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Ticket lines replace picket lines

Meanwhile, Broadway counts its steep losses after the strike and wonders which shows won't recover.

December 01, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- For now, everything on Broadway is coming up roses. After a paralyzing 19-day strike that shut down 26 shows, long lines at the box offices this weekend have finally replaced picket lines. The Rialto is buzzing again, just in time for the holidays.

"Broadway's Back!" boomed ads for a free performance Friday in the theater district by an array of stars, including Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury and others. The concert at the Marquis Theatre, staged by the League of American Theatres and Producers, was an attempt to erase the stigma of a battle between the league and stagehands that lasted far longer than most expected and gave the drama biz a black eye.

But underneath the bravado, beyond the happy mantras of the Great White Way -- "Curtain up, light the lights!" -- the strike has raised troubling questions for the theater world: How will producers recover from steep box-office losses estimated at $40 million? And which productions face the biggest challenges to survive?

Few can predict how the new contract between the league and Local One representing 3,000 stagehands, will affect the economics of future shows. Details of the new labor deal, which has yet to be ratified, remain unclear.

But rising costs have already taken a toll on Broadway, where top tickets regularly go for $110, and so-called premium tickets at some shows cost more than $400.

The price of putting on new musicals has also been rising: "Young Frankenstein," which opened last month, cost an estimated $20 million to produce.

Still, amid these pressures, Broadway has put on a happy face.

" 'Rent' has been playing for 11 years -- and thank you for being our first audience after the strike!" said actor Telly Leung, as performers took their bows Thursday at the Nederlander Theatre. The audience cheered. Yet the small size of the crowd -- barely 300 people in a 1,200-seat house -- underscored the challenges facing the show, on a night when Broadway shook off the cobwebs and got back to business.

For some hit shows, such as "Wicked" and "The Lion King," the work stoppage seemed like a temporary aberration, an interruption in a steady stream of millions of dollars in advance box-office sales.

Hours after the strike was settled Wednesday night, it was difficult to find tickets to these shows, which had been sold out months in advance.

Others offered a variety of post-strike discounts intended to lure audiences back. Tickets for any remaining seats for "Chicago's" Thursday night show, for example, were sold for $26.50, a far cry from the usual $111.50 for orchestra seats.

"The Color Purple," starring "American Idol's" Fantasia Barrino, offered a buy-one, get-one-free deal through Dec. 23.

The strike had scuttled the opening nights for several highly anticipated shows, including Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention," Disney's "The Little Mermaid," Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" and Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer." But all have been rescheduled. Joe Allen, Sardi's and Times Square restaurants that had been hit hard by the strike are packed once again, along with local stores.

Yet there remains a Darwinian drama playing out in the 11-block strip that is home to the $1-billion-a-year theater business.

"Rent" is a case in point.

Immediately after the strike ended, producers began offering $110 orchestra-seat tickets for $65, with seats elsewhere going for as low as $40, through Dec. 23. The special offer, not valid on Saturday evenings, is an attempt by backers to lure back business -- not just after the strike but also in general.

In the month before the work stoppage, the musical was filling, on average, 53% of the seats at the Nederlander Theatre, according to weekly grosses released by the league. Most other shows were running at least at 70% capacity, and in some cases much more than that.

To be sure, "Rent" has relied heavily on walk-up business in recent years rather than advance sales. And the simple fact that it has been running so long on Broadway makes it vulnerable to competition from newer shows.

As a result, there has been speculation that "Rent" and other productions, such as "The Drowsy Chaperone," might be in jeopardy of closing soon.

Broadway producers pay steep rents to theater owners, and if a show fails to generate sufficient revenues, there are others waiting in the wings to take its place.

" 'Rent' is a brand name by now, and after 11 years it's still doing well," said John Corker, general manager, dismissing negative speculation. "With our new discount offers, it's a way to reignite customers and get the word out -- to get people back to Broadway."

Raucous applause greeted Thursday night's performance of the opera-cum-musical that seemed revolutionary when it debuted in 1996. "Rent" won a clutch of Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize and spawned a movie. The still-provocative show boasts a loyal fan base, with many priding themselves on having seen it dozens of times.

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