Who says a matinee has to be on a Wednesday afternoon?
Well, Broadway does, and has for years. But later this spring, a concerted push to institute a Thursday matinee option will bring the Main Stem more in line with the West End, where a far-less-standardized playing schedule helps diffuse the competition inherent in a model where every show runs on the same day at the same times.
“Broadway has done something like this before, but we’ve done it independently and without a lot of notice, which is (bad) for group sales,” says Aaron Lustbader, who spearheaded the initiative.
Lustbader, who’s the general manager at “The Phantom of the Opera” and a partner at Foresight Theatrical, says overall Broadway business is good, but that attendance is flat, and he paints legiters’ conundrum like this: “Rather than raise the top ticket price by two or three dollars to get the box office up, how do we get more people coming to the shows?”
His answer: a new matinee slot, in which “Phantom,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Cinderella” will all begin playing April 3. “Matilda” will also play some Thursday matinees in May and June. All productions will maintain a weekly eight-show performance count by nixing another perf that traditionally logs slower business, often a Wednesday matinee or evening.
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The trick was to enlist enough titles to raise audience awareness, but with the understanding that not all shows could opt to make the change, which would defeat the purpose.
Besides dispersing some of the week’s competition across another weekday afternoon, the additional slot offers one more potential show for tourists to cram in as many productions as possible over a limited vacation period. Thursday also moves showtimes to a day that could more feasibly be the start of a long weekend for city visitors.
Long-runners “Phantom” (26 years) and “Mamma Mia!” (approaching 13) both rely heavily on international and domestic tourists, while “Cinderella,” which opened last year, has recently begun to expand its audience base wider as the title carves out a Rialto profile. “Thursday matinees make sense for a show that’s ready for tourists,” says “Cinderella” producer Robyn Goodman.
It’s no coincidence that both “Phantom” and “Mamma Mia!” come from Brit producers, whose experience on the West End makes them more open to shaking up the standard Rialto schedule. The resistance to such shifts on tradition-bound Broadway has always been based largely on the assumption that loyal American auds accustomed to the old schedule will be confused or put off by change.
Some past attempts at such sked revisions have admittedly met swift defeat. Devin Keudell, the g.m. of “Mamma Mia!,” remembers the 1999 revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” trying out a three-show day on Saturday (starting with an 11 a.m. perf). “It did not work,” he says.
But since then, Broadway has shown more willingness to experiment. Friday matinees aren’t unheard-of in certain high-demand frames, and in 2003, the “Tuesdays at 7” program instituted a 7 p.m. curtain for many shows on that day. There were a few hiccups, legiters recall — mostly patrons showing up at 8 p.m. for a show that began an hour earlier — but now the 7 p.m. weekday curtain is so commonplace it’s spreading to other days of the week. “The Book of Mormon,” for instance, plays 7 p.m. shows on three nights: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
The Thursday matinee initiative was announced in the fall to allow long-lead group sales to get in on the new showtimes, while a consumer marketing push will begin next month. “Phantom” plans to play Thursday matinees from here on out, but others will vary seasonally, depending on when tourists are in town. Industry types expect to have a sense of whether the initiative is working after a month or so.
And if it does?
Then Broadway matinees won’t just be for Wednesdays anymore.