Broadway bounces back with ‘best week since the before times’

Broadway now enters a period of greater challenge: January and February have historically been weak months for the industry. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK – Broadway, still struggling to rebound from the lengthy pandemic shutdown, is starting 2023 with a sign of hope. Last week was, by far, the best for the industry since the arrival of the coronavirus.

The 33 shows running grossed US$51.9 million (S$69.6 million), which is the most since the final week of 2019. And The Lion King, which in the autumn celebrated its 25th anniversary on Broadway, notched a remarkable milestone. It grossed US$4.3 million, the most taken in by a show in a single week on Broadway.

The impressive numbers – 21 shows grossed more than US$1 million last week – come with caveats.

Both Christmas and New Year fell on Sundays, concentrating holiday travellers into a single week. Twenty shows added extra performances for the holiday week, giving nine instead of the usual eight. And ticket prices were high – the average Broadway seat went for US$166, up from US$128 just four weeks earlier.

But the strong week sent a signal that under the right circumstances, Broadway can deliver.

During the holiday week – the week that ended Jan 1 – the 22 musicals and 11 plays running were, on average, 92 per cent full. Overall attendance was 312,878, which is not a record – it was the 27th best attended week in history, according to the Broadway League – but is good – by comparison, attendance over Thanksgiving week was 259,298.

The two final weeks of 2022 saw combined grosses of US$86.7 million, which is up 115 per cent over 2021, but down 12 per cent compared with those key holiday weeks in 2019.

“What you see is that we’re continuing to build and maintain our audience,” said Ms Charlotte St Martin, president of the Broadway League, a trade association representing producers and theatre owners. “We’re not back to where we were, but we’re doing very well at a time of uncertainty.”

According to the group, last week was the third-highest grossing in history. The highest was the week ending Dec 30, 2018, when grosses were US$57.8 million and attendance was 378,910; the second highest was the week ending Dec 29, 2019, when grosses were US$55.8 million and attendance was 350,714.

The Lion King, with a nine-performance week, toppled the previous record for the top-grossing week by a single show, which had been held by Hamilton, which grossed US$4 million for eight performances during the week that ended Dec 30, 2018. The figures are not adjusted for inflation.

The holidays are traditionally strong for Broadway, but in 2021, the final weeks of the year were a bloodbath because the Omicron variant of the coronavirus led to cancellations of multiple shows.

Now, despite the “tripledemic” of circulating respiratory illnesses, Broadway has largely figured out how to keep going. During the last three weeks, 12 scheduled performances were cancelled, compared with 221 cancellations during the final three weeks of 2021.

Throughout the industry, shows were trumpeting breaking records last week.

Chicago had the highest-grossing week in its 26-year history, as well as its highest single-performance gross.

The once-struggling Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, which revived its fortunes after the shutdown by consolidating from two parts into one, was already the highest-grossing play in Broadway history and last week set a record – nearly US$2.7 million – for weekly gross by a play.

And a starry revival of The Piano Lesson became the highest-grossing play by August Wilson – the much-celebrated and oft-performed bard of 20th-century African American life – in Broadway history.

Several shows set house records at the theatres where they are being performed, including the revival of Funny Girl, which had been floundering financially until its producers brought in Glee (2009 to 2015) actress Lea Michele.

Also setting records were shows such as Beetlejuice, which closes on Sunday after a bumpy ride; Six, the pop-concert-style reconsideration of the wives of Henry VIII; & Juliet, a new musical imagining an alternative history for William Shakespeare’s famously star-crossed lover; and MJ, the Michael Jackson biomusical.

“We had our best week since the before times,” said Ms Victoria Bailey, executive director of the Theatre Development Fund, a non-profit organisation that runs the TKTS discount ticket booths, who said her staff is noticing increasing geographic diversity among ticket buyers.

Broadway now enters a period of greater challenge: January and February have historically been weak months for the industry. There are 12 shows scheduled to close in January, which is at the high end of the normal range for the month’s closings.

But there are a raft of openings planned in March and April – it looks like the overall number of new shows this season will be within the typical range – and Ms St Martin said she is feeling good about the industry’s trajectory.

“I am overwhelmingly optimistic about the spring,” she added. NYTIMES

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