High Ticket Prices Are Fueling a Broadway Boom
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Musicals about the aftermaths of a teenage suicide and a terror attack proved unlikely sensations. Star turns by Bette Midler, Josh Groban, Jake Gyllenhaal and Glenn Close added sizzle. And, led by “Hamilton” and “Hello, Dolly!,” the hottest shows started charging once unthinkably high prices for the best seats.
The Broadway season that ended on Sunday was one for the record books. Box-office grosses, which have been climbing since 2013, rose 5.5 percent, to $1.449 billion, a new high, according to figures released on Tuesday by the Broadway League, an industry trade group.
The growth, though, was fueled not by attendance, but by ticket cost. Producers, perfecting a strategy called dynamic pricing, used increasingly sophisticated analytics to adjust ticket prices to reflect varying demand on different days of the week and for different sections of a theater.
“Hamilton,” which continues to play to sold-out houses 21 months after opening, led the way, setting a record box-office price of $849 for many orchestra seats, in an effort to recapture profits being lost to resellers. “Hello, Dolly!,” starring Ms. Midler, has a top ticket of $748; “Sunday in the Park With George,” starring Mr. Gyllenhaal, was charging $499 for its most sought-after seats; and “The Book of Mormon” tops out at $477.
The new musicals are a touch less aggressive with pricing as they build their audiences: “Dear Evan Hansen,” about a high school student whose life is changed by the suicide of a classmate, is selling its best seats for $397, while “Come From Away,” about a Canadian town that welcomed diverted airline flights after the Sept. 11 attacks, has a top price of $297.
There are bargains available for all but the buzziest shows, but still: The average price paid for a Broadway ticket during the 2016-17 season was a record $109, up from $103 the previous season. And with several big-brand titles on the way — stage adaptations of the hit film “Frozen” and the best-selling Harry Potter books are scheduled to open next spring — Broadway’s blockbuster-led boom seems unlikely to end any time soon. It’s transforming the balance sheet of an industry which over the last three decades has fought its way back from a sorry period in which shows were scarce and theaters were being demolished.
“I’ve been on Broadway since 1982, and I’ve never seen such stunning numbers in my life,” said Barry Weissler, a longtime producer whose current shows include “Chicago” and “Waitress.” “It’s not about us charging more, it’s about the public wanting to see something they’re willing to pay for, and it’s an amazing credit to the work being done on Broadway.”
The big numbers mask continuing challenges for the industry. Broadway’s success is lopsided: Much of the profit goes to a small handful of shows, while a majority flop. Over the last 12 months, 81 productions played at some point during the season; about half of all the box-office revenue went to just 10 of those shows.
“The hits are bigger than they have been previously, but the shows that are not big boffo hits are struggling more,” said Jordan Roth, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates five Broadway houses.
For the first time in four years, overall attendance was off slightly — down 0.4 percent, to 13.3 million, at the 41 theaters in and around Times Square that constitute Broadway. That is partly because there were 4.1 percent fewer so-called playing weeks — the total amount of time in which theaters were occupied by shows — than in the previous season. And attendance that dipped only incrementally is arguably impressive in an era when foreign tourism appears to be stalling, and traditional entertainment has been struggling — ratings for network television shows have been sharply down, for example.
“If you look at other forms of entertainment media, we’re doing better than probably anybody else in the realm,” said Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Productions, whose current shows are “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” (with top prices of $228 and $225).
But some say Broadway needs to be concerned about raising the number of ticket buyers, rather than just the price of those tickets. “We have to be adding new audience for our long-term health,” said the producer Ken Davenport, who is bringing a revival of “Once on This Island” to Broadway this fall.
Another challenge the annual grosses made clear: The season was not great, financially, for nonmusical plays. Three of the four Tony nominees for best new play this year (“Indecent,” “Sweat” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2”) have struggled to sell seats; the exception is “Oslo,” staged by the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theater, which has been selling well. Only about 10 percent of the season’s total grosses went to plays, compared with 89 percent for musicals and 1 percent for special events.
Many plays offer tickets at deep discounts; on the site TodayTix, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is available for $29; “Indecent” for $39; “Sweat” and “Oslo” for $59.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that I worry about plays, because they’re a very important part of the Broadway landscape,” Charlotte St. Martin, the Broadway League’s president, said. “We certainly had an exciting year for plays from a critical standpoint, and the four best play nominees are all American playwrights, which is also exciting. But plays take time to build audience.”
The season’s top-grossing musicals were “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “Aladdin” and “The Book of Mormon”; the top-grossing plays were “The Front Page,” “The Humans,” “The Present” and “Oh, Hello.”
How significant is pricing to a show’s success? “Hamilton” became the top-grosser for the first time by raking in $130 million, blasting by “The Lion King,” which had held the top spot for several years. But “Hamilton” reached the top despite selling fewer tickets than “Wicked,” “Aladdin” or “The Lion King,” which can all sell more seats because they are in bigger theaters.
Producers argue that the higher ticket prices are a way of recapturing money that was previously going to scalpers. “It was the right thing to do because it brought the benefits of the demand to the artists who made the show and the investors who paid for the show,” said Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of “Hamilton.”
But some in the industry fret that the high prices for “Hamilton,” “Dolly!” and a handful of others create a perception problem, scaring away potential theatergoers.
“I do wonder if people are starting to think every seat in the theater is $500,” said Theodore S. Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. “I know more and more people who feel as if, ‘I can’t afford to go to the theater any more,’ and I hope we don’t wake up one day to find a tradition is diminished.”