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Is Broadway pricing itself out of the play market?
That’s a question many theater pundits are asking in a spring season where nonmusical productions are gasping for air in the fight to attract audiences. The latest casualty is The Glass Menagerie, which will play its final performance May 21, six weeks earlier than the limited engagement’s originally scheduled closing date of July 2.
Produced by Scott Rudin with Lincoln Center Theater, and directed by Sam Gold, a recent Tony winner for Fun Home, the stripped-down Tennessee Williams revival divided critics with its stark approach to one of the most poetic texts in the 20th-century American dramatic canon. It also came just four years after an acclaimed revival of the classic 1945 memory play, suggesting that the core Broadway audience may have felt it was too soon to revisit the frequently staged work.
Sally Field leads the cast as beleaguered matriarch Amanda Wingfield and scored the production’s sole Tony nomination last week — for lead actress in a play. She stars alongside Joe Mantello, Finn Wittrock and newcomer Madison Ferris.
Box office has been modest throughout the run, which began previews Feb. 7 at the Belasco Theatre and officially opened March 9. The production grossed $441,034 in its best week, but business never went higher than 54 percent of the show’s gross potential. Last week, the revival earned $269,537, just 30 percent of its potential, bringing the cumulative gross after 13 weeks to $4.8 million.
The $3.2 million production’s commercial failure is indicative of a general malaise around nonmusicals at the box office in this crowded spring.
Of the current Tony nominees for best play, J.T. Rogers’ political thriller Oslo is leading, last week earning $692,338. But at 63 percent gross potential, that’s far from sellout business. After struggling through previews, A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Indecent both have seen slight increases since the Tony noms were announced, but given their highly positive reviews, the productions should be stronger sellers. Sweat, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is doing only marginally better, with gross potential hovering around 50 percent.
The well-reviewed Noel Coward revival, Present Laughter, starring Kevin Kline, has been a solid performer, grossing upwards of $800,000 a week since it opened, while the acclaimed revival of The Little Foxes, with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, has cracked 50 percent in gross potential only once in the past month. However, that production, like another Tony nominee for best play revival, August Wilson’s Jitney, was produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, a nonprofit company that operates in a small Broadway house and has the cushion of a subscriber audience base. The same applies to Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price, which has benefited from being an underexposed work with a stellar cast.
Commercially produced plays from earlier in the season such as The Encounter and Les Liaisons Dangereuses limped along through their limited engagements, while Significant Other, which had been a hit off-Broadway, tanked in its transfer, grossing less than $2 million in 10 weeks. More recently, London comedy import The Play That Goes Wrong has gotten off to a relatively solid start since opening, averaging 60-70 percent of its gross potential.
However, of this season’s plays, only the starry fall revival of newspaper comedy The Front Page, with Nathan Lane, John Slattery and John Goodman, could be called a legitimate smash. That limited engagement, also produced by Rudin, grossed a whopping $22 million in 19 weeks. And Cate Blanchett’s Broadway debut in The Present did respectable business, earning $10.9 million in its 14-week limited run.
All of this raises questions about whether the finite Broadway playgoing audience is growing wary of spending north of $150 on a show and instead is looking off-Broadway to nonprofit companies producing new drama at somewhat more reasonable prices. Will plays on Broadway increasingly be limited to nonprofit productions, major starpower showcases or preordained blockbusters like the upcoming two-part Brit import, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? Or is it just the law of the market that musicals suck up most of the commercial oxygen as the Tony Awards race heats up?
Either way, the current landscape gives cause for concern about the survival of the humble play for commercial producers on Broadway.
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