Broadway's box office coffers soars but attendance retreats

By MARK KENNEDYMarketsAssociated Press

On Broadway, there's great financial news to sing about but a sour note amid the flush times: Box offices are enjoying the highest grossing season in history but attendance has dipped after four consecutive seasons of gains.

The Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry, said Tuesday that box offices reported a record total gross of $1.45 billion for the season that began May 23, 2016, and ended Sunday— up 5.5 percent from the $1.37 billion earned the previous season.

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The trade association for theater owners, operators and producers said attendance was up to 13.27 million ticket buyers, down 0.4 percent from the 13.32 million the season before and despite more offerings.

The new numbers come during a season that saw a new theater — the Hudson Theatre — joining the 40 existing ones. It also saw the average ticket price soar from $97.33 last season to $113.85 this time.

A total of 45 shows opened during the season. There were 20 new musicals, 20 plays and five special events. Last season saw 39 shows open.

It was an unpredictable season, heavy on revivals and not always kind to visiting Hollywood celebs. Sally Field returned in a stripped-down production of "The Glass Menagerie" and got a Tony nomination but reviews were poor and it struggled to earn more than half its weekly potential, closing early.

Cate Blanchett, an Oscar-winner making her Broadway debut in Anton Chekhov's "The Present" and earning a Tony nomination in the process, didn't sell out her theater each week — not by a long shot. Nor has Glenn Close, in a widely praised revival of "Sunset Boulevard."

Diane Lane, in a revival of "The Cherry Orchard," often saw her show's weekly take dip below 50 percent of its potential. And interest in the Liev Schreiber-led "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" seemed to plummet as the run went on.

Bette Midler, naturally, has packed audiences into the Shubert Theatre to see her in "Holly, Dolly!" and Jake Gyllenhaal earned praise and box office clout in his sold-out revival of "Sunday in the Park With George." Josh Groban helped make "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" a hit but it remains to be seen what happens to the show when he leaves in July.

One clear winner this season was "Dear Evan Hansen," a musical which centers on a profoundly lonely 17-year-old who fabricates a prior friendship with a classmate who has just committed suicide. The acclaimed musical has songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (recent Oscar winners for "City of Stars" from the movie "La La Land").

New plays, overall, have had a hard time this season, with "Sweat," ''A Doll's House, Part 2" and "Indecent" all struggling, although "Oslo" and "The Play That Goes Wrong" have done relatively well. "Significant Others," a drama with no stars, turned in one of the most underwhelming box office performances in years, at one point earning just 17 percent of its potential weekly earning.

Revivals of plays like "The Little Foxes," ''Six Degrees of Separation" and the Kevin Kline-led "Present Laughter" have done OK, while "Heisenberg" was a rare bright spot for plays in the fall and the celebrity-heavy revival of "The Front Page" was a financial smash.

Some new musicals — including "Bandstand," ''War Paint" and "Groundhog Day" — are fighting financial headwinds and "Amelie," led by "Hamilton" alum Phillipa Soo closed early. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" has shrugged off mixed reviews to become a hit.

Some recent favorites like "Beautiful" and "Kinky Boots" have been chugging away but new revivals of two big, bombastic shows in "Miss Saigon" and "Cats" are doing only modestly well.

There were some nice surprises a year after the megahit "Hamilton." The coming-of-age musical made from the film "A Bronx Tale" was an unlikely hit, attracting theater-goers who had previously made the now-closed "Jersey Boys" a destination. "Come From Away," the rare musical born in Canada and one dealing with 9/11, got a boost when Canadian leader Justin Trudeau came to cheer it on. "Anastasia," with no real stars, was packing them in.

"Waitress," the quirky and lovely musical whose arrival was somewhat overshadowed by "Hamilton" last season, proves to be resilient and popular, especially when songwriter Sarah Bareilles stepped into the heroine role herself and broke several box office records. "School of Rock," which also arrived last season, was doing fine in its second season.


Mark Kennedy is at