Broadway was a Brand of Excellence
Broadway is the name given to the 40 or so major theatrical shows running in designated theatres on or near the ‘Street of dreams‘, the ‘great white way‘ within the ‘city of angels‘, the core of the ‘big apple‘, which was also my home and office in Times Square since 1995.
Often abbreviated to ‘BWAY‘, it’s often considered the highest professional form of theatre in the United States. Be it theatre (or theater), or a show, ‘Broadway’ refers to a performance (usually a play or musical) staged in one of the larger professional theatres located in New York City, with 500 seats or more, that appeal to the mass audience. Along with London’s West End, Broadway is, or was, considered of the highest quality.
Three companies — Jujamcyn Theatres, The Shubert Organization, and The Nederlander Organization — own 31 of the 41 theatres on Broadway, but with long-running hits occupying several theatres only ~25 theaters are potentially available in a given season.
The Problems with Broadway today
In my opinion, since the corporatization of Broadway in the 1990’s, much of Broadway has been reduced to a cookie cutter system of profiteering, to the depression of creativity.
Creative producers and their directors, designers and other creatives are forced to give up substantive share of creative control. Large scale creative production gives way to jukebox style piecemeal musicals. Investors frustratingly demand ability to shape creative.
Theatre Owners, Producers and Unions all distrust each each other, creating a soupy mix of corporate snatch and grabs, with the ticket buyers being the affected losers. While ticket prices skyrocket to absurdism, in part due to uncontrolled scalpers, in another part due to some scalpers secretly encouraged by some theatre owners and some producers, Broadway is quickly heading to price itself out of the market.
I cannot see a way forward to fix this issue in a timely manner. It will likely take decades to correct, not before a generation or two of audiences will shift their allegiance to film, video and other digitals formats, where they can pause, skip forward, or simply delete entertainment at a fraction of the cost of a pair of Broadway tickets. The social aspect of community gathering in the hallowed auditorium of a darkened theatre will be lost. The act of immediate entertainment gratification is heading to our industry like an uncontrolled freight train sliding downhill.
A renewed focus on future audiences, ie, kids of today, needs to occur, and quickly. We need an industry self mandate to get kids into theatres, increase creative spending and reduce ticket prices.
Indeed, wouldn’t it be great to have state and city sponsorships to eliminate ticket prices completely for a certain number of performances each month. Wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate creativity, rather than profits.
Until then, Off-Broadway, Off Off Broadway and regional theatres have an opportunity to show corporate Broadway how it should be done.
Update nearly 2 decades later
My venting and rant from November 2004 above is largely coming true.
- Ticket prices have skyrocketed — in the last 30 years average ticket price has climbed from an inflation-adjusted $74 to $124
- The best seats will almost always cost at least $200 and sometimes more than $1k.
- Premium shows with premium ticket prices do not help perception of Broadway being in a pricy league to its own.
- Dynamic pricing is now core to most Producers strategy. Taking a cue from the airlines, ticket prices are adjusted hourly depending on demand. Broadway ticket prices are as flexible as airline ones, and vary wildly based on demand.
- For lesser-known shows there aren’t enough people willing to pay $100 and up for a ticket, making for a precarious situation for producers and investors.
- Audiences are evolving toward streaming entertainment (pause, fast forward, delete) solutions.
- Capitalization costs (upfront) of a typical musical are typically in the $10 to 20 million range (although some shows have reached a whopping $70 million)
- Weekly operating costs (salaries, venue expenses, advertising & admin costs being the lions share) often exceed $500k and sometimes over $1 million.
- Physical production costs are becoming insanely prohibitive.
- Direct salaries and fees (actors, creatives, crew and management) account for about 25% of a show capitalization.
- Indirect labor as part of sets, costumes, lighting, sound, marketing etc… jump this to the majority of the costs.
- Loading in (and out) a show from a Broadway theatre is over $1 million typically — indeed, one wonders if theatre owners profit more from load-in/out commissions/fees than they do from rent/profit sharing.
Broadway’s Economic Impact to New York City (NYC)* alone
- By 2019, Broadway contributes $14.7 billion to the economy of New York City on top of ticket sales and supports 96,900 local jobs.
