Howard Sherman: Is Broadway’s record-breaking year really something to celebrate?
The 2017-2018 Broadway season ended on Sunday. A Broadway League press release duly followed with the year’s statistics, under a headline trumpeting the “Best attended and highest-grossing season in Broadway history!” A sub-headline notes: “Attendance up 3.9% from last season and up 5.3% from three seasons ago.”
Certainly any increase in theatregoing, on Broadway or elsewhere, is to be applauded since it flies in the face of arguments that interest in the art form is waning.
Indeed, that attendance on Broadway surpassed live attendance at events involving the top 10 professional sports teams in New York and New Jersey combined warms the heart of every drama nerd, like me, who has harboured resentment over the degree to which athletics are celebrated over the performing arts.
But that 3.9% increase of patrons on Broadway over the year before is paired in the press release with another figure that dampens celebration when considered in context. Gross revenues, ie the box office take, was up 17% last year. Simply put: the rise in prices is outpacing audience growth.
Average ticket prices have been on the rise for a number of years, but it was only in the 2013-14 Broadway season that they rose past the $100 mark; at $103, to be more precise. Now, only four years later, that average is $123.
Placed alongside $850 tickets for Springsteen on Broadway and Hamilton, that $123 average seems a bargain, and certainly the average is far below the top rate charged for many shows. But the rate of the increase must be noted, since it is significantly outpacing audience growth. Those shows at the top of the price scale are ratcheting up the average to be sure, but most shows now have stalls seats with prices of at least $150, with more at or near $200.
The average is counterweighted by low-priced upper balcony seats, bargain-priced, day-of-show lotteries, periodic discount offers such as the ‘Season of Savings’ promotion, and the invaluable TKTS booths, now with four locations around the city. The presence of not-for-profits on Broadway, as detailed just a few weeks ago, also helps to keep the average pricing for all of Broadway reduced; with their subscriber prices typically still below $100 per seat.
Broadway has been a luxury product for some time, and the new figures only demonstrate that it continues to grow more luxurious as far as cost goes. Technology, dynamic pricing and more rigorous analysis of ticket-buying trends have combined to bring Broadway pricing more into line with the basic economic principle of supply and demand. After all, no new Broadway theatres are due to open (though the long dormant Times Square Theatre on 42nd Street remains tantalisingly empty), and the theatres that exist can’t cram in additional seating.
The rate of the increase in Broadway ticket prices must be noted, since it is significantly outpacing audience growth
It is now well-proven, by a number of hit shows, that the kind of pricing that prevailed until The Producers introduced VIP seating in 2001 was in fact artificially suppressed. The Broadway League’s numbers show that pricing is still finding its true level, in part because it is capturing revenues previously left to ticket resellers in the once shadowy, now wide-open, secondary resale market.
Rising arts ticket prices anywhere go against my philosophy, which looks for greater accessibility for the widest array of audience, rather than a stratification by economic means. But if there’s one thing that can be said for the rising prices, it’s that they allow both the creative artists and the investors in Broadway shows to capture more of the available revenue. It had previously been left to secondary sellers, so at least the people who deserve to profit from their commitments are reaping the rewards. This is ever more true when some Broadway musicals, which are responsible for most of the tickets sold on Broadway, are now being capitalised at $20 million or more.
Earlier this week, my colleague Andrzej Lukowski wrote of his surprise on how the £200 ticket has crept up on him. I suspect that’s true for many. But the Broadway numbers have been a harbinger of what’s taken place in the West End, especially as so many of the same shows – Book of Mormon, The Lion King, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton, to name but a few – have been responsible for price growth on both sides of the Atlantic.
The headlines of new records keep coming, but only by drilling down into the numbers do we discover what’s really causing thresholds to be repeatedly crossed, season after season, year after year. There’s no surprise any more in the fact that it keeps happening, only at the pace of the acceleration.
How should the industry and its audiences grapple with it? How we continue to draw patrons into all theatres, not just those at the top of the food chains, is an essential challenge. Those are the bigger questions because, barring an international monetary calamity, Broadway pricing isn’t a bubble. It’s the new reality.
This week in US theatre
Between the Disney film from the 1950s and the beloved Disneyland attraction, it’s not easy to imagine 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea on stage. But Chicago’s intrepid Lookingglass Theatre is taking audiences into the undersea world of Captain Nemo with a world premiere adaptation by David Kersnar and Althos Low, directed by Kersnar, opening Saturday.
BD Wong returns to the New York stage this week in Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, making its New York debut at the Atlantic Theater Company, opening Thursday under the direction of Taibi Magar. Yee’s play, set in 1989, explores the drama of ‘basketball diplomacy’ as a US team travels to China for a friendship game.