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As Broadway moves through its first full season since the pandemic began, new content is pouring in and the industry continues to hope for a rebound.
But amid the spate of new shows, producers are also facing higher costs due to inflation and extra understudies, as well as the added stressors of unpredictable and changing audience behavior. There’s optimism that the industry will move past this moment, if audiences return in greater numbers, but the timeline and the exact method for getting there isn’t yet clear.
“If the productions are roughly 15 percent to 20 percent down, and they’re costing 10 percent more, you can see that we’re not out of this yet by any means,” said Sonia Friedman, a producer on many West End and Broadway productions, including Funny Girl, new play Leopoldstadt and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
While big event or star-studded shows such as The Music Man are performing well, many newer productions are still challenged at the box office. There’s been momentum in the industry, as seen in the most recent week of grosses, when The Music Man brought in close to $3 million, helping bring up industry totals, alongside other standouts such as Hamilton and MJ the Musical, but nine of the 32 running productions made less than $500,000.
This trend is not atypical, but is felt more acutely this year, as tourism, a key segment of the Broadway audience, is still down (with 56.7 million tourists predicted to visit New York City in 2022, compared to 66.6 million in 2019, according to NYC & Company). And productions no longer have the use of $10 million in federal funding that was available last year to help buffer any losses.
The pandemic also interrupted the habit of theatergoing, and there’s a feeling among producers that some segments may still be nervous to return or wary of the prices. In that environment, it can be challenging to attract early audiences to new or unknown shows, said Joey Parnes, producer of the new musical KPOP.
“It’s not surprising that if they’re having to be discerning, they’re going to choose something that is more certain,” Parnes said. On KPOP, which has been at the low end of the industry’s box office, Parnes says he believes good reviews can help boost grosses and bring in a wider audience. The higher grossing shows demonstrate that there is demand, Parnes argued, and the next step is to get those consumers to see multiple shows.
Producers have also noticed a change in behavior among the audience that is there.
“The behavior of audiences is very different insofar as to how far in advance or how close to the performance they will or won’t have the confidence to book and that hasn’t changed much in the last few months,” Friedman said. “Therefore, it’s nerve-racking and nail biting for most producers as they head towards their opening because the advances aren’t where they should be.”
It’s worth noting that The Piano Lesson, a starry revival featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Danielle Brooks, has seen strong advance buying, according to producer Brian Moreland (Friedman is also a producer on this), even as that’s not the trend across the board. Leopoldstadt, the latest drama from renowned playwright Tom Stoppard, has also stood out from the pack as a high-grossing play, bringing in more than $1 million for the last few weeks after opening.
After the 18-month theatrical shutdown and the difficulties of last season, Friedman says the industry has already gotten through the “worst of it” and is now in a place of needing to rebuild the confidence of audiences. But with that, and an expanding list of tasks and new considerations, producers are facing a different kind of working environment.
“The anxiety and the levels of stress are like no other time in my working life,” Friedman said.
Many producers, particularly on new shows, are preparing for possible COVID-19 cases within the cast by increasing the number of understudies and covers, a lesson learned from last season when shows scrambled to find coverage.
After facing that last season, Moreland said understudies and covers on The Piano Lesson started rehearsing their roles on the first day of rehearsals, alongside the rest of the company, rather than waiting until the show moved into the theater, as has been the industry norm. This ensured those cast members would be ready to go on as early as needed.
Increasing the number of understudies is particularly important now that most insurers are not covering COVID-19-related performance cancellations at productions. “We have to effectively self-insure, and to self-insure, the only way we can do that is to have a cover for a cover,” Friedman said.
However, hiring more cast members, and outfitting them with costumes and mics, adds extra costs to budgets that were already growing due to the costs of COVID-19 testing for company members. The physical costs of the production have also gone up, Moreland said, as the cost of goods has risen and as behind-the-scenes shops have encountered labor shortages.
While extra costs may lengthen the time to a show’s recoupment, producers do have the use of an up to $3 million New York City Musical and Theatrical Production Tax Credit, which has been “fundamental” to “give investors confidence to continue investing in the work,” Friedman said.
The upcoming holiday season will likely provide a boost in grosses for many productions. And after getting through the winter, typically the lowest time for Broadway attendance and grosses, Friedman says there may be better visibility into the health of the industry and its trends. It also comes down to producing the right work to draw in those audience members.
“I’m choosing the work I’m doing carefully, on that basis, thinking ‘I think this has the potential to bring back or bring an audience into the theater that may not have come in every instance,’” Friedman said.
That work may need to include more known brands or entities in the short-term, Moreland said. (Among Friedman’s many projects, she hopes to transfer this fall’s Off-Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along, starring Daniel Radcliffe, to Broadway). Or work that targets new audience segments, as Parnes aims to do with KPOP, which taps into the phenomenon of Korean pop groups.
The hope is that, with time, these productions can help make the industry whole again.
“We’re in a definite moment right now that I don’t think is permanent,” Parnes said. “I think it is going to pass. It will likely pass into something that isn’t quite identical to what things were like before the pandemic, but I do think there’s just too much great work that people do on Broadway and for an audience, there’s nothing like that direct, visceral in-person experience.”
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