- Broadway attendance has increased from 6.5 million (1984) to 14.7 million for the 2018-2019 season topping those of the ten professional NYC Metro-area sports teams combined (Mets, Yankees, Rangers, Islanders, Knicks, Liberty, Giants, Jets, Devils and Nets).
- Broadway is one of the greatest tourist deciding factors to visit New York. 8.5 million tickets were bought by visitors (about 65% of total tickets sold) who considered Broadway a very important reason for coming to New York City.
- According to the New York Department of Commerce, Broadway makes up a whopping 4.5% of the city’s GDP.
- Broadway shows are very difficult to make a profit on, only 30% of shows each year make a profit or break even. In fact, most shows rely on national tours or licensing the rights to local theatres to host their own productions.
Just some possible paths to finding solutions:
- Broadway should be viewed through the same lens as airlines or oil. The economic impact of arts, which are at the center of tourism in the United States, cannot be ignored.
- The city and state of NY benefits hugely from Broadway (Economic spending / tourism etc…) and we should be advocating for different levels of support back from both — sponsorship / underwriting of kids education programs to make shows more affordable (or free), and future-proofing next decades audience base.
- NYC should provide marketing subsidy support to offset the insanely over inflated costs of billboards, flyering, Print, TV and Radio.
- Industry collectively establishing a shared physical production pooling of common, almost identical assets repeatedly used (lighting rigs, audio rigs, body microphones, set pieces such as automated travelators, wagons, drops, LED curtains, projection systems etc) with designers encouraged by producers to start with asset pools and design/build out from there.
- The trade association missions representing theatre owners, producers and creatives should be completely re-thought to migrate away from their self preservation and towards industry cost off-sets, through federal, state and city government lobbying, showcasing economic benefits as a whole, collective bargaining of not just unions representing creatives and crews, but equally importantly of suppliers. National and international sponsorships with airlines, trucking companies, media, insurance (especially health) etc.. etc.. should be sought and divvied up pro-rata amongst all shows.
Will anyone listen? Unlikely. Obituaries for Broadway have been written many times before. The introduction of talking motion pictures, the Great Depression, WWII, Times Square/ Midtown 1970’s sleaze pit (by 1972, only 5 million theatregoers, the lowest in Broadway history), COVID pandemic. The magic of a live theatre continues to draw audiences and those who want to perform or produce shows, economics be damned.
Look to my next rant a decade from now.
While the term “Broadway” comes from the street of the same name, not all theatres are located on this street. The majority of BWAY theatres are located in the area called Midtown, in and around Times Square. Broadway theatres are usually run by a producing organization (e.g., Shubert, Disney, et cetera), or another theatre group (e.g., Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, et cetera).
Further, a new class of show called “Touring Broadway” refers to Broadway shows that have played in or will play in Broadway theatres across North America (USA and Canada). Each major city has one large “Broadway Class” theatre, and when presenting a Broadway touring production, this show, and the city in which it plays become part of “Touring Broadway”.
All Broadway shows are professionally produced and adhere to strict contracts for all artists involved (e.g., performers, directors, musicians, playwrights, stage managers, etcetera). Artistic trade unions such as Actors’ Equity, commonly known simply as “Equity,” International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, commonly known simply as “IATSE”, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, commonly known simply as “SSDC” and the Musicians Union commonly known simply as “Local 1”, and many others for press agents, ushers and other workers, bargain for contracts guaranteeing minimum wages and other rights involved with the rehearsal and production process. On rare occasions, disputes over contracts can result in a group of artists going on strike. In 2003, musicians in the orchestra pit of Broadway musicals went on strike to protest producers plans to replace them with “virtual orchestras.”
Broadway shows may run for a varying number of weeks, depending on ticket sales. Musicals tend to have longer runs than do stage plays.
