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Inside Broadway’s Bifurcated Comeback

Variety logo Variety 1/27/2023 Gordon Cox
© Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

The Broadway musical “Beetlejuice” simply refused to die. After a 2019 eviction notice from its original theater and an unceremonious 2020 shuttering by the COVID-19 lockdown, the production reopened in April 2022 to a young, eager fanbase. Over the past nine months, “Beetlejuice” regularly grossed more than $1 million per week. In the window between Christmas and New Year’s it broke the Marquis Theatre’s box office record with nearly $2.5 million across nine performances. It topped $2 million again the week after that.

But despite its otherworldly endurance, its producers just closed the show because they feared it wouldn’t weather the winter.

“We took dips earlier in the summer, more than we had expected,” said Mark Kaufman, the executive vice president of Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures. “That caused concern for the first quarter of 2023.”

In many ways “Beetlejuice,” which closed Jan. 8, encapsulates life on the bifurcated Broadway of 2023 — a place where the hits are still boffo but the misses tank quicker than ever, and even successes are complicated by fast-changing trends in post-lockdown economics.

Compared to last year, this winter has been smooth sailing. Learning from the disruptions of omicron, which forced the cancellation of more than 200 performances in late 2021 and early 2022, the theater industry seems to have gotten a handle on the staffing and preparations needed to minimize stoppages. In recent weeks only about a dozen performances went dark due to illness.

Along the way, the box office had its best week since 2019 with $51.9 million earned by 33 productions during the week ending Jan. 1, according to figures from the Broadway League. Underscoring the fact that audiences have returned in droves to many of Broadway’s biggest titles, “The Lion King” broke the Broadway record for the highest gross recorded by one show in a single week, ringing up a massive $4.3 million from nine performances. More broadly comparing this season with the holiday weeks of 2019, the overall numbers aren’t record breakers but they do point to an industry in recovery.

Yet the disappointment have been fast and high-profile. Two shows, “KPOP” and “Ain’t No Mo’,” posted closing notices just days after opening. The musical adaptation of “Almost Famous” threw in the towel after a few months. A play starring Broadway favorite Audra McDonald, “Ohio State Murders,” announced it would shutter early. The proportion of shows that deliver at the box office may still be about the same as it’s always been — around one in five — but getting there feels more turbulent and unpredictable than ever.

“Broadway is coming back, but there are new paradigms,” said Christine Schwarzman of No Guarantees, the production company that is lead producing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s upcoming “Bad Cinderella” and is also on the teams of “Fat Ham,” “Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool” and “Leopoldstadt.” “We’re still figuring out what those new paradigms are.”

One shift requiring major adjustments: More theatergoers are waiting to buy until the very last minute.

For years the best indicator of a show’s health has been its advance sales, with productions in the past racking up massive advances for upcoming performances across several months. Now the average timeline, which had already begun to contract when COVID hit, has dwindled even further. The most popular shows still have sturdy advances, but for many titles, the average window of advance sales is down to four to six weeks — and for others, it’s narrowed to just seven to ten days.

“It’s a lot less than what we’re used to, which is scary,” said Rashad V. Chambers, the lead producer of “Fat Ham” who is also involved in “Topdog/Underdog” and “The Music Man.” “We know that people are coming, but now you don’t have the luxury of resting on your laurels with, ‘Oh, I’ve got a million-dollar advance in the bank.’”

Navigating that shift is currently one of Broadway’s biggest challenges. “We function now more like a night-out event than a concert or a sports game, and there are plenty of industries where that is their buying cycle,” said Hunter Arnold, the lead producer of “A Christmas Carol” who is also on the teams of “Into the Woods,” “Leopoldstadt,” “KPOP” and “Ohio State Murders,” among others. “Broadway just needs to catch up with the learnings from those industries.”

Meanwhile, the return of tourism has been a bright spot for the industry, with better-than-expected turnout from domestic tourists and international visitors tripling compared to 2021. According to NYC & Company, that upward swing is projected to continue in 2023 — but over the last year, Broadway has hit a roadblock in luring back surburbanites.

“Getting the suburbs back is one of the biggest things we still have to do,” said John Johnson, lead producer of “Old Man and the Pool” and a producer on “Ain’t No Mo’,” “Almost Famous” and “Bad Cinderella.” “The people coming in six times a year are now coming in twice.”

Those in the industry attribute the change to everything from pandemic-induced shifts in lifestyle to the perception that rising crime has made New York unsafe. It’s an important problem to solve for the many shows for which tri-state area theatergoers are a vital step in their growth, as awareness of a new title expands from in-the-know city residents to theatergoers from nearby areas, before going on to gain a national and then international profile.

Confronted by such challenges, producers are pivoting. Many are spending more marketing and advertising dollars on social media, which has proven among the most successful routes to reaching buyers for shows including “Beetlejuice” and “Bad Cinderella.” “Beetlejuice” producers also ramped up their fan engagement, providing them with special content that spurred waves of fan art and animatics.

A recently instituted state tax credit, akin to those for film production and currently extended through June, can also now play a part in a show’s financial planning, even if it remains to be seen if the program is as generous as hoped.

Johnson expects to see more producers get quicker on their feet, thinking outside the box with shorter Broadway runs that can fill a hole in a theater’s booking schedule — and that are planned as just single stops on a production’s road to profit, rather than banking on a Broadway recoupment.

That was the case for “Old Man and the Pool,” which hit Broadway just four months after its producers decided to pick it up following a successful run in L.A. Due to a variety of factors including an incoming production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the show’s the New York engagement was limited to 12 weeks. “When we’re building these kinds of models to recoupment, it can’t just be based off Broadway box office,” Johnson said. “It has to include potential capture, licensing, subsequent companies, a London tour.”

Brian Moreland, lead producer of one of the fall’s play successes, “The Piano Lesson,” has also made adjustments based on what he’s seen connecting with audiences since Broadway reopened. “I definitely pivoted,” he said.

His next show, a new revival of “The Wiz,” will premiere in Baltimore and then, in an unusual move, hit the road for 20 weeks before arriving on Broadway in spring 2024. “Given what’s been happening on Broadway lately, there was a lot of concern about large-budget musicals, and going on the road really mitigates the financial risk of the production,” he said. “That’s not a strategy I would have necessarily thought about before.”

Moreland is one of several producers trying to cultivate more diverse audiences. For “The Piano Lesson,” he credits co-producer Kandi Burruss, the singer and Real Housewife of Atlanta, with doing all she can to promote the play during her own radio interviews and appearances on “Watch What Happens Live” and “Sherri.” Chambers, meanwhile, is working to drum up support for “Fat Ham” from younger ticketbuyers and the Black and queer communities, trying out special promotional strategies including engagement events for HBCUs and the Divine 9 Black sororities.

For an industry still endeavoring to expand its inclusivity onstage, backstage and in the auditorium, winning over new audiences remains a work in progress. “If we mean it when we say that we want Broadway to change, then we have to be okay if we don’t hit a home run,” said Arnold (of “KPOP,” “Chicken & Biscuits,” “Thoughts of a Colored Man” and others). “We need to accept we’re going to take a bath on that one and then step up and do another one, until it works.”

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