That’s a 14.4 percent jump from last year, though admissions remain almost flat and original properties are in short supply, with all four best musical Tony contenders adapted from movies.
When Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban step onto the Radio City Music Hall stage June 10 to present the Tony Awards, Broadway producers in the audience will be sitting pretty: With the 2017-18 season wrapping May 27, grosses already have hit a record high north of $1.65 billion, a sizable hike of 14.4 percent from last year.
That’s the good news.
The cautionary note: Admissions are nearly flat, increasing by just 1.6 percent over the previous season, when attendance was pumped by peak Hamilton fever, SRO demand for Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! and hot-ticket entries like Dear Evan Hansen.
The 2016-17 season generated $1.45 billion at the box office, with 13.27 million total admissions. Attendance for the current season is just under 13.48 million with one more week to go, meaning the majority of those new dollars are coming from premium tickets, not additional butts in seats. It’s worth noting also that just 30 new productions were eligible for Tony Awards this year, the lowest number in more than a decade. That means that the pileup of hits is creating a logjam, with incoming shows vying for fewer available theaters.
Still, it’s hard to find a downside in the numbers. As little as 10 years ago it was rare to see more than a handful of shows crack the $1 million mark on a standard nonholiday week; in the week ending May 20, 18 productions topped that threshold, with Hamilton surpassing $3 million and The Lion King exceeding $2 million. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child narrowly missed the latter mark due to the large number of comped Tony voters being accommodated.
That healthy cluster of powerhouse earners includes Broadway’s newest MVP, Bruce Springsteen, whose concert memoir, Springsteen on Broadway, has grossed close to $61 million since its October opening, even with hiatus periods and short playing weeks, sometimes with as few as four performances. The show is now scheduled to run through Dec. 15 and is the top-grossing new production of the 2017-18 season.
Premium tickets also have pumped grosses for Mean Girls (with a book by Tina Fey, who wrote and starred in the film), Harry Potter and the starry revival of The Boys in the Band, which opens May 31 (outside Tony eligibility) and hit a promising $1 million in its first preview week. Even the critically maligned jukebox show Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is drawing crowds, pulling in more than $1 million a week.
If producers are concerned that audience growth isn’t keeping pace with box office, few are complaining. But there’s a genuine risk that Broadway is slowly being priced out of the range of all but high-income consumers.
The other concern arising from this season’s Broadway landscape is the dearth of original material. In fact, the sole Tony contender for best new play that’s still running is Harry Potter, a two-part theatrical experience met with rapturous reviews and heralded by a record haul of Olivier Awards from its London debut, yet nonetheless an extension of a globally popular brand.
The air of familiarity is even more pronounced among new musicals, with all four of this year’s Tony nominees — The Band’s Visit, Frozen, Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants — adapted from film or TV properties, not for the first time. The category’s frontrunner, The Band’s Visit, has the edge in part because the delicately crafted show is based on a little-seen 2007 Israeli feature, not on a title already firmly embedded in the American pop-cultural consciousness.
Jukebox shows, whether biographical like Summer, or built around a Mamma Mia!-style patchwork narrative like Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville, also contribute to the view that Broadway has become a deluxe recycling center. As shows get more expensive to mount, producers are less inclined to take risks on unknown titles.
On the positive flipside, a number of revivals have been among the outstanding productions of the past season. As long as theater-makers can yield bold reinventions of classic work like Angels in America, Three Tall Women, The Iceman Cometh, Carousel and My Fair Lady — all of which are performing well at the box office — claims about the demise of creativity will sound hollow.
Trends on Broadway invariably are cyclical, and next season already is shaping up to be a stronger one for original plays, with Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, James Graham’s Ink, Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet and Oscar-winning Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy all coming in.
Still, let’s hope that alongside Pretty Woman, King Kong, Moulin Rouge! and The Cher Show, we also see some startling fresh explorations of the musical-theater form to bolster confidence in a new generation of storytellers sculpting from raw clay.
HANDICAPPING TONY’S HOLLYWOOD HOPEFULS
Best Actor, Play
Andrew Garfield is favored for his turn in Angels in America. Denzel Washington also earned strong reviews and a nom for a revival, The Iceman Cometh.
Best Actress, Play
Amy Schumer scored a surprise nomination for Meteor Shower, and Billions‘ Condola Rashad is in the running for Saint Joan, but Three Tall Women‘s Glenda Jackson has a lock.
Best Actor, Musical
Critics loved Tony Shalhoub in The Band’s Visit but he’s neck and neck with SpongeBob‘s Ethan Slater and Carousel‘s Joshua Henry to take this prize.
Best Actress, Musical
Lauren Ambrose earned kudos for her empowered spin on My Fair Lady‘s Eliza but The Band’s Visit‘s beguiling Katrina Lenk has the edge here.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.