The Playgoer: Plays on Broadway: How Are They Really Doing?

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Plays on Broadway: How Are They Really Doing?

2007 has already been hailed in many 10-Best lists as The Year of the Play, or The Straight Play is Back, or some such variant.

But let's look over at the Playbill stats and see how they're really doing in terms of Broadway Box Office Biz.

For the week ending December 30, we see...

August: Osage County actually doing very well: 75% capacity in a very large theatre (the Imperial, at 1439 seats--so about a thousand people a night).

The Cyrano revival ends its limited run this week, but finishing strong in the high 80s and low 90s over the holidays. I suppose some of that must be due to Jennifer Garner as well.

The Seafarer has been hovering in the 70s, but at the 780-seat Booth. (So about half as many seats as "August.") Similar stats for Stoppard's "Rock and Roll."

And David Mamet's "November" starring Nathan Lane may only be at 65% now. But it's only just begun previews.

So far so good. Now to the others.

"The Homecoming"--perhaps even more unreservedly praised critically than any of the above--has been barely breaking 50% over the holidays. (Peaking at 56% by New Years.) The good news is you'll be seeing more discount offers going around soon.

"The Farnsworth Invention" may not be a great play. But it's entertaining, accessible, written by that rare playwright who counts as a celebrity (Aaron Sorkin), and is also hovering in the 50s.

And "Is He Dead" which has defied expectations and been heralded as the best "new" American comedy in years, has also dropped down to 50% after Christmas. (Don't say I didn't warn those producers...)

What does it all mean? That the triumphant return of The Drama to Broadway may be grossly exaggerated. Not that people aren't enjoying them and that they aren't doing "well" in some abstract sense. Packing in 500 people a night ain't bad--until you realize it's in a 1000-seat theatre. It's clear to me that 500 mark represents the maxing out point for the "serious" audience on Broadway. That means that's how many you can hope will turn out, on average, given the right combination of strong reviews and highbrow names.

Recall that Journey's End peaked at 50% and ended up at half that.

Now we also learn something from the exceptions here. First, that "August" has really taken off. Something about the specific buzz here has attracted more than the usual dramatic ticket buyer. Perhaps that the onstage characters resemble our tourist audiences! And that the plot (yes, all 3+ hours of it) can reportedly be enjoyed simply as soap opera, even if expertly rendered.

I would also attribute the "August" phenomenon to a hunger for hardcore Americana on our stages once again. But look at its lead competitors.

"Rock and Roll" and "Seafarer," I would argue, are fueled purely by (respectively) Anglophilic snobbery and Hibernian nostalgia. I'm not saying the plays aren't worthy of attention. But without bona fide stars (I'm sorry, Rufus Sewell & Brian Cox don't count yet in America) something else has to explain sales like this. And it works heavily in both plays favor that they carry full Masterpiece Theatre and Roddy Doyle/Clancy Brothers credentials. After all, "Rock and Roll" is set mostly not Czechoslovakia but in an idyllic Cambridge house of a British professor. And "Seafarer" is about a bunch of Irish guys telling stories and...well, drinking!

You'd think that the whiff of prostitution and femme fatales at least would save "The Homecoming." But unfortunately Sir Harold cared enough to nix the original tag line for the "sexy legs" ad you may have seen around town. It originally read: "There are some things fathers and sons should never share." Yeah, like that's the message of the play.

Now it reads: "Harold Pinter's Masterwork of Lust and Deception Returns to Seduce a New Generation." No need to get boring guys! Although they do get "lust" and "seduce" in there.

And that "new generation" part? Pretty hopeful, eh?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not a big point, but part of the Rock n' roll audience base are lincoln center subscribers, for whatever reason. Currently they run at $50, so if you look at the average ticket price you can start to see what the percentage of LCT members would be...

that is, if you care.