In addition to long runs in Broadway theatres, producers often copy the production with a new cast and crew for the Broadway Tour, which travels to theatres across the country. Both musicals and stage plays on Broadway and in their respective tours often rely on casting well-known performers in leading roles to draw larger audiences or bring in new audience members to the theatre. Actors from movies and television are frequently cast for the premieres of BWAY shows or are used to replace actors leaving a cast. Many performers, however, are still primarily “stage” actors, who spend more time on the stages of New York and will appear in television and screen roles as a secondary venue.
Broadway shows and artists are honored every June when the Antoinette Perry Awards (Tony Awards or ‘Tony’s’) are given by the American Theatre Wing. The ‘Tony’ is Broadway’s highest theatre award. The importance of these awards has increased since their annual broadcast on television began. Celebrities are often chosen to host the show, like Hugh Jackman and Rosie O’Donnell, in addition to celebrity presenters. While some critics have felt that the show should focus on celebrating the stage, many others recognize the positive impact that famous faces lend to selling more tickets and bringing more people to the theatre. The performances from musicals on the telecast have also been cited as vital to the survival of many shows.
Seeing a Broadway show is a common tourist activity in New York and a business that generates billions of dollars annually. The TKTS booth in Duffy Square, at Broadway & 47th Street, sells half-price tickets for same-day tickets for many Broadway and still professional Off-Broadway shows. This service helps sell empty seats and makes seeing a show in New York more affordable. Many Broadway theatres also offer special student rates, same-day “rush” tickets, or standing-room tickets to help ensure that more people have the opportunity to see Broadways shows.
Some theatregoers prefer the more experimental, challenging, and intimate performances possible in smaller theatres, which are referred to as Off-BWAY and Off-Off-Broadway (though some may be physically located on or near Broadway). The classification of theatres is governed by language in Actors’ Equity contracts. To be eligible for a Tony, a production must be in a house with 500 seats or more, which pretty much defines the Broadway Theatre. Some theatres (by adding or subtracting seats) can convert from Off-Broadway to Broadway and vice versa.
百老汇戏剧和演员每年六月会进行评奖，由美国戏剧协会给获奖戏剧和演员颁发托尼奖。托尼是百老汇最高级别的戏剧奖。这些奖项的重要性自从开始每年电视直播之后与日俱增。 名人经常被邀请来主持颁奖晚会，比如休•杰克曼和罗斯奥•汤尼尔（Rosie O’Donnell），此外还有名人颁奖嘉宾。虽然一些评论人士认为演出应该以舞台艺术为重点，但是其他许多人则认为名人效应会提高票房而且吸引更多观众进入剧场。百老汇音乐剧的电视转播也被认为对许多百老汇戏剧的继续存在起到了关键作用。
Broadway Season Statistics
NOTE: Playing Weeks are calculated by counting the number of weeks during which each show performed in a given year, and then adding together each show’s subtotal to determine the overall number of weeks of performance logged by all shows. The result is the best measure of Broadway’s productivity (overall activity).
NOTE: Beginning with the 2009-10 season, “Gross” represents gross gross and “Attendance” represents total attendance. For seasons prior, these numbers represent net gross and paid attendance, respectively.
An unusual situation presented itself in the fall of 1975, when 9 Broadway musical theatres were closed for 25 days as a result of a strike by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, reducing total attendance and theatre revenues by some 70%. This strike presented the opportunity for a near-controlled economic impact of the Broadway theatre on the earnings of closely related business activities by Professor William Baumol of Mathematica, Inc., Princeton, New Jersey prepared for the League of New York Theatres and Producers.
The annual gross revenue from ticket sales amounted to ~$57 million in the 1974-1975 season. The study found that, in addition, theatregoers spent nearly an equal amount on transportation, dining, and hotels as a result of their attendance. These outlays stimulated further expenditures totaling $168 million in the metropolitan NY area, and an additional $110 million across the country – or a national total of $275 million.
The theatre industry directly contributes $43 million to the economy of New York City. This figure represents expenditures by producers, theatre owners and ticket brokers for performer’s salaries, sets, rents, etc. In addition, it was learned that theatregoers annually spend approximately $45 million on restaurants, $10.3 million on taxis, and $4.3 million for parking. Bus tours bring in 600,000 people per year to attend the theatre, and organized theatre tours bring in a minimum of 20,000 visitors every year who often stay the better part of a week. These visitors are estimated to spend another $2.5 million on hotels, shopping, etc.
