Wednesday, December 25, 2013

10 Things Broadway Won’t Tell You


(By Quentin Fottrell, Wall Street Journal, 24 December 2013)

1. “Our rave reviews deserve a Tony.”

As any New Yorker can attest, when the holidays arrive, so do the crowds. And the theater district in particular can start to look like a sea of people. “This is the time of year when tourists come to New York City and locals want do something special with their families,” New York-based arts consultant Howard Sherman says.  Whether those tourists will actually buy full-priced theater tickets is an open question these days. Broadway grosses remained flat at $1.14 billion in the June 2012 to June 2013 season versus the prior season, despite the fact that there were 46 new productions, up from 41 new productions in the prior season, according to The Broadway League — the trade association of theater owners and producers — attendance was slightly down at 11.6 million versus 12.3 million in the previous season.
Rising ticket prices may be hurting attendance. The average paid admission has also risen to $98 for the 2012 to 2013 season, from an inflation-adjusted $84 in the 2008 to 2009 season, according to The Broadway League, a 16% increase. And $200-plus premium seats, unheard of 20 years ago, are now the norm with any show that’s even modestly successful.   As most shows cost millions of dollars to produce, the stakes have never been higher. So even when a show gets scathing reviews from the critics, Broadway marketers nimbly pluck out the one or two positive adjectives and plaster them in giant letters under the marquee or on the show’s website, says theater producer Elizabeth McCann: “From time immemorial, people have taken a positive quote from a bad review.” Or, promoters find the rare positive review from an obscure magazine or radio broadcast and quote, loudly, from that, she says.

Case in point: The official website for the $75 million musical “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” — which is due to close in January after its official opening in June 2011— quotes Terry Teachout’s review in The Wall Street Journal thus: “The show’s sheer visual dynamism is staggering.” Here’s the rest of that sentence: “—but except for one great performance, it has little else to offer. It’s the best-looking mediocre musical ever to open on Broadway.” (Spider-Man also had 182 preview performances before its official opening night in June 2011, the longest preview period in Broadway history.)
McCann, a Tony Award-winning producer of such shows as “Equus,” “The Elephant Man” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” says one word often appears on the under-sling of a theater’s marquis: “Entertaining.” (Exclamation mark included, of course.) Good or bad, McCann says such sound bites do little to give theatergoers in Times Square real insight into the show. Consider these, for example: “Gorgeously entertaining” (“Big Fish: The Musical”), “Hugely entertaining” (“The Book of Mormon”), “Most Entertaining Nuns, Bar None!” ( “Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy”). They may well be entertaining, McCann says, but “there’s almost an identical quote in theater after theater,” she says. “I could make a living buying them all up and selling them to different shows for the next season.”  Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, declined to comment on the marketing of Broadway shows by individual productions.

2. “Previews are not necessarily cheaper.”
Previews — shows open to full audiences before opening night — used to be the best deal on Broadway. Tickets were sold at a significantly reduced price because directors, producers and the rest of the creative team were still tweaking the show. These days, patrons are unlikely to pay any less for previews than they would after opening night, says Dan Geisler, co-founder of discount ticket site BroadwayBox.com.  Tickets for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” — currently in previews — go from $75 including fees to $227 for premium seats — broadly in-line with regular prices. (A spokeswoman for the show did not respond to requests for comment.)  Broadway is especially busy during the holidays in New York, with shows now making almost 60% more than they did a decade ago.  Broadway producers can adjust prices, depending on the time of year, the audience numbers, critical reception and who’s starring in the show, experts say. Geisler says producers prefer to manage the availability of discount codes than change the list price of shows and, in some cases, patrons may have better luck finding discounts during previews — since reviews don’t come out until after previews are over. But he says that can cut both ways: if the show gets rave reviews and it’s a hit like “The Book of Mormon” there may be no discounts, but if it gets a lukewarm reception, discounts could be even steeper than those offered in the previews.

