Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Closing of Broadway?

One my rituals before the curtain rises on a Broadway show is thumbing to the back of the Playbill to the “How many have you seen?” section and counting the number of productions I’ve attended. Currently, the total is 19. In another week that figure will plummet to 13 as six shows on my list will close (an unprecedented 13 musicals and plays will be taking their final bows by the middle of January).

While pundits blame the souring economy on this staggering figure (and it is a contributing factor), a closer examination of the specific shows presents a more palatable picture. First, five of the 13 productions are limited runs, scheduled to close at this time of the year. These are the acclaimed Arthur Miller revival of All My Sons; the comedy, Dividing the Estate; White Christmas; Liza’s at the Palace; and Slava’s Snowshow. You could even count the revival of Gypsy, with Tony Winners Patti Lupone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti, as a scheduled close. Originally, the musical was slated for a March shuttering, but decided to close early due to slow ticket sales. So maybe we say 5 1/2 shows were planning to leave the ranks of Broadway productions, regardless of the economic woes.

Out of the remaining seven musicals and plays there is the critically panned 13, which some people are surprised lasted this long; the ghastly revival of Grease, which should have been put out of its misery long ago; and the very mediocre Young Frankenstein (which, regardless, will have run for over two years). Nine down, four to go. The highly entertaining, Hairspray, will have played for just about 6 1/2 years in New York; and Monty Python’s Spamalot almost four years. Hairspray, the 19th longest running show in Broadway history, has been getting a bit tired lately, notwithstanding the recent infusion of original cast members (and Tony winners) Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur, and maybe should be closing. I always found Spamalot enjoyable, but not laugh out loud hysterical. News of its closing didn’t send me into a tizzy.

So that leaves Spring Awakening and Boeing Boeing, two shows that are bona fide casualties of the economy. Spring Awakening was energetic, brash, with a great score; Boeing Boeing was something not really seen on Broadway these days—a laugh a minute comedy. Both deserve longer runs. By my count that’s 11 out of 13 shows where their time has come. Not too shabby.

As I’ve stated, and as the press has ceaselessly hammered into our heads, the economic state of the United States is horrible, and this has affected the Great White Way, notwithstanding my aforementioned pontifications. But the root of the downturn on Broadway is much more systemic. It’s been going on for years. To put it simply, Broadway ticket prices have ballooned to a point that attendance on a regular basis for the average citizen is practically impossible—whether the economy is good or bad. Friends constantly ask me about my opinion of shows (word-of-mouth is the most cited reason for selecting a show to see), because they value my choices. Since they are planning to attend only ONE production a year they want to ensure their entertainment dollars are worth the investment. I use my blog and weekly radio program as a bully pulpit, pumping up the Broadway shows I think praiseworthy and carping on the ones I believe should be passed over.

The top orchestra seats to Billy Elliot are selling for $136.00; Wicked is at $121.00. I know producers will blame the unions and other entrenched costs for the skyrocketing numbers, but without a solution Broadway might as well close the stage doors for good. When I was a lad growing up in Central New Jersey my friend and I would take the Suburban Transit bus to New York City and buy FULL PRICE orchestra seats to a Saturday matinee (there was no TKTS Booth). Our first show, 35 years ago when I was a freshman in high school, was the original production of Grease and our tickets cost around eight bucks. I’m not suggesting prices should be rolled back to what I paid in the early 1970’s, but the point is back then a 14 year old kid could pay for an orchestra seat without breaking the bank. My family of six could regularly drive into the city, park, have dinner and see a show without my parents taking out a second mortgage on the homestead. Today, that’s impossible. A similar evening of entertainment today could cost over $900.00! For one night! Who can do that on a regular basis? How can you instill the love of theater into today’s generation if live productions are so out-of-reach? Producers will shout out about all the discounts and specials that are offered to the public. Oh, and there’s still the TKTS Booth. These are all fine and dandy except, why bother? Why not set prices at a lower level so people could afford Broadway productions on a regular basis as opposed to waiting for the sale to begin? And let’s nix the premium seat pricing while we’re at it--Thank you Mel Brooks. These voodoo pricing policies only serve the public that has flexibility in their schedule. But what about the family of four that wants to plan ahead, but their itinerary doesn’t jive with the discounts du jour? Sorry. I know Broadway is a “business,” but higher ticket prices, in order to recoup investments quicker is not a smart decision. What’s the old saying—“cut your nose to spite your face?”

One could point to the mezzanine or the rear mezzanine as a location with much lower prices. Sit there if you can’t afford the orchestra. But forcing people into the cheaper seats is not how you want to introduce individuals or, for that matter, keep individuals interested in the theater. With lower ticket prices, overall, at least you can give theatergoers more of a choice as opposed to dictating where people sit. Hopefully, attending a musical or drama will then become more of a comfortable habit which, in turn, will keep them coming back again and again.

So, producers, technicians, craftsmen, actors, actresses, and everyone else involved in putting up a show--take note. Come up with solutions. Convene a special task force. Do something. Without a viable resolution soon Broadway may see a lot more multi-closing weekends in the near future.

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