Direct tax payments to New York City are at least $5.7 million. These figures, adjusted for the stimulation they provide to expenditures by the recipients of these amounts (the multiplier effect – see p. 6) yield the figures reported here.
Much of the information was provided directly by the pertinent industries — theatre tour operators, ticket brokers, producers, theatre owners, etc. Our estimates of the theatregoers’ contribution to the income of restaurants, taxis and parking lots are based on an investigation and analysis of the reduction in flow of revenues to these activities during the strike which lasted from September 18 to October 13, 1975.
The evidence indicates that during the strike weeks ticket sales and attendance dropped to 30 percent of their normal level, for a season and the revenues of taxi owners and operators fell some $117,000 per week. During this period, parking lot operators are shown to have lost about $50,000 per week. However, the largest loss, aside from the theatre itself, is probably that experienced by the restaurants which suffered a decline in revenues o the order of $510,000 per week.
Broadway Contributed Nearly $12 Billion To New York City During 2012-13 Season
The Broadway League released the 2012-2013 Broadway’s Economic Contribution to New York City report, the ninth biennial report in this series. The report measures the full economic impact of spending by Broadway production companies, theatre operators and those visitors drawn to NYC by Broadway. As the official source for statistical information about Broadway theatre productions in the United States, The Broadway League’s report demonstrates that Broadway not only offers entertainment, art and culture, but that it is an industry whose financial contributions nourish the economy of its city and state.
The new report states that during the 2012-2013 season, Broadway as an industry contributed $11.9 billion to the economy of New York City. This amount was comprised of direct spending in three areas: spending by producers to mount and run shows; spending by theatre owners to maintain and renovate venues; and ancillary purchases by “Broadway Tourists” (defined as non NYC residents who said that Broadway was a very important reason in their coming to New York City). The money that was directly spent in these areas was then re-spent in multiple subsequent rounds.
The subsequent rounds make the original spending exponentially more valuable. In total, the full contribution of Broadway Tourists amounted to $9.6 billion; shows contributed $2.2 billion; and theatres $17 million, for a total of $11.9 billion to NYC’s economy. Broadway supports 87,000 jobs and generates $500 million in taxes to NYC.
“During the 2012 – 2013 season, Broadway contributed nearly $12 billion to the economy of New York City, a 2% increase from two years ago. It’s significant to point out that 97% of the $11.9 billion represents new money to New York City,” said Charlotte St. Martin, Executive Director of the Broadway League. “The impact of spending by visitors who came to New York to see a show increased by more than 3%, thanks to the ongoing increase in the number of international Broadway tourists. The visitor impact balanced a decrease in the impact of the spending generated by shows and theatres.”
Broadway’s Economic Impact 2012-2013
Theatre Capital Expenses
(all figures in millions of FY 2013 dollars)
- In the 2016–2017 season, 41 Touring Broadway shows traveled to 191 cities across the country.
- Producers and presenters spent $1 billion to launch and run these tours.
- Of this amount, $728.8 million was spent in the theatres’ communities and $279.8 million in the New York City area. The remaining $29.6 million was spent in other areas (e.g. vendors who were situated elsewhere or foreign royalty holders) beyond the scope of this impact analysis.
- Moreover, theatregoers who came to an area specifically to attend shows spent another $766.1 million on ancillary activities such as dining and transportation.
- Thus the total direct spending due to Touring Broadway amounted to $1.8 billion.
- This money then generated another $2.0 billion in secondary rounds of spending, so that the full economic contribution of Touring Broadway totaled $3.8 billion to these 191 cities.
- Eighty-three percent of this money ($3.2 billion) supported the communities that presented Broadway tours. Another $610.2 million impacted the New York City area.
- On average, Broadway tours contributed an economic impact of 3.27 times the gross ticket sales to the economy of the metropolitan areas in which they played.
- In the 2017–2018 season, there were 17 million attendances to Broadway tours across the United States and Canada.
- Seventy-two percent of attendees were female.
- The average age of the Touring Broadway theatregoer was 53.7 years.
