WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH BROADWAY?

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A record number of shows are closing, with producers millions in the hole. Kimberly Kaye considers what went wrong ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

January has long been the month for Broadway to bring out its dead. Having wrung the final drops of revenue from New York City’s holiday tourism boom, productions with limited runs or falling sales wisely close up shop, making room for the onslaught of spring productions in the process. This season, however, has revealed a body count higher than any in recent memory.

Of the 19 new shows which opened this autumn, only four will survive weeks into the new year—"Long Story Short", a solo show with Colin Quinn, a comedian; "Lombardi", a play about an American football coach; "The Merchant of Venice",  starring Al Pacino; and the recently extended "Driving Miss Daisy", starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. Longer-running musicals, including the Tony award-winning "In the Heights" and Pulitzer prize-winning "Next to Normal", will also join the pile of the dearly departed in January.

The news of so many showbituaries has produced nervous hand-wringing among seasoned arts patrons. Many can't help but ask: What is wrong with Broadway?

The answer is: nothing we didn’t already know.

As Mecca for commercial theatre, Broadway is all about the numbers. From a strictly commercial point of view, the numbers have never been better. The Great White Way just had its greatest year on record, grossing more than $1 billion, up from $940m the previous season and $588m ten years ago. This is a success story, particularly when one remembers the dark days following September 11th 2001, when sales suffered and tourists kept their distance. Now these holiday-makers make up nearly 65% of all ticket-holders. But as with Hollywood box-office numbers, Broadway grosses reflect rising ticket prices, not attendance. In 2001 the average ticket sold was $58; this past season saw average prices in the $86 range. Attendance actually fell slightly during the 2009-2010 season.

That nearly two dozen shows have shuttered since the 2010 autumn season began is nothing to sniff at. Mounting production costs (we're looking at you, $65m "Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark") have continued Broadway's long history as an investment minefield. However, the hysteria over the death toll is both predictable and an over-reaction. “Yes, it’s been a bad few months on Broadway,” admits Paul Wontorek, editor-in-chief at Broadway.com, “but there’s always a cycle to these things. It’s not unusual for a lot of productions to close the first half of the year." He chuckles that editorials lamenting the state of Broadway always crop up around this time of year. Also, several of the long-running shows that are closing now, such as "Next to Normal" and "In the Heights", were in fact successful gambles that outlasted original expectations. 

Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theater Wing, a non-profit organisation that promotes theatre, ventures that two trends in the Broadway production model have made January closings more likely than ever before. One is the rise of celebrity-driven shows, such as "A Steady Rain" in 2009 with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, and "All My Sons" in 2008, a revival with Katie Holmes, Patrick Wilson, Diane Wiest and John Lithgow. These shows tend to play strictly limited engagements during Broadway's peak season, from October to January, so their A-list stars can return to Hollywood after short runs. The other trend is the dominance of not-for-profit theatres, such as the Roundabout Theatre Company or Manhattan Theater Club, which offer seasons packed with as many limited-run productions as possible for their annual subscriber audiences.

With that in mind, a closer examination of this closing season does not reveal a deeply flawed theatrical graveyard, but a unique menu of productions. The preceding five Broadway autumns were all peppered generously with big musicals and surefire revivals, as well as larger ensemble dramas and comedies. The last two years also featured those big Hollywood headliners. This autumn, however, eschewed celebrity vehicles and big, new musicals for shows that had done well off-Broadway, such as "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson", an irreverent rock musical, and "The Scottsboro Boys", a satirical racial drama. But the gamble did not pay off. Neither of these shows resonated with tourists, and most ticket-buying locals had seen them off-Broadway.

The recent season also served up fewer tabloid names in favour of more intimate plays with stage stalwarts. Any theatre devotee is loathe to concede that a big-name celebrity is essential for a play to succeed on Broadway. Yet top-notch theatre talent couldn't save the new comedy "Elling" (with Denis O’Hare) or the revivals of "A Life in the Theater" (with Patrick Stewart) and "La Bete" (with Mark Rylance) from closing well before their limited runs were scheduled to end. "Elling", a three-person comedy, ran just 22 previews and nine performances before closing, grossing just $198K during its final eight-show week, well-short of its $822K weekly potential at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The wobbly drama "A Steady Rain", by comparison, rode the drawing power of Jackman and Craig through its three-month run, averaging a million dollars a week at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

The season’s inability to sustain off-Broadway transfers or smaller plays has spotlit one troubling issue in the New York theatre scene that can not be pinned on ‘the state of Broadway‘. The market has not been kind to small off-Broadway theatres, many of which have had to close in recent years. This means successful off-Broadway shows or commercially viable plays like "A Life in the Theater" increasingly have nowhere to go but Broadway. "The loss of a viable middle ground of commercial theatrical production has had untold impact on the ecology of New York theatre,” says Sherman. “There is work that deserves a longer life in this city [that] shouldn't be forced to meet the economic demands of even small Broadway houses."

Intimate plays without celebrities still can succeed on Broadway. Take "Lombardi", a survivor of this season. The six-person drama about the coaching life of Vince Lombardi has thrived at Broadway’s Circle in the Square due to its popular subject matter, explain Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, its producers. Though most tickets for Broadway shows are bought by women, Kirmser and Ponturo say this show lets them buy away for their "husband, father or family.” With millions of American football fans across the country, that adds up to a lot of husbands, fathers and familes.

With Broadway at the centre of New York City’s tourism industry, its roughly 40 theatres must cater to the appetites of out-of-towners. “Broadway...is about tourists," says Wontorek. If they are spending the money, they want to go home and brag that they saw something huge." Whether this means a famous film star, an acrobatic spectacle or a highbrow epic, the show must be an 'event' to draw travellers. Such events shouldn't be hard to find in coming months. First there is "Spider-Man", now scheduled to open in February (as long as its stars survive the show's now infamous and injury-addled preview period), followed by a slew of big musicals, including the return of such classics as "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and "Anything Goes" and the debuts of "Sister Act" and "Catch Me If You Can".

So the record number of closings on Broadway should not be seen as proof that the theatre scene at large is terminally ill, but as evidence that Broadway is not the only patient. In order for commercial theatre in the city to get a healthy glow back in its cheeks, the industry must be treated in its entirety. New York needs more small commercial theatres so shows like "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" can reach new audiences without sustaining the back-breaking overhead of a Broadway stage. And Broadway theatres should consider efforts to keep some ticket prices down in order to cultivate new audiences. But conversations about the state of Broadway will always be with us. They are woven into the very nature of commercial theatre, as is the reality that in order for new work to be seen, some shows, like those departing this January, must not go on.

 

Kimberly Kaye lives and writes in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Observer, City Belt magazine and on Broadway.com, among other places. Picture credit:  Willem van Bergen (via Flickr)