyone else in the industry believes a season culminates with the Tonys. After this year’s June 10 ceremony, everyone can take a breather.

Well, a short one. “Harvey” opens June 14.

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