Broadway B.O. breaks records

'Frankenstein' estimates push total to $943.3 mil

Despite early predictions of a recessionary disaster, Broadway box office broke a record this season. Probably.

The $943.3 million cume reported by the Broadway League, the trade association of legit producers and presenters, includes estimates for “Young Frankenstein,” producers of which never officially released sales information.

With the coin contribbed by “Frankenstein” before it shuttered Jan. 4, the 2008-09 season (which ended May 24) slightly surpassed the $939 million record logged by the 2006-07 frame. Without “Frankenstein,” cume hit $919.8 million.

Overall attendance dipped slightly to 12.15 million from 12.27 million the prior season (or 11.84 million from 11.87 million, sans “Frankenstein”).

Still, Broadway showed off an impressive resilience in the face of the economic downturn. Longstanding hits — such as “Wicked,” which pulled in $74.3 million over the season — remained largely undiminished and have been joined by new hits including two shows that make a habit of grossing more than $1 million per week: “Billy Elliot” ($36.8 million since its October start date) and “West Side Story” ($15.3 million since it began previews in February).

A total of 43 productions opened over the season — up from 36 the prior season, and the highest number since 50 shows launched during the 1982-83 season.

Such upbeat figures cap off a year in which the worsening economic crisis prompted serious fears of darkened theaters and dwindling auds. The winter months looked particularly tough, with a slew of shows — including “Hairspray,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “Spring Awakening” — shuttering during the post-holiday slowdown of January.

However, as the season continued and productions mobilized to take advantage of empty venues, the spring sked snowballed into a jam-packed array of offerings, many of them plays and play revivals.

Explanations for Broadway’s robust health include the widely espoused “staycation” theory, which posits that belt-tightening consumers who decided to forgo pricier luxuries like European vacations opted instead for the relatively more affordable pleasures of a night at the theater.

Many legiters also point to the old axiom that in times of difficulty, theater, like all other forms of entertainment, offers a much-needed escape. And others have noted the crowded slate offers a unusually diverse — not to mention well-reviewed — lineup to attract potential auds.

Season included new tuners big (“Billy”) and small (“Next to Normal”), popular revivals of classic tuners (“West Side,” “Hair”) and a couple of nontuner smashes (“God of Carnage,” “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush”).

Limited engagements of star-driven play revivals proved to be among the most reliably profitable legit offerings, with “The Seagull,” toplined by Kristin Scott Thomas; “All My Sons,” with paparazzi magnet Katie Holmes; and “Speed-the-Plow,” starring Jeremy Piven (for a while), all making it into the black.

In recent weeks, however, the sheer number of play offerings has made it difficult for some shows to pull in auds. Without big-name stars, revivals of “Mary Stuart” and “The Norman Conquests” had to work to fill seats despite glowing reviews. New play “Reasons to Be Pretty” has consistently struggled at the box office despite strong press and Tony noms.

Looking ahead, optimism in the industry remains high, although legiters acknowledge that some uncertainty remains.

Box office over the summer, usually a time of bounty fueled by out-of-towners, could slip due to an expected year-on-year decline in tourism. And as always, upcoming offerings could be scuttled if producers encounter further obstacles in raising money.

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