Theatre yesterday and today



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Broadway grossed nearly $1.4 billion dollars last season, the third year in a row that exhibited an upward trend in audience growth. So it would appear that the theatre is stronger, healthier and more widely popular than ever, right? Aided by a once-in-a-generation juggernaut like Hamilton, with tickets going at scalper prices once reserved for the Super Bowl, seeing a Broadway show is just about the hippest thing out there, especially with Jay Z and Beyoncé and Barak and Michelle Obama among a show like Hamilton's biggest supporters.

A comparison with the Super Bowl is apt. I was surprised to read in the year end report provided by the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway theatre industry, the 2015–2016 season "topped those of the ten professional New York and New Jersey sports teams combined... with over 2.7 million attendances."

You would think these statistics would be cause for dancing in the streets, choreographed by Andrew Blankenbuehler, the person given the plum assignment of re-staging Cats when it returns to Broadway later this month. Cats ran eighteen years its first time around. Now The Lion King, still going strong eighteen years since its opening night, remains Broadway's highest-grosser. This has a lot to do with its being in one of the district's largest theatres, but mainly is due to its world famous title and familiar, easy-to-follow story that pretty much makes any knowledge of English unnecessary. That's a powerful selling tool. Keep in mind that this leaves producers who are celebrating these stats, encouraging as they may be, beholden now more than ever to the business of foreign-born tourists.

Which brings me to the point of this column: according to the League, the success of last season was based on tourist's dollars. A whopping 67% of the total box office came from beyond New York City and its suburbs. You don't have to be a genius to figure out that if the average cost of bringing in a musical finds producers at risk for anywhere from $8-12 million dollars (and potentially much more), you had better be damn sure you're going to have access to a large slice of the pie when it comes to building an audience. Your show must appeal to the tourist trade (mostly foreign) if you want any hope of getting a fair return on your investment. No wonder then that failures of recent musical versions of known film titles like American Psycho and Doctor Zhivago have done nothing to discourage productions for upcoming Broadway musicals next season of such recognizable fare as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Amelie and Anastasia.

So whose Broadway is it anyway? When it's a successful season and the shows are popular, it's the audience's Broadway, that's whose it is. But like anything else in this world, there's a price to pay for success. In this case the price is finding the place for the little guy.

The subject of tomorrow's column.

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