Winter on Broadway: The Times So Dark & Dreary

Closing NoticeJanuary is typically a bleak month for Broadway. Every year, the winter months prompt the curtain to fall on the final performance of many shows. It’s just the cruel truth of the Great White Way. As audience members, we can look at a certain show and, if there is any artistic merit, we scratch our heads and ask, “Why?” Believe me when I say that any theatre producer worth his (or her) salt does the same thing. They crunch the data and look at shows that have recouped and/or have had long runs and they try to come up with the magic formula that will make their production the next Wicked or Phantom of the Opera.

My colleague and Editor in Chief of OnStage, Chris Peterson, published a blog post regarding the recent shuttering of shows and those that have posted closing notices, specifically Side Show and The Last Ship. He is of the opinion that dramatic musicals in the 21st century, by and large, are destined for failure because people don’t want to shell out the high price for the ticket. On the surface, I can see how he could come to this conclusion. It would appear that musical comedies and epic musicals fare better than their dramatic counterparts but his post got me to thinking about the many other factors that are involved in the closure of a Broadway show.

Without doubt, I am a fan of the original musical. Likewise, I prefer the darker, more dramatic shows to the lighter fare. However, it is getting harder and harder for audience members to take a leap of faith and trust a show written by unknowns about a story that is unfamiliar to them. More and more, Broadway is offering up musical adaptations of well-known films or jukebox musicals. According to the Broadway League’s report of the Demographics of the Broadway Audience in 2013-2014, 80% of the admissions into Broadway theatres were tourists, 21% of them being international. If a tourist is going to purchase a ticket, it is likely going to be for a show that is familiar to them in some way. With a commodity like a well-known film or popular musician’s canon, there is some familiarity, even if the audience member happens to speak a foreign language.

An additional factor to examine is the demographic of the typical audience. In that same study, it was revealed that 68% of Broadway audiences are female and that the average age of the Broadway theatergoer is 44. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the average audience age has remained in the early to mid-forties. Now there is always an exception to the rule but let’s look at shows that have garnered critical or commercial success in the past decade. The Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal, a rock musical about mental illness, is far from a comedy. Despite the dark subject matter, the show ran for 733 performances. Perhaps it was because the central character was a middle-aged woman suffering from bipolar disorder. Likewise, the three act drama August: Osage County, which ran 648 performances, is a play that explores many dark topics: alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, incest, marital discord and pedophilia. Clocking in with a running time of three and a half hours, this Pulitzer Prize winner centered around one of the most monstrous matriarchs in contemporary drama and her three middle-aged daughters. These were two very successful, very dark shows that resonated with a principal demographic of the Broadway theatre.

To say that a Broadway production, comedy or tragedy, will not succeed without a celebrity is a little shortsighted. Yes, a celebrity from film or television can pique a person’s interest in a show but it isn’t a guaranteed ticket sale. Look at the musical comedy Honeymoon in Vegas which is based on the 1992 film. Despite having well-known B-list celebrity Tony Danza in a starring role and Tony Award winning composer Jason Robert Brown to its credit, the show has been gasping for air to get to opening night. With a capacity hovering at 75-80% and only 36% of the potential grosses being pulled in during its preview run, it is sure to have investors nervous. Conversely, Spring Awakening, a decidedly dark musical, won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2007, ran 859 performances and starred Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, Jr. who were, at the time, virtual unknowns.

When we see closing notices we should also consider elements that are beyond a producer’s control. January is a rough month for New York City. In December 2013, Manhattan Hotel Occupancy was at 90% and plummeted to 77% in January 2014. This is a pretty good barometer of when those 80% tourist theatergoers are in the City to see a show. Even domestic theatergoers feel that post holiday pinch, not to mention Mother Nature’s impact on travel plans. Furthermore, current events could have an unpredictable impact on a show’s success. When hot topics like gun control or racism are constantly in the headlines, shows like Assassins or The Scottsboro Boys do not provide the escapism that an audience member may be craving.

Theatre, despite all of its magic and majesty, is still a business. When a show doesn’t play to capacity, money is being lost. Whatever the reason, be it the economy or the production itself, a show that is losing half a million dollars a week is not going to last long. There will continue to be the warhorses and the surprising juggernauts that come along and fill the pockets of very happy producers but those productions account for a small fraction of all of the shows on Broadway. Instead of mourning the loss of a favorite show (and believe me, I’ve seen favorite shows prematurely close), I prefer to see the glass as half full and look forward to all of the new shows that are waiting in the wings to become the next Wicked.