Last week, the question was: Is Broadway booming or struggling? This week, it’s: How tough will the struggle get?
Trade organization the Broadway League released the latest grosses for the $15 billion industry. As before, they lack a show-by-show breakdown, which limits their value in gauging the recovery. But the broad strokes reveal an industry in an impossible position, one that opened too fast and too wide even after waiting 18 months to do so.
Big picture: the 27 shows currently running grossed $19.66 million together last week, with 168,169 butts in seats. That’s a 11% box office drop from the week before, and a 5% drop in overall attendance. The caveats? Halloween is always tough. The same week in 2019 had functionally the same percentage of seats filled.
But percentages aren’t real numbers. As I broke down last week, there are two ways to slice the data, one Nice and one Rough – and Rough is real. We can extrapolate all we want, but the fact remains that even with seven fewer shows than in 2019, Broadway is only 77% full. That’s scary for any new property opening this winter, unless they’ve got a massive star attached or built-in fanbase that has no interest in seeing any other show.
Some are managing well. Hadestown, Hamilton, and Six are all selling healthily, though not quite at pre-pandemic levels, according to sources with access to their sales numbers. That tracks with deep (if unscientific) dives of ticketing platforms, where those musicals appear most in-demand for the coming Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Others in decent standing include American Utopia, Company, Freestyle Love Supreme, and The Lion King.
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But not all shows are the same, and that’s where the League data falls short. Even pre-pandemic, plays were tougher sells than musicals; four out of the five Best Play nominees for the recent Tony Awards failed to recoup their capitalization, including winner The Inheritance and buzzy Slave Play, which is returning to Broadway this month. Trying to sell eight new ones opposite each other this autumn? Impossible. And we’re already seeing the fallout, as multiple plays announce months-early closures.
But the credo “not all shows are the same” could cut multiple ways. A silver lining: this particular slate of shows may not be selling out, but that doesn’t mean others would meet the same fate. If you had eight new plays, each starring a Jennifer Lawrence or a Samuel L. Jackson, you might see different results.
My bet is you’d still have some underperformers, though. We are still – still – in the middle of a pandemic. A loosening of international travel restrictions next week should give some shows a boost, but there’s no accounting for personal comfort. It doesn’t matter that Broadway houses are among the safest spaces to convene large groups of people, given their upgraded ventilation systems, stringent testing regimens for employees, and vaccine/mask requirements for audiences. In many ways, there never has been a better time to see a show.
But that’s not what the box office is saying. It’s telling us that not enough people feel safe, or excited, or welcome enough to fill out even a diminished slate of theaters. And that’s truly scary.