Thursday, September 11, 2014

Broadway and the Burden of Unrealistic Expectations

Tony-nominee Andrew Rannells dons Hedwig's wig and high heels through October 12th, at which point Michael C. Hall takes over.

For the third week in a row, has felt the need to take thinly disguised digs at Andrew Rannells' box office performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And while nothing they have reported has been untrue, the way they are spinning the story is indicative of a problem in the way they and many others view Broadway grosses, and the unrealistic expectations placed on most shows.

In case you somehow hadn't heard, Tony-winner Neil Patrick Harris brought in ridiculous amounts of cash during his 5 month stint as the German transgendered rocker. The show was routinely sold-out, set various house records at the Belasco Theatre, and spent most of the summer grossing more than $1 million per week. Obviously, the producers of the revival were wise to wait until Harris' schedule allowed him to do the show before mounting a Broadway production, which recouped its entire investment in mid-July. It was a given that the show would see a decrease in box office receipts when Harris departed (it was mildly surprising the producers decided to keep the show running without him), but I think spinning Rannells' run thus far as a financial disappointment is a disservice to Rannells, the show, and Broadway in general.

Last week, Hedwig made $514,411 (59% of its potential gross) and played to 70% capacity crowds. That is a large step down from last week's 81% potential gross and 93% full houses and an even bigger drop from Harris' heyday, but every single show on Broadway saw significant (often six figure) drops in grosses following the Labor Day holiday. The one exception to this is the Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick led It's Only a Play, which managed to buck the trend by having 8 performances instead of the 5 it had the week before. Hedwig is still doing better, gross-wise, than the much more expensive Cinderella, Best Musical winner Once, and the Diane Paulus-helmed Pippin.

Considering that Hedwig is a cult musical which until a few months ago no one was sure could succeed on the Great White Way and has lost its main selling point, I'd call those numbers just fine. As a small show with low running costs which has already recouped (there aren't many costumes or pricey technical elements, and you can bet that Rannells' salary isn't anywhere near what Harris was being paid), Hedwig likely has a very low bar to clear in order to remain profitable. And while Rannells is popular within theatre circles, he doesn't have nearly the mainstream appeal or drawing power as Harris. Viewed in that light, the fact that he and the Hedwig brand can fill the Belasco to 70% capacity during a notoriously slow time of year is something to be celebrated.

The fact that many people view these numbers as disappointing points to a larger problem in the unrealistic expectations producers and the public have for Broadway shows. Because shows like Wicked and The Lion King have done so well for so many years, they have erroneously become the yard sticks by which a potential hit is judged. This is akin to saying that an athlete is no good because they aren't performing at Olympic medal levels, which is absolutely ridiculous. The last place finisher at the Olympics is still better than a huge percentage of the population, and the fact that Hedwig continues to run (and has just announced an extension into January 2015) while other spring shows have already closed is a testament to how well the show is doing financially. Just because a show isn't making $1 million a week doesn't mean it's doing poorly, and we shouldn't consider shows a disappointment if they don't run for 10+ years.

But unfortunately, many people do use those metrics as the measure of a show's success, which is unfair to the industry and all the very talented people working in it. It casts the industry in a poor light and makes the theatre seem much less healthy than it actually is; as I have stated before, I think the current model of more shows with shorter runs is ultimately better and more exciting for the industry artistically. And while I am not privy to any budgeting meetings for Broadway shows, I think too many shows are budgeted in a way that they have to do sell-out business to be financially viable, since that is what is expected of a "successful" show.

So let's try to focus on the positive. If a relative unknown like Andrew Rannells can retain such a large percentage of certified star Neil Patrick Harris' box office numbers, that is a win. It shows that audiences are in fact interested in the show and not just the lead actor, something that should be encouraging to all the people who decry Broadway's current obsession with celebrity vehicles. And if numbers continue to decline and Hedwig closes before the new year, who cares? By every metric that matters, the production is an unqualified success, and exposed a great piece of contemporary musical theatre to a much larger audience than could ever fit in the show's original Off-Broadway home and the small spaces it is traditionally performed in. To borrow the famed Gershwin lyric, "who could ask for anything more?"

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