Still, for a successful show, previews might offer your only opportunity to get a discount, experts say. “Move quickly and don’t wait to be told that a show is great,” Sherman says. And do a basic Internet search to see if a show has done well in other markets. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” a musical comedy starring Tony-winner Jefferson Mays, for instance, received glowing reviews from New York-based critics when it played in Connecticut and San Diego. Before the equally glowing Broadway reviews came out for the New York performance, Sherman says, there would have been more discount tickets available in preview. Its post-preview performances have had houses filled to 82% capacity, according to The Broadway League.
When deciding whether the price of a show is worth it, consider too that catching the preview may be your only chance to see a show that could someday be famous for being a turkey. Some bombs are now part of Broadway legend; others may be destined for infamy. The musical version of “Carrie,” Brian DePalma’s cult horror movie about a girl with telekinetic powers, ran from May 5 to 12, 1988, and had such a bad reputation that it featured on the cover and in the title of Ken Mandelbaum’s book, “Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.” (It was revived off-Broadway in 2012.) Given its source material, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” starring Emilia Clark from “Game of Thrones” and George Wendt from “Cheers,” which closed earlier this year after 17 previews and just 38 regular performances, could join them in the ranks of famous flops.  There can be other problems with previews besides price. Sometimes the show the preview audience sees is altogether different from the finished product: “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” which had a record 183 preview performances due to creative and safety issues with the production, was changed significantly post-previews.

3. “You’re paying for the restoration of our theaters.”
There is a good reason to schlep to the box office in person. Fees for Broadway tickets sold online or over the phone can add as much as 12% to the price of the ticket. Some of these extra charges are called facility or building fees, money that is charged by the venue for the upkeep and restoration of the theater. They vary from theater to theater, but these fees have been steadily rising in recent years and now hover at between $2 and $3.50 per ticket or per order. (There are also “convenience” charges from TicketMaster and other ticket services for handling and processing. These are often as much as $7.50 a ticket.)

Supporters of the fees point out that many theaters, on Broadway and elsewhere around the country, are old and cavernous establishments that desperately need the extra income to pay for repairs. That’s why the fees are often charged at theatres that have been declared historical monuments, St. Martin says. “While they are splendid and beautiful, they are extremely expensive to maintain and we’re sure these nominal fees don’t come close to maintaining the buildings.” But it’s not just old theaters that charge the fee: The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts charges a facility fee of up to $3.50 per ticket, which it says helps to maintain, preserve and upgrade the facilities.  Some theatergoers say the aging buildings can’t be fixed soon enough. Renee Young, a New York publicist, took her two daughters to see a musical when half-way through the performance two large rats ran through the audience. “My daughter screamed and jumped into the lap of a strange man sitting next to her,” she says. “Not only was there no refund, but an usher came by to see what was going on and starting shushing us.”
4. “The shows with the worst reviews last the longest.”

Broadway is littered with critically acclaimed shows that close after a short period and family-friendly hits that go on and on, despite being torn apart by the critics. “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” has been derided since it opened, but it’s only now closing, over three years later, after showing enduring popularity with a constant stream of tourists and families; the original version, shown in previews, was far darker than the version currently on Broadway. “The Addams Family,” a family-friendly show that starred Nathan Lane as patriarch Gomez Addams, opened on Broadway in April 2010 and finished its run at the end of 2011, a lengthy run for such a poorly-received Broadway show. (Granted, the length of a Broadway run isn’t the only measure of success.) “Lucky Guy” — written by Nora Ephron and starring Tom Hanks — recouped its Broadway investment of $3.6 million with a total gross of $23 million, helped by a healthy supply of premium ticket prices and the star power of its leading man, yet only had 33 previews and 104 regular performances.)
Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart sat with the WSJ's Barbara Chai to discuss performing "Waiting for Godot" and "No Man's Land" on Broadway, Samuel Beckett's humor, and how each actor feeds off the other.  At the other end of the spectrum, the musical “Caroline, or Change” closed on Aug. 29, 2004 after 136 performances and 22 previews — a relatively short run given the high praise it received in the New York press. It was nominated for 11 Tony awards and won six.  Family-friendly shows that are part of movie franchises generally do well with tourists, but McCann has another theory why some shows defy the critics: There’s a herd mentality among theatergoers and it proves the power of word-of-mouth. “If something is commercially successful, the pack follows the pack,” she says, “and many people would rather listen to their Aunty Mabel than to [New York Times theater critic] Ben Brantley.”

5. “Good luck trying to invest in a Broadway show.”
Broadway is a one-way street for ordinary people: They pay for tickets but, experts say, it’s much harder to get in on the real action. A hit can earn an investor millions of dollars, but it can take years and not a small amount of luck for a show to turn a profit, and often not until the show has a second life in a touring production. A stake in a Broadway musical is something that is usually only available to a select group of people at very high investment thresholds, says Ken Davenport, who has produced shows including “Kinky Boots,” which won the 2013 Tony award for best musical, “Macbeth” with Alan Cumming, and “Godspell.”  One investing “unit” in a Broadway show can cost $10,000, $25,000 or even as much as $100,000. On top of that, Broadway productions are particularly risky endeavors. The total cost of mounting a Broadway show can run from $2.5 million to $75 million, and only around 25% of Broadway shows actually turn a profit, according to Davenport, although that rises to 75% of shows that have won a Tony for Best Musical or Best Play.