- The vast majority of Touring Broadway theatregoers were Caucasian.
- Of those age 25 or older, 81% of the audience held a college degree and 38% held a graduate degree.
- Fifty-five percent of national theatregoers reported an annual household income of more than $100,000, compared to only 25% of Americans overall.
- Thirty-nine percent of respondents subscribed to the “Broadway Series” at their local venues.
- On average, Touring Broadway attendees saw 5 shows per year.
- Women continued to be more likely than men to make the decision to purchase theatre tickets.
- The most commonly cited sources for show selection were personal recommendation; the inclusion in the subscription; emails about the show; and critics’ reviews.
- The theatres’ websites were, by far, the most important reported source for show information.
- Sixty-three percent of the audience said that some kind of incentive would encourage them to attend theatre more frequently, such as discounts or special perks.
- Three quarters of respondents said they used Facebook.
- Sixty-three percent of non-subscribers said they purchased tickets through the show’s or theatre’s official website.
- Most Touring Broadway theatregoers attended in small groups of family or friends.
- More than one-half of the audience said that they were somehow involved or interested in theatre as a child.
- The vast majority of Touring Broadway theatregoers arrived at the venue by personal car.
- Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they would prefer to receive theatre information electronically, rather than via postal mail.
- Thirty-five percent of respondents said they made a visit to New York City in the past year. Of those, 83% attended a Broadway show while in town.
- Nine percent of respondents said they spoke a language other than English in their homes.
For the 2016-2017 season, Broadway shows yielded $1.45 billion in grosses. Total attendances reached 13.3 million – attendance per playing week was 8,400, a 4% increase from 2015-16 attendance per playing week of 8,081. Theatregoers came from near and far and represented a variety of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and showed different purchasing habits and theatregoing preferences.
- In the 2016–2017 season, there were 13.3 million admissions to Broadway shows.
- The New York City audience accounted for 22% of theatregoers, the highest percentage in fifteen years – or 2.85 million admissions; another 18% came from surrounding suburbs.
- Tourists purchased approximately 61% of all Broadway tickets.
- Attendance by theatregoers under 18 years old was 1.65 million. Twenty-five percent of respondents were under 25 years old. Moreover, there were another 1.62 million admissions by theatregoers aged 18–24.
- Approximately half of respondents said they purchased their tickets online.American theatregoers were more likely than others to use the internet to purchase tickets, whereas those who reside outside of the US were more likely to make the purchase in person.
- For the past several seasons, approximately two-thirds (66%) of all attendees have been female. Fifty-one percent of female respondents said they made the purchasing decision to see the show, compared to 44% of male respondents.
- Playgoers tended to be more frequent theatregoers than musical attendees. The play attendee saw nine shows in the past year; the musical attendee, four.
- Theatregoers reported personal recommendation as the most influential factor when it came to selecting a show to see. Other factors included the music, having seen the movie, internet listings and having seen the show before.
- The average reported date of ticket purchase for a Broadway show was 42 days before the performance.
During the 2017–2018 season, the average age of Broadway theatregoers was 40.6, the lowest since 2000, and for the second year in a row, there was a record total number of kids and teens under 18 attending a Broadway show. At 2.1 million, this is the highest total ever (it was 1.65 million the season prior). Additionally, since the 2010-2011 season, Hispanic/Latino attendance has grown by 61% or 430,000 admissions (from 710,000 to 1.14 million).
- In the 2017–2018 season, Broadway shows welcomed 13.8 million admissions.
- Approximately 38% of those attendances were by people from the New York City metropolitan area.
- Sixty-three percent of admissions were made by tourists: 48% from the United States (but outside New York City and its suburbs) and 15% from other countries.
- Sixty-six percent of the audiences were female.
- A record 2.1 million admissions were made by children and teens.
- The average age of the Broadway theatregoer was 40.6 years old, the lowest since 2000.
- Since the 2010-2011 season, Hispanic/Latino attendance has grown by 61% or 430,000 admissions (from 710,000 to 1.14 million).
- Of theatregoers age 25 or older, 81% had completed college and 41% had earned a graduate degree.
