Broadway producers and investors made the brave decision to present several new plays without stars this past season.
Audiences haven’t followed. Grosses for straight plays (non-musicals) tumbled 15 percent in the 12 months ending on Sunday, after plunging 27 percent the previous season, according to statistics out today from the Broadway League. At $154 million, it was the lowest-grossing season for plays in at least six years.
Play attendance declined 11 percent to 1.8 million. The average ticket for a play dropped by $4 to $85.48. (The past three seasons each had 20 play productions, including revivals.)
Much of the riskiest fare didn’t get critical traction. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, set in a Pennsylvania factory town decimated by globalization, won the Pulitzer Prize but not the love of New York Times‘ theater critics Ben Brantley and Jesse Green. Paula Vogel’s Indecent and Josh Harmon’s comedy Significant Other likewise didn’t get Times money reviews. They were hurt by the dismissal of critic Charles Isherwood, who had championed the plays in developmental runs off-Broadway but wasn’t able to support them on Broadway.
Even Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, after great notices all the way around and Tony Award nominations for its entire cast, including for television star Laurie Metcalf, has been operating at a loss. Star vehicles for Mark Ruffalo and Danny DeVito (The Price), Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney (The Little Foxes) and Kevin Kline (Present Laughter) have attracted audiences but haven’t been sellouts.
“It was my parents’ generation that always went to plays,” said Robyn Goodman, a commercial producer and artistic consultant at the Roundabout Theatre Co., an important venue for new work. “Are there playgoers anymore? I hope so but I know that audience is shrinking.”
The depressed sales makes the all-American contest for the best play Tony particularly high stakes. A year ago, grosses for Stephen Karam’s The Humans jumped after it won four Tonys. It sold $18 million of tickets this past season, second among plays to the starry revival of The Front Page, which included Nathan Lane, John Goodman and John Slattery.
The Front Page and Oh Hello on Broadway, a two-handed comedy with a different celebrity guest every performance, are the only 2016-17 dramas so far to pay back their investors. (The Humans opened in 2015-16.) In recent seasons, as many as seven plays recouped.
Like financial markets, Broadway is cyclical. Plays may bounce back in 2018, with the arrival of two Harry Potter plays and the reopening of the Helen Hayes Theater as a venue for new American drama. Robyn Goodman said she’s encouraged that Scott Rudin remains a busy producer, as he attracts stars for his casts. And she notes that the new musicals Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen are selling well despite being wholly original and star-free.
As Broadway Journal previously reported, Broadway overall had record grosses for the season — $1.45 billion, up 5.5 percent from a year earlier. Attendance was off 0.4 percent and the average ticket price jumped $6, to $109.21.
Serious drama may continue to struggle.
“We put our pain in a wrapper and try to sell it as candy,” Vogel said at a fundraiser for the nonprofit New Dramatists last week.
Editor: Alice Scovell