Monday, March 12, 2012

When It Rains, It Pours: Why the Glut of Spring Shows is Bad for Everyone

Peter and the Starcatchers, one of several Broadway shows I'd love to see but may not be able to this spring.

In another example of time flying, it is suddenly mid-March.  The days are getting longer, the temperature is getting warmer, and there are literally dozens of Broadway shows getting ready to vie for your hard-earned dollars in the coming weeks.  I’m already wondering how I will find the time and money to see even half of them, especially since limited runs and the uncertain nature of theatre reward seeing things sooner rather than later.  Wait too long, and that really good sounding show may not be around any longer.

This isn’t a surprise; it happens every year at this time.  And every year it sucks just as hard, because despite my best efforts I still do not have a stockpile of money secreted away that can finance almost-nightly excursions to Broadway.  In past seasons I’ve been able to make my peace with the process as an unfortunate fact of life, much like how I deal with paying taxes or the varied quality of SNL comedy sketches.  Yet this year, I find myself asking why it has to be like this, and thinking that there really is money to be made by bucking the trend.

Of course, I intellectually understand why the season always breaks down this way.  The Tony Awards, with their late April cut-off date and tendency to favor recent productions over those from earlier in the season (especially if said productions have since closed), are largely responsible for the glut of spring shows.  Although the financial gains from winning a boatload of Tonys is questionable, everyone still wants bragging rights, and I doubt winning the Tony has ever hurt a production.  The producers are also thinking about tourists, those strange creatures that comprise anywhere between half and two-thirds of any given audience, who are in short supply during the cold winter months but emerge from hibernation as the weather gets warmer.

But there is definitely a segment of the theatre-going population that is being hurt by this practice of cramming all Broadway openings into the months of March and April, and in my opinion it is a segment that is potentially lucrative.  You see, I love Broadway, and I am not the only New Yorker who does.  Since I live here, timing isn’t an issue for me, and I have braved the wind and snow to attend live theatre on many occasions.  If I could, I would go see everything.  But I am not made of money, and I do have a life with other obligations like a job, so I don’t have time to see 20-plus shows over the course of six weeks.  So every spring, there are shows I really would like to see – pay for, even! – that I don’t make it to because they close before I get the chance.

To put things into perspective, I would like to see twelve shows (Clybourne Park, Death of a Salesman, Evita, Ghost, The Best Man, Jesus Christ Superstar, Leap of Faith, Newsies, Nice Work if You Can Get It, Once, Peter and the Starcatcher, and The Lyons) slated to premiere between now and June.  Realistically, unless I discover the location of Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin, I’ll only be able to afford tickets to maybe half of those.  But if they were more spread out throughout the year, I would happily attend all of them, even those that end up with mediocre reviews.  But under the current system, I have to prioritize, and the producers of half those shows will be out one paying customer.  If they simply spread out the openings, everyone would win.  I could go see all the shows, the producers would have more money, and they wouldn’t all be competing against one another for press time and advertising space.

Opening during a less crowded timeframe has definitely helped shows before.  Take last winter’s revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, a show nobody was particularly interested in seeing before it opened.  It opened in early January to minimal competition and surprisingly strong box office, which prompted its limited run to be by almost three months!  I guarantee you that wouldn’t have happened if it had opened in March or April.  While it was the only new show in town, theatre fans like me went to see it, enjoyed it, and told are friends to see it to, thereby increasing its weekly grosses.

Follies is another excellent example.  While legendary among theatre folk and a favorite of Sondheim fans, the show has hemorrhaged money during past Broadway runs due to its massive running costs and middling ticket sales.  Yet the latest revival opened in early September to incredibly strong box office, breaking $1 million in weekly grosses on a couple of occasions, something practically unheard of for any Sondheim show.  No, it still didn’t turn a profit, but it came closer than any other production of the show ever has (and if Evita hadn’t booted it from the Marquis Theatre it might still be running and have become profitable).  Again, I think the key is that the show opened during a dry period for Broadway musicals, and thereby attracted the attention of every New York theatre fan who was desperate for a new show after the summer drought.

Now obviously there are other factors at work besides just timing.  The two shows mentioned above were known properties, and both productions were also excellent, which despite what the cynics may say still counts for a lot in this business.  But I really think that more producers should experiment with opening their shows throughout the calendar year, rather than only during October-November and March-April.  Smaller shows without big stars and name recognition have a better chance of gaining traction when there’s less competition, because if you give the public a choice between Evita and a musical adaptation of an obscure Steve Martin film (i.e. Leap of Faith), they’re going to choose Evita.  Hell, I would, and I consider myself a champion of new musicals.  And if you’re trying to court tourist dollars, why is no one opening their shows in the summer, when there’s such an influx of visitors that you can’t walk two feet in Times Square without running into an entire platoon of them?

Maybe there are factors at work that I’m not aware of, but I think right now the biggest deterrent to this idea is tradition.  Just because a lot of big successes opened in the spring doesn’t mean every show that opens in the spring will do the same.   Because Wicked was going to turn into Wicked no matter when it opened (it premiered in late October, if you’re wondering), but your show may just stand a better chance at turning a profit if you open it in July when there’s less competition.

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