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THEATER TALK: How To Make A Hit Broadway Show, Part I: Find A Star

Katie Buenneke |
September 21, 2012 | 3:15 p.m. PDT

Theater Editor

To preface: yes, I am of that ilk which puts Broadway theater up on a pedestal. I understand that this is a flawed mentality, and that there is a considerable amount of amazing theater that exists apart from the Great White Way, but I remain obstinate in my belief that Broadway should be held to a high standard. Everything that follows is from observation, not actual experience.

Regardless of your opinions of Broadway theater, the fact remains that it is influential for the rest of the country (and to some extent, the world) in terms of arts programming. Shows that are great successes on Broadway become a part of the national lexicon, from the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows of yore to the more recent mega-hits "Wicked" and "The Book of Mormon."

Now, I don't have any insider information on how Broadway works, but from a logical standpoint, I can't help but assume a lot of what determines whether or not a show is a great success is how long it runs—and a lot of what determines how long it runs is related to how well it is selling tickets.

It's no secret that we're in a recession, and the first thing most people cut from their budgets is money for "extravagances" like going to the theater. Between that and the confounding trend of premium pricing for Broadway tickets (seats for this season's revival of "Death of a Salesman" went for up to $500), it's hard for shows to succeed right now. If a show is not massively popular (or if it doesn't have benefit of generous producers), it is likely that it will close within one to two years.

This has come to a head twice in the recent past: January of 2010, and this past summer. 21 shows closed in January 2010, in addition to the six that had closed in the month or so prior, leaving just 21 shows playing in February 2010. It was a pretty rough time, the likes of which were never to be seen again. Right?

Wrong. Summer of 2012 was just as brutal. In April 2012, there were 39 shows playing, but by Labor Day, there were only 19 playing. The shows that survived the heavy culling were a handful of new musicals ("Newsies," "Bring It On"), some star vehicles ("Evita," "Nice Work If You Can Get It"), shows that received box office boosts from June's Tony Awards ("Once," "Peter and the Starcatcher"), and the standard bastions of musical theater that have been running for years and will be for many more years ("Mamma Mia," "The Lion King").

Ricky Martin in "Evita." Photo by Richard Termine.
Ricky Martin in "Evita." Photo by Richard Termine.
So what slipped through the cracks? Pretty much everything else. It was a bad season for revivals of musicals; "Evita" was the only one to make it out alive, while "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever," "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Follies," and "Porgy and Bess" all closed or will close after fewer than 300 performances. What makes "Evita" hearty enough to survive? It was not overly well-received by critics (both "Follies" and "Porgy and Bess" received much more positive reviews). What "Evita" does have, though, that neither of those shows have, is star power. While Bernadette Peters and Audra McDonald are huge names in the theater community, Ricky Martin outstrips them by miles in terms of ability to bring tourists to the box office. The connection between Martin and the show's success is not just speculation: the week he went on vacation over the summer, the show's grosses nearly halved.

Plays with stars also tend to do better than plays without them. Take the aforementioned "Death of a Salesman" revival, for example, which featured Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield, which sold very well, or the revival of "The Best Man," which extended its limited run.

Come back next week to see what else makes a show a success on Broadway!

Reach Katie here; follow her on Twitter here.



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