Boffo Broadway Fills the Houses

In most cases, a Broadway show is a lousy investment. Most will fail. Some even close in rehearsal. Yet, even in the worst of situations, there are some that can excel. Today, they are the Broadway lucky seven.

These are shows not only bucking the odds—most Broadway shows are musicals and most fail—they are wildly succeeding. They are musicals burning up the Great White Way with jammed houses. Theater buffs pay top dollar, sometimes as much as $500 a seat.

“It’s think it is very exciting,” says Ken Davenport, a longtime Broadway producer whose works include Godspell and Kinky Boots.

These shows are so popular that they are playing to 100 percent or better houses—standing room will allow some houses to go over 100 percent.

Theater lovers flock to the lucky seven, ready to pay much more than the average $120 ticket price, according to the most recent Broadway League numbers.

The top seven today are Dear Evan Hansen, The Lion King, Frozen, Hamilton, Springsteen on Broadway, the Book of Mormon and Waitress.

Trade Secrets?

Why are the lucky seven so popular?

Why, for instance, does “Hamilton” continue to have attendance of between 101 percent and 108 percent? And why does “Springsteen on Broadway” get 100 percent houses despite an average ticket price of $505?

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, says people pay the high price “because it is remarkable to see this man tell his story with music in such a small theater. You walk out of there transformed.”

Davenport sees a trend.

Give Me New Stuff

“Some of the biggest shows right now are new, original musicals. They are not usually based on a movie,” Davenport says.

He argues the trend of unique material began a few years ago with the full houses of the hip-hop play “Hamilton.” It continued, he says, with “Dear Evan Hansen,” a show about a young man with anxiety problems.

Davenport said previously most producers “would have never imagined that these kinds of shows would be grossing millions of dollars a week.” The seven successful shows prove that Broadway audiences are becoming more willing to take chances with new musicals, according to Davenport.

“There’s no question that the audience does love a new show,” St Martin adds. “They love their revivals too, but revivals, for the most part, don’t make it to 100 percent and stay at 100 percent on a consistent basis.”

Davenport says the seven are succeeding because audiences are more open to new things.

“It’s like going into a restaurant time after time but suddenly trying a new dish and saying, oh my God. I really like that,” says Davenport, the producer of “Godspell” and “Kinky Boots.”

Well, Maybe Not

However, Todd and Jeff Brabec, music historians and Broadway observers, only partly agree. They say original isn’t necessarily great. Borrowing from other media can also work, they say.

“A great show needs to have a great book and that doesn’t necessarily mean original material,” says Jeff Brabec. He notes that Hamilton was based on a great book; that the Lion King and Frozen had Hollywood Roots.

Nevertheless, Davenport has been so impressed with the successes of original musicals that he is now preparing a new one for Broadway this summer. It is entitled “Gettin the Band Back Together.”
The play is about a newly unemployed investment banker who goes back to living with his parents and decides to put his old band back together.

Let’s Pack in Those Blessed Tourists

But there is no debate over one part of why some musicals sizzle—they attract tourists.

“Most people who visit New York want to go to Broadway and see musicals,” says Zan Hall, a playwright and the author of the WWII drama W.A.S.P. (Hall’s drama is the story of women ferrying planes during World War II despite untold sexism and, at times, sabotage by some male pilots).

The Broadway League says that some 67 percent of those attending plays are tourists. These are people either from out-of-town or out-of-the-country.

The Brabecs, the authors of “Music, Money and Success,” say a show, whether original or derivative, aimed at tourists or New Yorkers must have “great songs and entertain. It must make people feel good. It must provide escapism.”

People should remember the songs for years afterward, they add, just as we remember the great show stoppers of our youth.

Beating the Odds and Not Losing Your Shirt

Still, whichever formula succeeds, the lucky seven today are defying the odds. That’s because industry experts say four out of five Broadway musicals fail.

“A Broadway play,” says Todd Brabec, “is a great way to lose money.

The Lucky Seven Produce Big Bucks

Boffo Broadway’s seven biggest successes are bringing more good times to the theater. The Great White Way’s houses, boosted by the lucky seven, now have an average attendance of 88 percent. That’s about eight percent better than 20 years ago, according to the Broadway League.

The League’s numbers show that average grosses for the last week were $1.28 million compared to $1.10 million last year. The biggest of the lucky seven are taking in $1.7 million and $3 million a week.

“Broadway has been on a roll for at least ten years,” says Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League.

Although Broadway was sick and struggling in the 1970s and 1980s, it is now, she notes, a critical part of the city’s economy. It is a $13 billion industry. She adds that theater pays about a billion dollars a year in taxes and employs some 89,000.

Some Broadway Data Points

*Hamilton Hums: Hamilton continues to record the highest weekly grosses, some $3.14 million

*The Broadway Boss. The next highest gross is Springsteen on Broadway, $2.396 million

*Paying More: Average paid admissions are up by some $12 compared to last year’s $108

*Cartoon Woes: SpongeBob Square Pants is only playing to 78 percent houses and its average ticket price is $69

Source: The Broadway League. Numbers through March 11, 2018