Sidle up to the bar at Broadway musical “Side Show” and you’ll see more than just beer, wine, and vodka-tonics. The show offers a couple of drinks that wouldn’t be out of place at one of Manhattan’s hipster-nouveau speakeasies. One cocktail has violet liqueur. And sage syrup.
With the growth in Broadway attendance over the last decade coinciding with the rise of sippy cups and drinking allowed in theater seats, cocktails have become more than just an afterthought for the Street’s concession companies. Numbers are hard to come by, but Sweet Hospitality, the firm that hawks drinks at Jujamcyn theaters (including the St. James, where “Side Show” opens Nov. 17) as well as at Roundabout and Lincoln Center Theater venues, said that 70% of concession revenue is attributable to beverages, and the organization sold twice as many specialty cocktails in 2014 than in 2013.
At $19 a pop (with souvenir sippy cup) and $16 for refills, that’s not chump change. Sandbar Concessions, which sells drinks at the Nederlander Organization theaters, also charges $16 a cocktail, while in Shubert venues, Theater Refreshment charges a $10 flat rate for cocktails and $5 per souvenir cup.
Of the three companies, Sweet Hospitality’s offerings skew the closest to the craft-cocktail craze. The “Never to Roam,” one of the two cocktails (pictured above) made to match the show’s conjoined-twin protagonists, is a variation on the Prohibition-era Aviation, mixing gin, Maraschino and lemon juice along with the violet liqueur and sage syrup. A topper of tonic makes it a long sipper.
Michael DeMono, Sweet Hospitality’s “drink dramaturg,” said he added the sage syrup to make the drink feel a little more homey, like the character who inspired it — Violet, the more retiring of the twins. The “Adoring Response,” based on Violet’s showbiz-entranced sister Daisy, goes glam with a bourbon Brown Derby variation topped with Prosecco. At “Aladdin,” DeMono incorporates Middle Eastern flavors like rose and cardamom, and he said he’s excited to start working Thai tastes into the palette for LCT’s upcoming revival of “The King and I.”
Broadway’s cocktail culture got going at the same time New York City’s did — in the late 90s and early 2000s, the cosmo-swilling heyday of “Sex and the City.” In many cases, though, it’s not upscale mixology that’s the draw for theatergoers; it’s a clever name and a tie to the world of the production, so the purchase feels like part of the experience of the overall show.
At “Once,” the bars (including the one onstage, open during intermission) sell the craft beers and whiskey you’d find in an Irish pub. “Motown” is one of the only places in New York you can buy Motor City beer, while at “Evita” Argentinian wine was a big seller. Mint juleps brought some Southern gentility to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
A short list of two to four cocktail options, prominently displayed, can help customers make quick decisions during the rush of intermission sales. A punny name helps. “Les Miserables” offers a “Les Fizz” (Chardonnay, Sierra Mist, splash of cranberry); “Wicked” has an “Ozmopolitan” (its version of a Cosmopolitan). Sweet Hospitality CEO Julie Rose said the company’s bestselling cocktail ever is the “Kinky Bubbles,” a “Kinky Boots” concoction of Kinky brand tropical-fruit liqueur, lemon juice and Prosecco.
Drink sales are often highest at large-scale, razzledazzle musicals, particularly the fun ones — “lots of double-shot, third-tier liquors at ‘Book of Mormon,'” DeMono noted — but a heavy play can encourage imbibing too. Especially, say, an Edward Albee drama in which the drinks cart is a major character. “‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ was one of our bigger-drinking plays,” said Theater Refreshment’s Steven LuQuis.
Every now and then the Broadway mixology proves as memorable as the musical. “We’ve had people call us to ask us for the recipe,” said Ken Happel of Sandbar Concession. “One woman said she wanted to serve one of our drinks at her wedding.”