The Business of Broadway: Four 2014 Productions That Need to Turn Business Around

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There are eight shows currently on Broadway that have played over 1000 performances, with the all-time champion, The Phantom of the Opera, beginning its run all the way back to 1988. In the twenty-six years since there have been well over a hundred shows that have come and gone from the Great White Way, some with great success and others… well, not so much. For every massive success like Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King there are a dozen Moose Murders or The Performers.

Every year produces some winners and losers on Broadway, and 2014 will be no exception. Of the numerous shows that have begun previews in 2014, a number of them have been successful right out of the gate. In fact, three of them have enjoyed sold-out runs in their first weeks of previews: Aladdin, A Raisin in the Sun, and Cabaret. Of course, all three come with significant draws — Aladdin is an adaptation of a beloved Disney movie, A Raisin in the Sun stars Hollywood star Denzel Washington, and Cabaret stars Alan Cumming as the Emcee (who won a Tony in 1998 for the same role) and Michelle Williams. On top of that, both A Raisin in the Sun and Cabaret have limited runs, which usually creates demand. Other new shows that have done very well in their first weeks of previews include If/Then (starring Broadway favorite Idina Menzel), the latest revival of Les Misérables, and Of Mice & Men (which stars James Franco and Chris O’Dowd in a limited engagement).

For the producers of those shows, the fact that most of the tickets have been selling is good news. However, just because a show sells tickets doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay in business. Productions desperately need to sell the tickets with the biggest price tags at their full face values in order to make the most money, but as any Broadway regular can tell you there are many ways to score discounted tickets — including from TKTS, which sells day-of tickets for performances of 20-50% off the face value. Few of the above shows have been selling tickets at TKTS because they don’t have empty seats that need filling.

Though we’re only three months into 2014, there are at least four productions that already might be on shaky ground based on their early performances or projections of their performance. While there is still some time for these shows to turn their fortunes around before they could be forced to close, so far there is more bad news than good news for these shows.

[All box office information comes from The Broadway League]

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY
First Preview: January 17
Opened: February 20
Top Ticket Price: $223
Average Paid Admission: $65.42
Average Capacity: 78.02%
Production Costs: $8 million (Source)
Diagnosis: Kelli O’Hara is a proven Broadway star, so her participation lends credibility to this musical adaptation of the best-selling 1992 novel about a housewife’s affair with a photographer. The cast also includes Steven Pasquale (TV’s Rescue Me), and it is directed by Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony for directing the 2008 hit revival of South Pacific (which also starred O’Hara). Though the novel might seem like an odd fit for a Broadway musical, with tens of millions of copies sold worldwide it obviously has a huge built-in audience.

Prognosis: Despite good reviews from nearly every outlet, the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre will likely have a vacancy soon. The average paid admission has risen since opening in late February, but with the exception of the first week of previews The Bridges of Madison County has made less than 47% of its potential gross every week with discounts of up to 50% at the TKTS booths. It’s likely that the production will try to tough it out until the Tony nominations are announced on April 29, but without a major turnaround in business it could very likely be gone by May.

ROCKY
First Preview: February 13 (delayed from original date, February 11)
Opened: March 13
Top Ticket Price: $248
 Average Paid Admission: $76.04
Average Weekly Capacity: 80.61%
Production Costs: $16.4 million (Source)
Diagnosis: Though it was a big success in its trial run in Germany, Rocky was always going to be a tough sell on Broadway. While the beloved 1976 classic Sylvester Stallone movie that it is based on is equally about a love story as much as it is about boxing, Rocky is generally viewed as a men’s movie. Considering that Broadway audiences are heavily skewed female (68% of attendees in 2012-2013 were female) and that recent sports-themed Broadway plays have failed (including Magic/Bird and this season’s Bronx Bombers), relying on male sports fans to drive Rocky‘s business is a losing game plan. It’s no surprise that promotional materials have heavily used the tagline “Love Wins” to highlight the musical’s love story. Despite that, the mildly positive reviews have mostly handed the heaviest praise to the climatic boxing scenes in the last fifteen minutes of the musical.

Prognosis: As the numbers reveal, few people have been paying full price for tickets to Rocky. Almost daily tickets to the musical have been sold at rates up to 50% off at the TKTS booths, not a good sign for a musical with such a hefty price tag. Still, there is some good news. Rocky received a sizeable boost in business the week after it opened, with the average paid admission jumping nearly $20 per ticket sold. One advantage Rocky has is that those sitting in the most expensive seats are moved at the end of the musical to bleachers on stage to watch the boxing match, meaning that the musical has an exciting gimmick that people might be willing to pay extra for. In fact, the week ending March 23 was the first week the musical grossed over $650,000 – and it was just $121 short of grossing $800,000. Rocky will need that momentum to grow going forward if it hopes to stick around. However, if you’re interested in seeing Rocky you might want to do so sooner rather than later just in case.

MOTHERS AND SONS
First Preview: February 23
 Opened: March 24
Top Ticket Price: $225
Average Paid Admission: $52.11
 Average Capacity: 71.73%
Production Costs: N/A
Diagnosis: Mothers and Sons is the twentieth play by Terrence McNally to be produced on Broadway in an astounding fifty-year career. Anything with his name on it naturally piques the interest of theatergoers. The cast includes Broadway veterans Tyne Daly, Frederick Weller, and Bobby Steggert, which adds to the draw for that crowd.

Prognosis: While that very low average paid admission for Mothers and Sons might be a D.O.A. sign for a musical, a play with a small price tag that doesn’t boast any pricey TV or movie stars can potentially stay afloat. Since it is already set to close on June 8, there’s no reason to expect that Mothers and Sons would close early unless that business cannot be maintained. In an effort to spread word of mouth, the production offered $30 tickets for patrons under thirty for the March 14 performance. Of course, discounted tickets have regularly also been offered at TKTS. It’s one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situations: Mothers and Sons is probably not pulling in huge numbers because it doesn’t have a TV/movie “star” in the cast, but it would have to sell a lot more tickets to justify such a star’s salary. Regardless, the very positive opening night reviews will likely help, so don’t count this one out just yet.

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY
First Preview: March 11
Opening: April 10
Top Ticket Price: $252
Average Paid Admission: $73.45
Average Capacity: 92.3%
Production Costs: $14 million (Source)
Diagnosis: Though Bullets Over Broadway features popular TV star Zach Braff and is directed by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, it’s no surprise that producers are reportedly concerned about the biggest name on the marquee: Woody Allen, who wrote the book for this musical adaptation of his 1994 film. Allen’s name has been in the news lately regarding two-decade old allegations of child molestation and naturally producers had concerns about the effect these renewed allegations would have on ticket sales.

Prognosis: While Bullets Over Broadway hasn’t opened yet and the theaters were over 90% full for its first two weeks of previews, deeply discounted tickets have been offered on most days at TKTS for as much as 50% off. That helps account for the somewhat low average paid admission, and so far the musical has made less than 60% of its potential gross in each of its first two weeks of previews. Though Braff isn’t a huge star, he is a significant draw for the show and obviously will not be with the musical long-term — he could even exit as early as July in order to promote his next film, Wish I Was Here. Still, strong reviews after the opening and positive buzz could go a long way to boosting business even after Braff eventually leaves. There’s still time, but the early warning signs are there.

With several other productions — Act One, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Violet, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Casa Valentina,  The Velocity of Autumn, and The Cripple of Inishmaan — all opening in April, competition will be getting even tougher. But just like these four, there will be winners and losers among the new crop.

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