Broadway Hits Are Kudos-Proof

Audiences have already turned this year’s most-nommed shows into sellout blockbusters

Every year at this time, there’s usually a Broadway show that legiters say really needs a Tony — a worthy but underselling title for which an award looks like a potential box office savior.

This year, the Tonys look a lot like something else: Gravy.

That’s because unlike any other season in recent memory, so many of the 2012-13 slate’s nominated productions — and, heck, many of those not nominated — seem to have been doing just fine at the box office without the media spotlight that awards attention brings.

Frontrunner musicals “Kinky Boots,” pictured above, (13 nominations) and “Matilda” (12 noms)? Each had pushed into the millionaires’ club even before the noms were announced. Tom Hanks-toplined play “Lucky Guy” (six noms)? Ditto.

It’s even tough to feel too bad about those left off the nominees list. Snubbed musical “Motown,” earning four nods but surprisingly edged out of the race for new musical? It’s the biggest selling new show of the season, posting million-dollar weeks right out of the gate. “I’ll Eat You Last,” the play that was entirely ignored by the nominators despite a powerhouse creative team and big-name star Bette Midler? The title’s selling like hotcakes, with a smaller venue and some high-profile critical enthusiasm pushing demand even higher.

“How many seasons do you have six musicals all doing a significant amount of business?” asks Nederlander Org exec VP Nick Scandalios, who also chairs the Broadway League, which co-produces the Tonys with the American Theater Wing. “’Motown,’ ‘Kinky Boots,’ ‘Matilda,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Pippin,’ ‘Annie,’” he ticks off. “That’s huge, all in a single season.”

Popular on Variety

It boils down to the fact that an unusual number of productions have managed to grab ticketbuyers’ attention early and hold onto it — even some potentially tough sells such as “Matilda.”


Sure, the tuner was already a much-lauded hit in London before it landed in Gotham, but that’s never guaranteed to translate. (See: “Coram Boy,” the family-friendly U.K. hit that flopped here.) “Matilda” is also based on a Roald Dahl book that’s better known across the Pond, and threaded with dark undercurrents that are a far cry from the happy-go-lucky all-ages fare more common Stateside. None of that mattered. Broadway grosses were promising at first and only snowballed, finally rising to top the $1 million mark once critics raved.

The Tony nominations’ seeming irrelevance to the season’s box office cuts both ways. New play “The Testament of Mary” came away with three noms, and revival “Orphans” took two, but that level of awards attention wasn’t deemed to be enough to offset sales that were consistently low (“Testament”) or rapidly sinking (“Orphans”). “Testament” closed May 5; “Orphans” shutters May 19. Those are exceptions, though, to the spring’s unusual box office boom.

The potential explanation for the overall early momentum is different for each show, although some producers posit that in general, the rise of the Internet and social media has helped word-of-mouth — consistently the strongest influence on ticket sales, especially for tourist-magnet tuners — attain greater velocity and reach.

Several productions also benefit from individual hooks to attract attention. While “Matilda” comes with Brit accolades, “Kinky Boots” has a score by pop icon Cyndi Lauper. “Motown” carries the universal
appeal of the titular label’s music as well as a national ad campaign from Chrysler. “Lucky Guy” and “I’ll Eat You Last” have, respectively, Hanks and Midler.

As is always the case with Broadway timing, the fact that all these shows are on the boards at the same time is largely a coincidence of talent and theater availability. But it’s likely helpful that so many of the productions target a different demographic.

“The season’s been a variegated garden,” says William Ivey Long, chair of the American Theater Wing, and himself nominated for his costume design work on “Cinderella” (nine noms). “The audience for ‘Kinky Boots’ is not the audience for ‘Cinderella.’”

Of course, even if a show doesn’t need Tony nominations in the traditional box office sense, there are still plenty of perks to winning the trophy itself. While the benefits of greater awareness and boosted sales are hard to quantify, a 2012 economic study out of NYU shows that productions that win a Tony in a prominent category tend to run 50% longer than those that don’t.

And just because producers don’t need a Tony doesn’t mean they don’t want one really badly.

“Look, we need bread and water,” says “Kinky Boots” producer Hal Luftig. “But we’ll take 13 nominations, too.”

More Legit

  • The Prince of Egypt review

    'The Prince of Egypt': Theater Review

    In “The Prince of Egypt,” a swords-and-sandals epic minus the swords, no one speaks, they declaim; no one questions, they implore to the heavens. In a musical re-telling of the Exodus story that is bigger on plagues than on developed characterization, subtlety was always going to be in short supply. But did everything have to [...]

  • Katori Hall

    Listen: Katori Hall's 'Quiet Revolution'

    Playwright Katori Hall’s latest, “The Hot Wing King,” centers on a group of black gay men — a community so rarely depicted onstage in the theater that she can’t think of another example. Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below: Which means there’s real power just to see them represented. “Because there aren’t a ton of images [...]

  • Cirque Du Soleil Volta

    Volta: Cirque Du Soleil’s Latest Blends Themes of Self-Discovery with Street Sports

    Blending themes of loneliness, isolation and self-discovery with the magnetic culture of street sports, Cirque du Soleil’s latest iteration, “Volta,” is an eye-popping and psychically soothing spiritual journey experienced through a prism of jaw-dropping acrobatics and aerodynamics that leave one gasping for breath. The Montreal-based entertainment company has produced a steady string of awe-inspiring shows [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band review

    'Cambodian Rock Band': Theater Review

    Is there anything less politically threatening than a rock band jamming to its own vibrant music? Tell that to the Khmer Rouge, which descended on Cambodia in 1975 and killed off some three million people, including many musicians. In Lauren Yee’s play “Cambodian Rock Band,” the doomed, fictional band Cyclo is represented by actor-musicians with [...]

  • Protesters demonstrate at the Broadway opening

    'West Side Story' Broadway Opening Night Sparks Protests

    Roughly 100 protestors gathered outside the Broadway premiere of “West Side Story” on Thursday night, carrying placards and chanting in unison to demand the removal of cast member Amar Ramasar. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ramasar has got to go,” they cried while holding signs that read “Keep predators off the stage,” “Sexual predators shouldn’t get [...]

  • West Side Story review

    'West Side Story': Theater Review

    Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, “West Side Story” – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts in the new Broadway revival from edgy Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. (Can [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content