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Broadway’s Season of Famine and Feast

The year’s uneven output leaves grosses and attendance down, but primes pump for a road bonanza

Judging by numbers alone, the 2012-13 Broadway season was kind of a bummer. Sales and, even more notably, attendance were down.

So why is the nation’s network of road presenters so excited?

There are a handful of factors that contributed to the slippage in Rialto numbers last season, but the most important was a backloaded sked. With most of the season taken up by what many observers saw as a largely uninspiring trickle of new product, the dam burst in the spring with a flood of commercially muscular titles including “Motown,” “Kinky Boots,” “Matilda,” “Lucky Guy,” “Cinderella,” “Pippin” and “I’ll Eat You Last.”

It’s rare to get so many B.O. standouts from a whole season, much less a couple of months in the spring. And it’s a bounty that will benefit the touring biz for years to come.

“The road couldn’t be happier,” says Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, exec director of ASU Gammage, the arts presenter on the Tempe campus of Arizona State U. The area is one of the country’s biggest markets for touring Broadway fare. “For 2014-15 and the season after that, we know we’re looking at a lot of great work.”

For the most part, road presenters expect these shows to draw crowds at regional venues for the same reasons they’re doing so on Broadway. Tuners “Kinky Boots” and “Matilda” have the imprimatur of neck-and-neck Tony nominations; “Cinderella” and “Annie,” the only fall opener still on the boards, are familiar properties with built-in all-ages appeal; stock and amateur staple “Pippin” has a special place in the hearts of legions of legit avids; and “Motown,” given the international profile of the titular label and its tunes, seemingly sells itself.

It’s a stark difference from the fall, when the future wasn’t looking so hot. Of open-ended tuners, only “Annie” turned heads at the box office, while new titles “Chaplin” and “Scandalous” had both shuttered by early January.

“I don’t think any of us thought six months ago that we’d have six or seven shows rolling out,” says Al Nocciolino, the Broadway League’s road vice chair.

The quick closures of the open-ended runs of “Chaplin” and “Scandalous” — alongside other of the season’s disappointments, including musical “Hands on a Hardbody” and plays “The Performers,” “Orphans” and “The Testament of Mary” — helped keep the 2012-13 tally of playing weeks, the cumulative total of frames played by each title over the 52-week season, down to 1,430, the lowest number in some 15 years.

The 6.2% year-to-year drop in attendance from 12.33 million to 11.57 million was about on par with the 6% decline in playing weeks (down from 1,522 in 2011-12). There’s also some truth to the assertion that the damages wrought by Superstorm Sandy hampered attendance from the suburbs and the tri-state area, particularly in the weeks immediately following the storm.

But as the late-breaking surge in product and box office proved, theatergoers remain willing to show up — and, in some cases, pony up, at premium prices — for the new titles they want to see.

The late-spring abundance of the 2012-13 season is a different phenomenon from “The Book of Mormon,” the 2011 smash that benefited Broadway by returning the Rialto to the pop-culture conversation, and also boosted the road with a hot title that would encourage subscriptions to entire touring seasons.

This season, rather than a single juggernaut title, the current crop represents a grab-bag of productions that can appeal to a variety of audiences and demographics. It’s the kind of lineup that features something for everyone. Based on sales over the past month, “Motown,” “Kinky Boots” and “Matilda” could potentially keep logging boffo Broadway B.O. well into the summer and beyond.

Industry tubthumpers have long extolled Broadway’s growing variety of titles for an expanding crowd of demographics. Take the array of 2012-13’s successes, combine it with the Rialto’s range of enduring shows from “Wicked” to “Mormon” to “Once,” and this season might just be the one to prove the point.

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