Too Many Musicals for Broadway to Turn Out a Profit?

The spring slate is packed with shows, spurring questions about the limits of box office growth

Broadway: Too Many Shows for Box Office to Turn Profit?
Ryan Snook

Take a look at Broadway’s 2013-14 slate, and one thing’s clear: Spring 2014 sure is crowded with notable new musicals. “Rocky,” “Aladdin,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “If/Then,” “Beautiful” — the list is long enough that now’s the time to start thinking about a competitive landscape, and just how many successful titles Broadway can sustain at one time.

Or it would be, except for the fact that spring 2013 came on with the same overload of new product only to have four tuners (“Kinky Boots,” “Motown,” “Matilda,” “Pippin”) rake in big-money numbers all summer (and for half the summer, there was mega-grossing Tom Hanks play “Lucky Guy”), all in addition to usual top dogs such as “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “The Book of Mormon.” One week, a whopping 12 shows topped the $1 million mark, prompting the question: Has the calculus changed for how many successes Broadway can handle at one time?

Not exactly, to hear legiters tell it, even if the notion of a hit-cap does get tossed around in theoretical discussions all the time. Certainly it was rare to have so many strong-selling shows debut in a single spring, but a number of producers believe, as one theater owner puts it, “If a show is great, there’s always a place for it.”

That’s another way of saying that no matter what critics or individual naysayers might argue, if a show finds its audience, you can’t argue with it. (See “Motown,” consistently pulling in big money despite a critical drubbing.) And while many legiters dismiss the idea that Broadway can sustain only a limited number of hits, they all acknowledge that no matter how crowded the landscape, it’s vital for a new show to have a demographic it can own.

A wide spread of target audiences is likely a contributing factor in the success of the spring 2013 lineup. “Motown,” for instance, can be a top draw for fans of the music label, and for the African-American auds who have turned out in force for previous Main Stem titles such as “The Color Purple”; “Kinky Boots” can claim theatergoers looking for accessible, feel-good fun. “Matilda” has to share the girl-centric all-ages demo with “Cinderella” and “Annie,” but it’s also got a lock on ticket buyers in the market for upscale Brit-hit prestige.

Similarly, each of the new musicals in the crowded spring 2014 slate also seems to have a unique demo to tap.

“Rocky,” the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical version of the pugilist tale, unconventionally staged by Alex Timbers, can go for spectacle-hungry auds, while “Aladdin” can target the family demo that helps power Disney Theatrical Prods.’ other titles. “If/Then” could connect with legit avids looking for challenging new work with a big-name Broadway star (Idina Menzel, returning to the Rialto for the first time since scoring a Tony in “Wicked” a decade ago) and creative team (Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who won a Pulitzer for “Next to Normal”).

“Bullets Over Broadway,” director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s pic adaptation with tunes from the era, could pull in Woody Allen fans and those drawn to its old-fashioned score, while “Bridges” has the familiarity of its weepie-romance title plus the prestige-aud frisson of a score by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”). And if Carole King biomusical “Beautiful” can reach a distaff-skewing version of the boomer auds who keep “Jersey Boys” going, it too could prove formidable.

Those productions will join a Broadway lineup already loaded with long-runners and holdovers from the spring, plus fall openers that may find a foothold such as October outing “Big Fish.” Producers can move forward aware of the crowded slate but mindful that there’s always room for a show that can find an audience to call its own.