Record Year on Broadway

Features Dow Jones Newswires

(The Associated Press)

Call it Broadway's big year. 

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Shows set a record $1.45 billion in tickets sales for the 52-week season that concluded this past Sunday, according to the Broadway League, the trade group that tracks the industry. That marks a 5.5% gain over the previous season, which itself set a record. 

The season benefited from a number of new Tony Award-nominated musicals that have garnered strong followings and posted consistent weekly grosses of $1 million-plus. Among them: "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," "Dear Evan Hansen" and "Come From Away." 

Another hit this season: the revival of "Hello, Dolly!" starring Bette Midler. It has played to standing-room-only crowds since it opened in April, grossing as much as $2.1 million a week. 

Long-running shows also have played a part in Broadway's success during the past year. "Hamilton," the breakthrough show of 2015-16, continues to dominate, selling at 100%-plus capacity week after week. During the winter holidays, the show took in as much $3.3 million a week and commanded a top price of $998 for a premium seat. 

The impact of "Hamilton," however, goes beyond that. The historical-themed hip-hop musical has brought a new and decidedly younger audience to the theater, say Broadway observers. In turn, that has helped cutting-edge shows such as "Dear Evan Hansen," which explores teen alienation in the age of social media, find an audience. 

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"A lot of people who aren't typical Broadway fans want to learn about what's going on besides 'Hamilton,' " said Melissa Anelli, the co-founder of BroadwayCon, a convention for theatergoers. 

Still, the season's figures weren't all positive. While the box office was up, attendance declined by 0.4 % to 13.27 million. 

The gains in grosses outpaced the increase in attendance, say Broadway insiders, because shows are maximizing ticket revenue through dynamic pricing, a strategy that ties the cost of a seat with demand. It is the same strategy that has been used effectively by airlines in recent years. 

Ultimately, many shows are running below 80% capacity. And that doesn't always spell success, even with dynamic pricing, says Ken Davenport, a veteran Broadway producer. 

"I'd like to see more butts in seats," he added. 

Write to Charles Passy at cpassy@wsj.com