The Broadway musical Beetlejuice’s press release issued last week with the headline ‘a strange and unusual announcement’ – echoing a line of dialogue from the show – was unexpected, to say the least.
It announced that a new block of tickets had gone on sale, and that they would be the last ones made available, because the show would be closing in June 2020. The closure of a Broadway show is fairly unremarkable, but Beetlejuice was not fading in popularity – it has grossed more than $1 million a week in eight of the past 10 weeks.
While the show, which opened in April of this year, was a somewhat slow starter, it seemed well on its way to being a solid – if not necessarily spectacular – success. But because it had performed only moderately in its early weeks, Beetlejuice had fallen below its contractual stop clause, giving the theatre owners the right to bring in another show and end Beetlejuice’s run at the Winter Garden, home of two longtime hits: Cats (18 years) and Mamma Mia! (11 years).
Surely the producers of Beetlejuice knew that they had breached the stop clause and that their rental agreement was at constant risk. But publicly Beetlejuice looked like a success, with articles about audience members attending in costume and the savvy use of social media platform TikTok burnishing that perception. No doubt there was vigorous backstage negotiation over the show’s fate.
After last week’s announcement, fans of Beetlejuice began campaigns on social media to rally support for the show and to plead for a reprieve. There were even online petitions to that effect, with one gathering over 30,000 signatures. But with a revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster – a surefire smash – already slated for the Winter Garden, it would be truly unprecedented at this point if Beetlejuice somehow stayed in the theatre past June.
In another era, Beetlejuice might have simply moved to another theatre. The practice has not been uncommon in the past, with the original production of West Side Story having left the Winter Garden for two months in 1959 before returning for a final six weeks.
The original Annie played for four years at the Alvin Theatre before shifting into three other venues for the last two years of its run. Disney transported The Lion King out of the New Amsterdam, a theatre the company owns, after nine years and shifted it to the Nederlanders’ Minskoff, where it has been a tenant since 2006, making room for Mary Poppins, Tarzan, and Aladdin.
Two main factors have brought Beetlejuice to this position, a successful show losing its home with no immediate alternative. The first is that Broadway houses remain at a premium, with more shows seeking a berth than there are venues. No new theatres are being built – the last, the Stephen Sondheim, was erected on the site of the former Henry Miller Theatre, so it was a swap, not an increase. The Palace is off the market for a couple of years while it is literally raised up from street level in a new Times Square development.
The other great challenge for Beetlejuice is that its funhouse set, designed by David Korins, is reportedly so complex that it would be quite expensive to move and retool for a different stage. In earlier years, with less technology, shifting houses was somewhat simpler. At a $21 million capitalisation, the requirement of what could be several million more dollars in expense would likely weigh the show down so that its chances of recoupment, let alone profit, would be prohibitively reduced.
The Beetlejuice dilemma is not a tale of rapacious landlords or villainous competition, but rather emblematic of how Broadway has changed. $1 million weekly grosses have become increasingly common but operating expenses have risen along with them. The specific calculations of stop clauses may be rooted in an earlier era when shows didn’t report that they had sold at 130% of their gross potential, as American Utopia did last week, and where the concept of marketing was all but unheard of (there was PR and advertising, but that was it).
Broadway’s supply and demand for theatres is a far cry from the mid 1980s, when commercial theatre in New York in general seemed like it might be on the ropes. Hamilton, Moulin Rouge!, The Lion King and Wicked all grossed more than $2 million last week, and To Kill a Mockingbird – a play – grossed $700,000 more than Beetlejuice – evidence of how expectations and earnings are being recalibrated.
Beetlejuice is planning a national tour, which, by necessity, will move in and out of theatres more easily. It’s certainly possible that if it succeeds on the road, a slimmed-down production could return to Broadway at some point. That is of course no comfort to the show’s producers or its fans at this moment, but it is perhaps a bit too early to toll the final bell for this show about death, currently the victim of an almost too successful Broadway.
The current outcry is unlikely to change the fate of the show at the Winter Garden, and that’s a shame for the many people involved. Perhaps if people cry “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice” often and loudly enough, and if sales in the final six months remain strong – or, better still, grow – the eponymous ghost might reappear on Broadway yet again. It would be fitting for a show that wants us to believe in a vital afterlife.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/