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As Broadway moves toward its busy spring season, star power has returned to the Great White Way and boosted box offices in the process.
After making her Broadway debut in 2012, Jessica Chastain has returned to star as Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House. The classic Henrik Ibsen play, which was adapted by Amy Herzog and directed by Jamie Lloyd, began previews at the Hudson Theatre on Feb. 13 and has played to nearly full houses so far, minting a strong $811,261 in its first full week of performances.
The musical Parade, starring Ben Platt, began previews Feb. 21 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and played to more than 100 percent capacity (including standing-room tickets), bringing in just above $587,000 in its first four preview performances. This came as the revival — which chronicles the true story of a Jewish factory worker who was wrongly accused of murdering a teenage girl and then lynched by a mob — faced a protest from members of a neo-Nazi group outside the theater during its first preview.
The musical, which originally opened on Broadway in 1998 and features a score by Jason Robert Brown and book by Alfred Uhry, returns to the district after a sold-out engagement at off-Broadway’s New York City Center in fall 2022. A revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, led by Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, began previews Feb. 26 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and, after one performance, played to capacity, bringing in $260,691, with an average ticket price of $174 (the third-highest of that week, after Phantom of the Opera and Hamilton).
The timing of these star-studded returns is not unusual; spring is always the industry’s busiest time. Many shows try to set opening dates close to the Tony Awards eligibility cutoff in late April and then hope to capitalize on tourists visiting in summer, as well as any bump from Tony wins on June 11. Jodie Comer will also be on Broadway, starring in Suzie Miller’s one-person play Prima Facie starting in April at the John Golden Theatre. And Sean Hayes will appear as the titular character in Good Night, Oscar, a play about pianist Oscar Levant, opening the same month at the Belasco Theatre.
Still, celebrities are a helpful presence on Broadway, as the industry looks to bounce back after its 18-month closure. Funny Girl demonstrates what an impact a star can have on box office. The musical opened at the August Wilson Theatre in April 2022, with Beanie Feldstein in the lead role, but saw its grosses fall that summer after Feldstein received less-than-stellar reviews. Since Lea Michele took over the part in September, the musical has broken the theater’s box office record multiple times. Whenever she’s out of the show, grosses suffer. In the week ending Feb. 26, when Michele and co-star Ramin Karimloo were on vacations, the box office at Funny Girl fell nearly $950,000 from the previous week.
Overall, there are strong signs of progress: The total gross across the industry for the week surrounding Presidents Day was $25.8 million, up this year compared to 2022 (though there were four fewer shows playing in 2022 and the industry was recovering from a surge in omicron cases). And while the number of running shows, and therefore total gross, is still below the $29.9 million that week in 2019 (there were 23 running shows this year compared to 29 in 2019), the box office totals are catching up.
From the point of view of long-running shows, the industry is already back, says Mike Rafael, a ticketing sales consultant on Wicked. “Yes, we would like to see the international tourism numbers come up a little bit, but domestic is really strong,” Rafael says. (Suburban audience members are also still lagging pre-pandemic totals, as Rafael posits that many are not commuting to work in the city as frequently.) This comes as the audience makeup has changed, with more young and “culturally curious” audience members attending Broadway shows, he says. This group tends to attend more special-event theater, such as the celebrity-driven shows, big brands or known subject matter, like MJ: The Musical. And once there, people are willing to pay a premium for the experience.
But these gains are not easily won. Advance-sales numbers for most shows are still lagging what they were pre-pandemic, which means the weekly totals can come down to the wire, making the producing process more nail-biting. Adds John Johnson, executive producer on the new musical Bad Cinderella, of the lack of advance-ticket purchases for some shows: “There’s no urgency to what they’re buying.”
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