Nonetheless, Davenport is trying to make Broadway investing more accessible. For his 2011 revival of “Godspell,” Davenport announced what he calls, “the first crowd-funded Broadway musical.” Davenport charged only $100 per unit with a minimum of 10 units per investor. He didn’t hide the risks, either. “Investment in the Godspell LLC involves a high degree of risk, and investors should not purchase Units unless they can afford to lose their entire investment,” the “important disclaimer” on his blog stated. Others have yet to follow in his footsteps, he says.
6. “Our audience members are mostly rich white women.”

Most of the audience members of a Broadway show are wealthy, female and white, according to the most recent data from The Broadway League, the clearinghouse for show data. About 67% of Broadway audiences are women. What’s more, 78% of audiences are white and the average age of a Broadway audience member is 43.5 years old, considerably older than the 18-to-34 age bracket that mass media cater to.  The cast of “Matilda the Musical” has been preparing for a performance that will be watched by tens of millions: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. "Matilda" is one of four Broadway shows featured in this year's parade.
Broadway’s demographics have continued to skew stubbornly old in spite of kid-oriented hits like “The Lion King,” “Matilda” and “Annie.” One explanation for the theater’s older, less diverse audience, according to experts: Broadway shows are prohibitively expensive. And ticket prices are, if not out of reach, at least a major investment for many households. On one recent week, the average ticket price hovered at around $105 and ran as high as $477, for premium tickets for “The Book of Mormon.” Indeed, Broadway theatregoers are quite affluent compared to the general United States population, reporting an average annual household income of $193,800, according to The Broadway League. (To be fair, premium seats in the center orchestra were also introduced to help compete with the most aggressive players in the secondary market, who buy regular tickets in good seats and then re-sell them at sometimes vastly inflated prices.)

The Broadway League’s St. Martin doesn’t see the Broadway demographic changing anytime soon, despite the variety of shows: “It’s hard to move the needle a great deal.” To be fair, however, she says there are many limited runs that are making a great impact, taking creative chances and appealing to a diverse crowd on Broadway, “but they’re not playing 12 months a year in the biggest houses.”
7. “Our stars are long gone when we get to your town.”

When “Victor/Victoria” ran on Broadway, the title role was played by musical-theater legend Julie Andrews; when “The Producers” graced the Great White Way, it featured movie-star Matthew Broderick. But by the time the national tours of those shows got to Atlanta’s Fox Theater, they featured singer and ‘70s variety-show host Toni Tennille and Alan Ruck, who played second fiddle to Broderick in the 1986 movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and co-starred in the TV show “Spin City.” “From time to time, a show here will have some moderate star quality,” says Susan Hawkins, a copywriter in Atlanta who regularly attends performances at the Fox. “But more often we tend to get people like Toni Tennille.”
Once upon a time, top stars did tour with the shows, McCann says. But these days, lesser known actors are the rule. “The biggest stars now tend to come in plays which are limited runs that tend not to tour,” Sherman, the arts consultant, says. In other cases, he says, even if a star is what initially brings in the crowds, over time the show itself becomes the star. After 10 years of sold-out houses, for instance, “Wicked” doesn’t suffer from original star Kristin Chenoweth’s absence, either on Broadway or in traveling versions of the show, Sherman says. Audiences come for the production values — and the story: There have never been big stars in “The Lion King,” which is currently touring in Los Angeles and will tour in Honolulu, Seattle, Atlanta, Toronto, Washington, D.C., and Montreal next year. “Big names can help sell shows but they are not a necessity to a great show.”

On-the-road productions do have their plusses. It’s an easier way for many people to see shows like “Wicked” and “Mary Poppins,” with production values close to the original. And the price is often right: The average regional show costs up to 50% less than its New York equivalent, theater experts say. “I definitely do not miss the outrageous ticket prices I’m seeing for shows on Broadway these days,” Hawkins says. “My Thursday front-row seats average $50 to $65 per ticket.” Touring shows also contribute a cumulative $3.4 billion to the metropolitan areas that host the shows, according to The Broadway League, and grossed $877 million in the 2012 to 2013 season, up from $811 million for the previous season.
8. “The noisiest performers are sitting next to you.”