- The average annual household income of the Broadway theatregoer was $222,120.
- The average Broadway theatregoer reported attending 5 shows in the previous 12 months. The group of devoted fans who attended 15 or more performances comprised only 5.5% of the audience, but accounted for 31% of all tickets (4.3 million admissions).
- Playgoers tended to be more frequent theatregoers than musical attendees. The typical straight-play attendee saw nine shows in the past year; the musical attendee, four.
- Sixty percent of respondents said they purchased their tickets online.
- The average reported date of ticket purchase for a Broadway show was 43 days before the performance.
- The majority of theatregoers attended in pairs or small groups of family or friends.
- Approximately a third of responses included some kind of personal recommendation including word-of-mouth, asking friends, or reading posts on social media.
The Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2018-2019 is a profile of the audience at Broadway shows from June 2018 through May 2019 by the Broadway League, analyzing the composition of the audience today in comparison to past years:
- In the 2018–2019 season, Broadway shows welcomed 14.8 million admissions, an all-time high.
- Approximately 35% of those attendances were by people from the New York City metropolitan area.
- Sixty-five percent of admissions were made by tourists: 46% from the United States (but outside New York City and its suburbs) and 19% from other countries.
- This represents the highest number of attendances by foreign visitors in history— 2.8 million.
- Sixty-eight percent of the audiences were female.
- The average age of the Broadway theatregoer was 42.3 years old. This average has hovered between 40 and 45 years old for the past two decades.
- Along with the overall growth in attendances, the number of admissions by non-Caucasian theatregoers reached a record high of 3.8 million.
- Of theatregoers age 25 or older, 81% had completed college and 41% had earned a graduate degree.
- The average annual household income of the Broadway theatregoer was $261,000.
- The average number of attendances by the Broadway theatregoer was 4.4 in the past year. The group of devoted fans who attended 15 or more performances comprised only 5% of the audience, but accounted for 28% of all tickets (4.15 million admissions).
- Playgoers tended to be more frequent theatregoers than musical attendees. The typical straight-play attendee saw seven shows in the past year; the musical attendee, four.
- Respondents reported having paid an average of $145.60 per ticket.
- Fifty-nine percent percent of respondents said they purchased their tickets online.
- The average reported date of ticket purchase for a Broadway show was 47 days before the performance, four days more than the previous season.
- Google was the most common initial source theatregoers named when they were asked where they looked for information about Broadway shows. Ticketmaster and Broadway.com followed Google.
- Twenty-two percent said that they relied primarily on word-of-mouth from people they knew.
- Most theatregoers attended in pairs or small groups of family or friends.
- The vast majority of current theatregoers had some connection to theatregoing as a child.
2.8 million international visitors attended a Broadway show. This represents the highest number of attendances by tourists from outside the US in history. Along with the overall growth in attendance, the number of admissions by non-Caucasian theatregoers reached a record high of 3.8 million. Additionally, Broadway welcomed 3.4 million admissions by those under age 25, the third season in a row that attendance from younger audiences topped 3 million.
May 22, 2019
by Michael Riedel
Credit the Shuberts, led by Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, and James M. Nederlander, who built a rival theater chain, for holding Broadway together during the ’70s by presenting hits such as “A Chorus Line” (Shubert) and “Annie” (Nederlander). The Shuberts also did something that eventually would lead to the kind of grosses Broadway posts today: They raised ticket prices, which had been artificially low for years. The top ticket to “My Fair Lady” in 1956, for instance, was $8, but brokers were selling them for $50.
“I remember sitting with Bernie Jacobs once, and he said, ‘I’m going to raise ticket prices, and then I’m going to raise the rent,’” veteran producer Elizabeth I. McCann once told me. “And I thought he was crazy. I always believed the more you raised ticket prices, the more you turned off the audience, but that did not turn out to be true.”
The top ticket to “A Chorus Line” in 1975 was a then eye-popping but today laughable $15 — and yet the show ran 15 years.
“A Chorus Line” was the start of Broadway’s turnaround, but the seeds of its financial boom were planted by a pair of Englishmen — composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, with “Cats” and “Phantom,” and producer Cameron Mackintosh, with “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.” Those four shows dominated Broadway in the 1980s.
