How many blockbusters does Broadway have room for?
It’s a critical question, and not just because the entire theater industry believes it’s got two more juggernauts — “Frozen” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — on the way in the spring. Over the past 15 years, Broadway has become a business of blockbusters, and although the shift is at the heart of the Street’s surging strength, it’s had other, far-reaching consequences that underlie many of the industry’s most pressing concerns.
In the short term, few are worried that the Broadway box office won’t make space for “Frozen” and “Potter” come spring. Last season brought out enough high-paying theatergoers for three genuine blockbusters: “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Come From Away,” and there’s no reason to think crowds won’t pony up for “Frozen” and “Potter,” assuming each sticks its landing. Heck, there might even be an additional, surprise smash in the offing. (It happened last season; “Come From Away” was a sleeper.)
There’s no doubt that proliferation of big-money, long-running smashes is responsible for driving Broadway to new heights, with the rise of dynamic pricing leading to unprecedented profits for the most in-demand hits. The seemingly endless revenue streams of Disney Theatrical’s “The Lion King” ($7.9 billion so far) and “Wicked” ($4.5 billion) are precisely what got other Hollywood studios — not to mention new independent producers and investors, eager for their own hits — into the Broadway game. The rise of decades-long runs, starting with “The Phantom of the Opera” (about to turn 30), has cemented Broadway’s landmark status, making it a powerful draw for the international tourists who play a major role in keeping those hits going.
But talk to the industry about the challenges it sees ahead, and it’s clear that as popular and profitable as Broadway has become, its blockbuster mentality has also given rise to, or exacerbated, some of its biggest problems.
The ongoing increase in ticket prices has long been a concern for Broadway, and while the advent of dynamic pricing has made growing numbers of tickets available at the lower end of the cost spectrum, it’s the premium price tags that get all the press. As those numbers skyrocket — “Hamilton” is at $849 and counting — many worry that Broadway risks pricing itself out of accessibility for all but the wealthiest of consumers.
Meanwhile, the upward spiral of production costs has made the “soft hit” a thing of the past. It’s increasingly difficult to finance a show in such a way that steady but middling sales at 60% of gross potential can cover weekly running costs, plus the overage that leads to profit or at least to recoupment. If the space for modest successes hadn’t shrunk, a show like last season’s “Groundhog Day,” closed by so-so sales, might have had more of a chance.
“As the hits have gotten bigger, the flops have gotten, well, floppier — and increasingly difficult to limp away from and live to produce another day.”
The new normal is also responsible for a logjam in Broadway real estate. There are only 40 Broadway theaters in total (41 if you count the Helen Hayes, coming back online after renovations later this season), and to give just one example, the unprecedented life span of “Phantom” means that the Majestic Theater hasn’t had a new show in it for three decades. As more productions run longer, it’s left a swath of new projects on the hunt for a diminishing stock of venues.
It’s also contributed to the crowding out of the Broadway play, the venerable, vital art form that’s now almost impossible to parlay into a commercial hit. With theaters in short supply, musicals have had to plant flags in the smaller venues that had traditionally been considered playhouses. (See: “Dear Evan Hansen” in the intimate Music Box.) Even star-driven plays often need a familiar title to turn audiences’ heads away from razzle-dazzle musicals; of last season’s bumper crop of new American plays, not a single one is still on the boards. Talk to people in the industry, and more than one will tell you that a new, industry-wide solution to the problem will have to be found, and soon, for the Broadway play to survive.
A crowded Street also leaves little room for new producers to find a foothold, even the ones not intimidated by the multimillion-dollar fundraising demands of even a modestly scaled musical. And as the hits have gotten bigger, the flops have gotten, well, floppier — and increasingly difficult to limp away from and live to produce another day.
Add it all up, and you get a Broadway that can’t help recognizing that when it comes to blockbusters, it can’t live without ’em — but it still needs to find the best way to live with ’em too.
Variety’s theater podcast, Stagecraft, launches Tuesday, Oct. 3, with guest Harold Prince.