Ringing cell phones, crinkling candy wrappers, snoring, chatting and singing along have unfortunately become standard acts in today’s theatergoing experience. And that’s not even the worst of it: Last year, for instance, an audience member projectile-vomited over the balcony during the performance of “Grace,” starring Paul Rudd and Ed Asner, at the Cort Theater. (Theories on the cause of the person’s illness, from the theater spokesman and media reports, ranged from intoxication to food poisoning; the content of the play, which received fairly positive reviews, was not implicated.)
Eileen Z. Wolter, a blogger who worked in the entertainment business for 15 years and now describes herself as a “digital age mom,” has found herself sitting next to people snoring during Broadway plays. And Ann Mowrey, a public relations executive in Baltimore, Md., explains how she once complained to parents of children who were noisily opening bags of popcorn and snacks and eating them during one show. The child’s mother’s response: “The boy has to eat.” Mowrey says she appreciates that companies like Disney have helped to make Broadway more accessible to children, but says that comes at a price: “This is also why people treat theater a bit more like going to the movies.” To help make Broadway accessible and to give parents a chance to take their noisy kids to a play without upsetting other patrons, the Broadway League does offer an annual kids’ night when children ages 6 to 18 can see a participating Broadway show for free with an adult. (The next kids’ night program runs from Feb. 24 to March 2.)

9. “You can buck the premium-seat system...”
For those who don’t mind spontaneous purchases, there are ways to snag last-minute seats with unobstructed views below nose-bleed level. Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg, a Broadway producer who has worked with playwright Neil Simon for more than three decades and received a lifetime achievement Tony in 2012, says if a theater has only sold 30 of its 100 premium seats — usually located in the center near the stage — it will start unloading those tickets a couple of days before the show. Some of these seats are also held back, as “house seats,” for celebrities and friends of the show. “If VIPs don’t call back, their tickets are released back to the box office,” Azenberg says.

There are also ways to snag good seats at cheaper prices: The Theatre Development Fund, a non-profit organization that provides financial support to the arts, offers discounts for students, civil service employees, union members, members of the armed forces, the clergy and non-profits for a membership fee of $20 to $25 per year. (If you don’t qualify for a discount yourself, you can find a friend who does.) Some discount sites — like NYTix.com and TheaterMania.com — will give codes to use when you call the box office. (The box office attendant will say whether or not it’s a seat with a prime location or behind a pillar — but it’s still advisable to ask.) Discount websites like BroadwayBox.com have special last minute-offers to some shows, typically with savings of 20% to 50%. Keep in mind there are usually no refunds or exchanges. And, says Sherman, be aware that it’s more difficult to snag premium seats at popular shows like “Wicked” and “The Book of Mormon.”

10. “...and predict our last-minute sales.”
Timing is everything, onstage and off. Broadway shows are becoming better at managing their inventory carefully. But Geisler says Broadway shows also know when to raise prices for premium seats. “It definitely shows a trend where the growth of Broadway is a result of increasing prices and not increased attendance,” he says. But this works both ways. “Discounts on Broadway are based on the premise that when the theater doors close, all empty seats are worth zero.”

Demand for Broadway tickets slackens and deals suddenly become available right before Christmas, Jan. 15 through Presidents’ weekend, the July 4th weekend and the entire “back-to-school” month of September. During all of these times, shows get a little desperate to sell tickets because New Yorkers are busy or out of town and tourist traffic to the city drops off. For the best deals, go to the box office in person or call the theater directly, Azenberg says. And always check the weather. If it snows on the Wednesday or Saturday of a matinee, it’s worth heading to the box office for seats left empty by Broadway’s “snow birds,” says Azenberg.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on what shows are currently offering discounts as seen on the website and app of the Theater Development Fund’s TKTS discount ticket booths — although tickets must be purchased at the booths in Times Square or Brooklyn, Sherman says. Discounts are also announced through emails from sites like TheaterMania.com, which is currently offering 35% off “Machinal,” a revival of a 1928 play about an infamous murder trial. “Don’t be afraid to look off Broadway,” Sherman says. After all, he says, this is where Tony Award-winning shows like “Rent,” “Grey Gardens” and “Hair” all began.

1 comment:

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