Albert Poland, a general manager, recalls meeting with Jacobs one morning in 1982 to discuss raising ticket prices for “Little Shop of Horrors,” which the Shuberts were producing Off Broadway. Poland feared the increase would alienate theatergoers. And why be greedy? The show was a little gold mine, earning a profit of $6,000 a week. Jacobs pulled out the books for the first week of previews for “Cats.” The operating profit was $186,000. “I almost fainted,” Poland recalled in my book “Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway.”
Today, adjusted for inflation, that profit would be about $500,000. No show in Broadway history had made that much money in one week.
“Cats” and the three other big British shows made hundreds of millions of dollars in New York. Produced around the world, they piled up grosses in the billions of dollars. By the end of the 1980s, Broadway was a global business. But it was still dominated by a handful of people — the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, Lloyd Webber, Mackintosh.
And then Michael Eisner, chairman of Walt Disney, ran into Lloyd Webber at an event in North Carolina. Eisner began “probing,” Lloyd Webber recalled, about the theater business. He was amazed to learn how much money could be made from a hit show. A few years later Disney opened “Beauty and the Beast” at the Palace Theater. Broadway insiders were aghast — their beloved street looked like it was going to be turned into a theme park — but the show was a success, and Disney decided to create a new Magic Kingdom in New York. The company refurbished the crumbling New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street, kicking off the cleanup of Times Square. By the end of the 1990s, a neighborhood that was once one of the most dangerous in the world had become a major tourist attraction. Broadway’s attendance — and grosses — began to climb.
Future historians may disagree, but I’d say that Broadway’s current golden age, artistically, began in 1996 when “Rent” opened at the Nederlander Theater. Here was a contemporary show, with a rock and pop score, about young people grappling with AIDS, drugs, gentrification, love and death. It became a cultural sensation, attracting hordes of kids who probably never would have bothered with Broadway but for this show, which touched them deeply. Jonathan Larson, who wrote it and died on the eve of its first preview, brought Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q,” “The Book of Mormon”), Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”) and Pasek and Paul into the theater. Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he saw “Rent” more than 30 times.
After “Rent” came a slew of productions that have become household titles — “Chicago,” “The Lion King,” “The Producers,” “Mamma Mia!” “Hairspray,” “Wicked,” “Jersey Boys.”
“The Producers” played a key role in the financial boom. Rocco Landesman, its lead producer, was annoyed that scalpers were making huge profits from his show. His top ticket was $100, but resellers were getting $1,000 on the street. So he created premium pricing, putting his best seats at $480 a pop. The press screamed price gouging. Rival producers couldn’t believe the arrogance. But as long as Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane were in the show, people paid the $480. Soon premium pricing became standard.
“We let Rocco take the hit, and then we all quietly followed suit,” one producer says.
Many Broadway producers think they need just one thing: a star. Nicole Kidman made “The Blue Room” a sensation in 1999. Julia Roberts sold out an indifferent production of “Three Days of Rain” in 2006. Denzel Washington won a Tony Award, and sold out the Cort, in “Fences” in 2010. Producers shopping around a play these days say the first thing a theatre owner asks is “Who’s in it?”
No name, no theatre.
Broadway has become a lucrative place for movie stars, who, unless they’re in a comic book franchise, aren’t getting the salaries from Hollywood they once did. When Kidman opened in “The Blue Room,” she reportedly took a low weekly salary (around $2,000) in exchange for more than 15% of the profits. And her commitment was for just a three-month run. That formula — low weekly salary, nice chunk of profits, limited run — fattened the bank accounts of Kevin Spacey (“The Iceman Cometh”), Judi Dench (“Amy’s View”) and Bill Nighy (“The Vertical Hour”).
But as premium prices came into play, name actors demanded higher weekly salaries and a share of the box office gross. Today a star in a play is guaranteed around $40,000 plus at least 5% of the weekly gross. That can add up to a paycheck of $100,000 or more a week — not bad when you multiply that by a 12- to 16-week run.
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