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Howard Sherman: Is Broadway taking full advantage of its summer?

Penn and Teller at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus Penn and Teller at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus
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For the week ending July 19, almost at summer’s halfway point, there were 29 shows on Broadway, meaning 11 theatres were dark. To be sure, some of those only became vacant a few weeks ago. Owners of empty theatres may be taking this downtime for some necessary repair and deep cleaning, impossible while a show is running. There are marquees in and around Times Square already advertising their next tenants.

That said, it always seems a bit counterintuitive that more than a quarter of the 40 Broadway theatres are usually dark during the summer, when New York is flooded with tourists. It seems an unfortunate time for a cyclical contraction (often matched in January and early February).

Illusionists Penn and Teller have a short-term run at the Marquis Theatre, their first New York gig in 15 years. While they’ve been in residence in Las Vegas and making television shows, they’ve clearly built up great interest, because this two-man (and one female assistant) show is doing very solid business, grossing more than $1.2 million in the week examined, even at 80% houses at the Marquis Theatre.

The Marquis was also home to another short-term booking in late 2014, when The Illusionists did comparably well, including a week over the New Year holiday when the gross leapt up to $2.2 million. Magic? I think not. They’ll be back in November.

While I don’t want to see Broadway houses turned into Vegas showcases and concert halls as a rule, these shows’ success suggests that during gaps in Broadway theatre schedules it could be very lucrative to bring in shows and acts that are touring, or small enough to be mounted for genuinely limited runs, akin to An Act of God, which has just ended at Studio 54.

You might remember Judy Garland’s last stands at the Palace in the 1960s, or Lena Horne’s triumph at the Nederlander in the 1980s – Broadway costs have made this type of event much rarer now. Yet, just as American television has revived the idea of summer replacement series, instead of leaving new programming to cable, perhaps it’s time to revisit summer entertainments on Broadway and Off-Broadway. I see some regional theatres using this tactic, since the real estate (an ugly way to describe our beloved theatres, I know) is otherwise just sitting there, not making money for anyone.

Many Broadway musical performers have acts they perform around the country with symphonies. But maybe during the summer, a few of those concerts could take up residence here in New York, both to capitalise on the tourist trade and give us locals a chance to savour more from our greatest talents, in the venues where they made their names.

Or maybe, just maybe, people will buck the conventional wisdom, as the musical Hamilton is, and open full shows in the summer, instead of during the October to April season. After all, it worked out pretty well for A Chorus Line, Avenue Q and Hairspray.

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