Boffo B’way season

B.O. buoyed by opening of 2 theaters

Boosted by a pair of new theaters hosting packed houses, Broadway B.O. climbed to another record for the 1997-98 season, and smashed the all-time attendance high set in the 1980-81 season.

Box office for the Broadway season totaled $557,259,076, a hefty 11.6% climb from last season’s record $499,400,898, while attendance hit 11,283,378, up a big 9.4% from last year’s 10,318,217 and 4.2% from the record-setting 10,822,324 in ’80-81.

The numbers are even more impressive when it’s taken into account that last year’s season counted 53 weeks, while this year’s numbered the usual 52.

Enter two new players

The season, which ended May 31, was notable for the entry on the scene of the two newly restored houses, Disney’s New Amsterdam and Livent’s Ford Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Lyric and Apollo theaters), and for the shows they housed — Disney’s ecstatically received “The Lion King” and Livent’s generally praised “Ragtime.”

“The Lion King” and “Ragtime” together brought approximately $44 million to Broadway’s coffers, a large proportion of the season’s overall $58 million uptick.

Without the new houses and their shows, the season would look very different (although without those top tuners, other musicals might have done better and other productions might have been launched).

On the road

Road figures weren’t complete Monday, but Daily Variety estimates the total will ring in at $790 million, an uptick of about 4.9% from last season’s $752,905,827, which itself marked a slight downturn for the first time in 10 years. The road picture got a considerable boost by the phenomenon of “Riverdance,” which toured to SRO houses across the country.

The combined Broadway and road total thus comes in at an estimated $1,347,000,000, a new record and a 7.5% increase over last year’s record $1,252,306,725.

The year saw 32 new productions (including Patti LaBelle’s brief solo stand at the St. James), down from last year’s 38, and average ticket prices continued to inch upward, hitting $49.39 from last year’s record $48.40. (When the previous attendance record was set, in ’80-81, tickets averaged a mere $17.97 apiece.)

But the rosy picture belies some harsher truths: As the numbers climb, it doesn’t get any easier to make money on Broadway.

While the SRO success of “The Lion King” and “Ragtime” is something to cheer, both shows point up the troubling economics of Broadway musical theater.

At the time of its opening, Disney execs admitted their show, whose cost has been pegged at a whopping $20 million, wouldn’t show a profit for some time. As a giant media monolith for whom Broadway is as yet just a small money stream, the company can afford to take the long view.

That’s tougher to do for the legit-only concern Livent, producer of “Ragtime.” Despite “Ragtime’s” boffo Broadway B.O., the company just announced a first-quarter loss of $20 million, days before former Creative Artists Agency chairman Michael Ovitz formally takes control of the company from founder Garth Drabinsky.

None of the season’s 11 musical productions had recouped their invetsments by season’s end. Although that’s far from unusual — last season only the relatively economical “Chicago” revival achieved the feat — four of them have already closed as losses: the panned $11 million Paul Simon tuner “The Capeman,” the $3.5 million “Triumph of Love,” the $5 million “Side Show” and “Street Corner Symphony.”

And there will be no Tony miracle a la “Titanic” for some of the other struggling tuners — “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “High Society” and the Roundabout transfer of “1776,” which each garnered only a few nominations, generally in lesser categories.

Even Tony favorite “Cabaret,” a sellout since its opening, has a long road to recoupment, since it’s playing in a house of about 500 seats.

The flow of imports from England continued, with “Art” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” (a double import, from Off Broadway as well as across the pond) doing the best business among new straight plays — and fighting for the Tony.

A revelatory Royal Court/Theatre de Complicite revival of “The Chairs” provided one of the season’s artistic high points, as did the Roundabout’s “Cabaret,” inspired by the London Donmar Warehouse production. Liam Neeson starrer “The Judas Kiss” garnered mixed notices, while “The Herbal Bed” flopped quickly.

Impressive holdovers included “Rent,” “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” and “Beauty and the Beast,” still going strong from the ’95-’96 season and last season’s still SRO “Chicago.”

(Carol Diuguid contributed to this report.)