Water for Elephants, the circus-themed new musical, will be under pressure to make a big splash when it arrives on Broadway.
Scheduled to open March 21, 2024, at the Imperial Theatre, it will need to sell at least $960,000 of tickets each week to cover operating expenses, according to an internal budget prepared over the summer and reviewed by Broadway Journal. (The sales here refer to “gross gross,” the weekly figure that the trade association the Broadway League makes public, which includes credit card commissions and other fees the production doesn’t keep.)
Joining the million dollar club at the Broadway box office used to be a matter of prestige. Today, it’s often a requirement for a show’s survival.
The 2011 $75 million musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark was a rarity for having operating expenses of about $1 million a week. Thanks to a resurgence of spectacles, as well as overall inflation and recent labor contracts that contribute to higher costs, musicals depending on weekly sales close to seven figures are commonplace.
High operating costs put downward pressure on the length of a run, at a time when theatergoing hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. With 2023-24 nearly half-over, attendance has improved from a year ago but is still off 14 percent from Broadway’s busiest season, 2018-19, according to League data.
Ticket prices, generally speaking, haven’t kept pace with rising expenses. So far this season, the average seat has cost $122, down from $128 in the first half of 2018-19. Producer Cameron Mackintosh cited The Phantom of the Opera’s high running costs and underperforming box office (until its final seven months) in closing it in April after 35 years.
Cabaret, the incoming Kander & Ebb London transfer starring Eddie Redmayne as emcee and Gayle Rankin as Sally Bowles, must gross $1.16 million a week to pay its operating expenses, according to a recoupment chart created by the production. The budget document includes the standard disclaimer that numbers are estimates and subject to change.
Lead producer Ambassador Theatre Group is making the most of the five months Redmayne has committed to the New York production, which begins previews April 1 at the August Wilson Theatre. A pair of “Pre-show stage side dining experience” seats, which includes light food and champagne, cost as much as $1551.98, depending on the performance.
Cabaret’s being capitalized for up to $26 million — per a filing last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission — largely to fund the transformation of the August Wilson into a Weimar-era nightclub. (I previously reported that the show cost a mere $24.25 million, based on earlier budget documents.) Cabaret‘s long-term success depends on the appeal of Redmayne and Rankin’s replacements and whether theatergoers view attending this Kit Kat Club as an event unto itself.
Merrily We Roll Along — produced by ATG subsidiary Sonia Friedman Productions — has a weekly nut of about $950,000, according to a production estimate. But with its manageable $13 million capitalization and status as the smash hit of the fall, the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical should recoup well before its scheduled close on March 24. Its endearing lead actors Daniel Radcliffe, Lindsay Mendez and Jonathan Groff have helped sell seats priced as high as $799.
A car, albeit an iconic DeLorean, is a star of Back to the Future, which must gross at least $980,000 to break even each week, according to a recoupment chart from the production. Since opening in August, it’s averaged $1.2 million at the box office, putting it on track to recoup its $23.5 million capitalization — in a little over two years, if ticket sales sustain that level.
Water for Elephants is based on the 2006 novel by Sara Gruen and follows the hit 2011 movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. Jessica Stone (Kimberly Akimbo) is directing the musical, which will star Grant Gustin (CW Network’s The Flash) and Isabelle McCalla (The Prom). Capitalized at $25 million, including a $3 million cash reserve, it’s produced by Peter Schneider, a former Disney production executive involved with The Lion King on Broadway.
It’s telling that one of the brightest commercial prospects of the fall is the audience-friendly Gutenberg! The Musical! Yet another ATG production, it has two stars (Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells), two understudies (Russell Daniels and Sam Hartley), three musicians and a celebrity cameo. The box office weekly breakeven is $638,000. When factoring in a state tax credit, it’s almost a sure thing that investors get their money back, especially with grosses on an upward trajectory.
An obvious template for Broadway’s big-budget entrants is Wicked. Its weekly expenses are well over $1 million and its $14 million capitalization ($23 million inflation-adjusted) was quite risky way back in 2003. The show announced recouping in December 2004.
When box office receipts have been defying gravity for 20 years, who cares about running costs?