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Attendance revival on Broadway

It's another record year for Times Square box offices, even as other forms of entertainment struggle for audiences.

June 10, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As Broadway prepares for its big night tonight, it has more to celebrate than the annual parade of self-congratulations that is the Tony Awards. For the second straight year, Broadway has registered record attendance and gross revenues at a time when other forms of entertainment are looking at bleak bottom lines.

The League of American Theatres and Producers, a national trade association for the Broadway industry, reported recently that 12.3 million tickets had been sold during the just completed 2006-07 season, up 2.6% from last year's previous record level. Grosses hit $939 million, up 8.9%.

If the growth continues at a similar rate next season, Times Square box offices will break the billion-dollar barrier -- this just a few years after Broadway producers worried about their future after the terrorist attacks of 2001, which scared off foreign visitors and depressed ticket sales and grosses alike.

Broadway's good news, fueled by a series of musicals that run at or close to capacity, is in stark contrast to the trend in recorded music, in particular. Revenue from CD sales dropped 13% between 2005 and 2006 and is down 20% this year. Network television has found itself in a slump too: In the most recent "sweeps" period, ratings surveys reported that only three shows -- two of which were the twice-weekly "American Idol" episodes -- averaged more than 20 million viewers.

Movies have been a mixed picture, meanwhile: After three down years, the domestic box office rose to a record $9.49 billion last year. And with a series of blockbuster sequels hitting the multiplexes this year, Hollywood, like Broadway, could well chalk up a second round of all-time highs.

But film and theater share another trend -- rising production costs -- that complicates any celebration of the record numbers.

"I guess much has been said all year, and the end of last year, how grosses are going up, and of course that is terrific," said Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the producers league here. "But as we know, you can't just look at the top line."

St. Martin notes that whereas shows a decade ago recouped their costs and began to make a profit after 30 weeks, that time span has stretched now to two years, meaning that four out of five shows will never earn back their investments. One extreme example is "The Pirate Queen," from the creators of "Les Miserables," which will close June 17 -- just two months after it opened -- at a loss of $16 million.

Much as with films, the blockbusters drive up Broadway numbers. Currently six musicals -- "Jersey Boys," "Wicked," "Mamma Mia!" "The Lion King," "Mary Poppins" and "Beauty and the Beast" -- are running at more than 90% capacity, while the best received of the new musicals this season, "Spring Awakening," is filling 88% of its seats, a figure that could well increase following tonight's awards.

But the broad-appeal shows, many of them movie-to-stage adaptations or jukebox musicals, also benefit their competition in ways that high-grossing films do not: Many of the ticket buyers, some paying more than $100 for a seat, are visitors to New York who wind up seeing more than one show during their stay.

Of the just-completed season's 12.3 million Broadway show attendees, 5 million were domestic tourists and 1.3 million were from other countries -- that figure well more than twice the total of international ticket buyers in the season immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These days, even midweek, they're impossible to miss on the crowded streets of Times Square, taking each other's picture in front of the Virgin Megastore sign, climbing on double-decker tour buses and getting "free passes" from a hawker promising "a crazy time" at a comedy club.

The Broadway producers relish such visitors as Los Angeles architect Barry Gittleson, who was reading the Zagat guide to restaurants the other night while waiting to pick up a ticket to another new show, "Grey Gardens," at the Walter Kerr Theater on 48th Street. Gittleson, 73, said that his favorite thing to do in New York is to simply "walk and stare at buildings" and that the Broadway scene was not high on his list. But he'd seen a recent Tony-winning musical during this trip, "Avenue Q," and had decided to take in this one after hearing an NPR radio interview with "the star, whatever her name is."

So that's how he came to see Christine Ebersole, playing both the mother and daughter in the two-act musical adapted from the 1975 film documentary about the real-life blueblood relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who became reclusive cat women in their decaying Hamptons mansion, a performance considered a lock for the Tony as best actress in a musical.

Mike Rosenberg, who oversees theatrical productions for East of Doheny, the L.A.-based firm producing "Grey Gardens," said he has been pleasantly surprised to find that such out-of-towners make up half the audience for the show, which had been expected to appeal more to a New York audience.

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