EXCLUSIVE: For anyone in need of a diversion, Broadway is presenting its busiest season for musicals in 36 years.
Nineteen new musicals and revivals have opened or are scheduled to open through April 27, the cut-off for Tony Award eligibility. That’s the biggest tally since 1980-81, according to the Broadway League. If all 19 arrive, 2016-17 will have the most musicals since Ronald Reagan was first sworn in as President.
Without an early Hamilton-scale blockbuster, the competition for theatergoers and Tony Awards should be robust. There are constraints on how much demand can rise to meet supply. In recent seasons, about 15 percent of all seats have gone unsold. The average musical customer sees just four a year, according to the Broadway League’s demographic study, regardless of how many are playing. And of the 13 new musicals this season, five at most will be nominated for best musical and guaranteed a performance slot on the Tony telecast in June.
“There are a limited number of theatergoing dollars chasing a large number of musicals,” Merritt Baer, a former producer who’s chief executive of TodayTix, a mobile app for buying last-minute tickets, said in an email. “So I think that if all of the shows were amazing and popular (super unlikely), shows would still need to dynamically price downward (i.e. discount) to get the capacity numbers up.” And those reduced revenues would lead to closing notices, he said.
Producers say they’re taking the glut in stride. (That it coincides with Republicans with show-business backgrounds winning the White House seems to be an accident of timing. A season’s slate hinges on what musicals are ready for Broadway and theater availability.)
Broadway’s next new musical, Come From Away, begins previews at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Feb. 18. It’s set in a Canadian town where thousands of international airline passengers were stranded after 9/11. Randy Adams, a managing partner of Junkyard Dog Productions, the lead producer, said it’s challenging opening a new musical in any season. “All you can do is make your show and sell your show,” he said.
Two acclaimed new musicals are already selling well and on track to repay investors, Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812. History suggests there isn’t room for many more this season. In the two decades ending in 2014, just one in five new musicals recouped, according to research overseen by producer Ken Davenport. Assuming that success rate, this season’s 12 commercial new musicals will yield two or three hits in all. (We aren’t aware of comparable statistics for musical revivals, of which there are six this season, including a huge-selling Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler and Sunday in the Park with George with Jake Gyllenhaal.)
The case against gloom: Broadway is overdue to spread the wealth. There’ve been just two hit commercial musicals in the previous two seasons, Fun Home and Hamilton. Scott Mallalieu, president of group sales agent GreatWhiteWay.com, said some shows suffered because Hamilton, like any huge hit, dominated the attention of fans and the press.
And much of this season comes well-recommended. Groundhog Day, an adaptation of the beloved 1993 Bill Murray movie, got glowing notices in London. Amelie, War Paint and Bandstand also enjoyed strong reviews out of town, as did Come From Away. Mallalieu said he was moved when he saw it at Ford’s Theatre in Washington in the fall, as it shows how people outside New York were affected and united by the 2001 terrorist attacks.
That may not sound like big box office. But neither did Memphis, which Charles Isherwood dismissed in his 2009 review as “the Michael Bolton of Broadway musicals.” When the rock and R&B crowd-pleaser faced off against the heralded, more artistically ambitious Fela! and American Idiot at the Tonys, underdog Memphis prevailed as best musical and eventually recouped. Like Come From Away, Memphis was directed by Christopher Ashley and produced by Junkyard Dog.
“You have to have nerves of steel to do this,” said Sue Frost, a Junkyard Dog managing partner . “Sometimes everyone is talking about every show but yours. There is only so much you can control.”