Four matinees a week is not typical on Broadway. But that’s exactly what the new musical The Lightning Thief is offering.
The Lightning Thief is based on Rick Riordan’s highly popular book series for tween readers Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The production takes pains to make clear that it is an adaptation of the books and not the two movies drawn from the same series, which diverged in significant and not entirely successful ways in a bid to appeal to a wider audience.
The Broadway show originated as a production by TheaterWorks USA, a venerable youth theatre company, which initially produced the show in a 60-minute, one-act touring version. The show was later expanded into the current two-act version, which has played 32 cities in 26 weeks in the past year. That tour has come to Broadway for a limited run.
Over that time, the producers have certainly learned who the show appeals to most and what kind of schedule is best to maximise sales. At last Saturday’s matinee, children attended in significant numbers, with their parents in tow, of course. The four-matinee schedule even sends a signal about who the show is targeted to, as its evening performances are all at 7pm, except for Saturday nights at 8pm.
Shifting curtain times has proven to be smart business for Broadway, and it has been an ever-evolving practice. In the 1930s (and likely earlier), it was common for evening shows to begin at 8.30pm, or even 8.40pm. 8pm eventually became the standard for many years, giving way a decade ago to 7pm curtains on Tuesdays, which are now commonplace on Thursdays as well, and if a show is short enough to ensure the actors get a break, Wednesdays too.
The naysayers about the 7pm curtains were convinced that it would be a disaster, with audiences constantly turning up an hour late. After some initial adjustment, patrons paid attention to the curtain times on their tickets.
When it comes to shows that appeal to young audiences, The Lightning Thief is not alone in making adjustments based on school nights and earlier bedtimes. With many Broadway shows, Disney has certainly studied what works, although it’s interesting to note that weekday matinees are not de rigeur for Disney, but rather intermittent. With schools having cut back on field trips, no doubt mid-week matinee houses have proved harder to fill, resulting in two-show Saturdays and Sundays most weeks.
Twenty years ago, the Broadway revival of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown tried a notably experimental schedule that required the buy-in of the theatrical unions. It played matinee and evening shows on Thursday, a Friday evening, then three shows on Saturday and two on Sunday. In exchange for a heavy schedule, the actors had three days off a week. The experiment was perhaps put in place too late to change the show’s declining fortunes, as it closed only three weeks after the new schedule was announced.
Certainly family shows are not the sole reason to change the prevailing performance schedules: The Inheritance has curtain times at 1pm and 7pm three days a week. David Byrne’s American Utopia offers shows at 5.30pm and 9pm on Saturdays. Looking back to the revival of The Norman Conquests, Saturdays were three show days, not to appeal to youngsters, but rather to allow patrons to see the entire trilogy in a single day.
The bottom line is that shows maximise their sales opportunities by not sticking with a set pattern that prevails at all theatres on Broadway, whether it’s to turn out more 10-year-olds for Percy Jackson or more rock concert-goers for David Byrne. The conventional wisdom on curtain times has long been broken, and it’s proving beneficial to producers and audience. More show-by-show tinkering can only continue to evolve theatregoing practice, which is essential in an era when most entertainment can be scheduled on demand.
David Byrne’s American Utopia opens at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre on Sunday, with the former Talking Heads frontman leading a roster of 11 musical artists. It promises a survey of Byrne’s multifaceted musical career, with staging and choreography by Annie-B Parson and Moulin Rouge!’s Alex Timbers as production consultant.
Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf journeyed from the Public Theater to Broadway in 1976, racking up an impressive 742 performances. The show returns to its Off-Broadway roots at the Lafayette Street Theatre, opening on Tuesday in a new staging by Leah C Gardner, with choreography by Camille A Brown.
Harvey Fierstein performs his new one-person show Bella Bella, the story of the iconoclastic New York politician Bella Abzug, a groundbreaking feminist who served in Congress for three terms in the 1970s. Kimberly Senior directs the show for Manhattan Theatre Club in its Off-Broadway venue, opening on Tuesday.
Macbeth has been reset in numerous ways, including feudal Japan (Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood) and the American criminal underworld (both Joe Macbeth and Men of Respect). But the new musical Scotland PA, based on the film of the same name, reimagines the tale of a scheming couple in a US burger restaurant. Any resemblance to a famous fast food chain with a Scottish name is entirely coincidental. The score is by Adam Gwon and the book by Michael Mitnick. It opens on Wednesday at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway venue under Lonny Price’s direction.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/