Friday, April 13, 2012

Ka-Ching! Making Money on Broadway


In tough economic times like these, it is always great - and kind of a relief - to hear about businesses that are doing well.  It is even better when the news involves Broadway, aka "The Fabulous Invalid."  Every season, we hear about how Broadway is dying, blah blah blah.

Well, the economics of three of Broadway's biggest hits of all time came to light this week in reports by AP (and tangentially The New York Times and and on  The first report followed the release of the past week's box office figures.  With a gross of over $2M last week, Disney's The Lion King surpassed Broadway's longest-running show, The Phantom of the Opera in total cumulative gross.  A remarkable feat regardless, it is all the more interesting given that Phantom has a 10 year head start The Lion King, the former having opened in 1988, the latter in 1997, and that the Disney show plays in a theatre with literally only a few more seats.  The difference, of course, is that those few seats add up each week, and more importantly that the average ticket price over the years has been much higher for The Lion King.

Three shoes based on classic literature

Also out this week was a report about the profits being being made over at the Gershwin Theatre (and worldwide) with Wicked.  Some $300 million in profits are being shared by the investors and the creative staff.  And it mostly seems fair - the authors (novelist Gregory Maguire, book writer Winnie Holzman, and composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz) are getting the largest piece of the profit pie, with director Joe Mantello doing quite well, too.  Choreographer Wayne Cilento and the designers get somewhat less, but are still multi-millionaires.  (I have to admit that it strikes me as odd that the one creative who most directly still works with each and every production and replacement actor, costume designer Susan Hilferty, makes the least.
  • Read the AP report on The Lion King and The Phantom of the Opera HERE.
  • Read the article on Wicked  HERE.

Creative, colorful spectacle

While all of this is nice to contemplate for those involved, plus the untold millions all three shows have generated for New York and all of the businesses used by audience members, I have been thinking about this in terms of the larger picture - perhaps something all present and future producers, writers and shows should consider.  What is it about these three shows that have made them the cash cow they have become?

Here are a few things I have come up with.  (Feel free to write and/or comment about other ideas you've come up with!)

All three shows:

  • are based upon pieces of beloved literature - Wicked based on the modern classic by Gregory Maguire, itself based upon the classic works of L. Frank Baum; The Phantom of the Opera  is based upon the novel by Gaston Leroux; The Lion King is based upon Shakespeare's Hamlet.
  • are similarly based upon popular films - Wicked owes much to the film The Wizard of Oz; The Lion King is an adaptation of the Disney film; and The Phantom of the Opera has been made into several extremely popular films throughout the history of film.
  • are scored by popular and successful theatre composers, all of whom have found some measure of success in popular music as well - Wicked with a score by Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, "Day By Day"); The Phantom of the Opera with a score by one of the most successful composers of the 20th century in the world, Andrew Lloyd Webber (Joseph..., Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita); and The Lion King features a score by one of the 20th century's most prolific and popular music stars, Elton John (Billy Elliot, AIDA).
  • are full of spectacle befitting the greatest of Broadway traditions, transporting audiences to times and places.
  • reveal that spectacle in creative and timeless ways, while still being inventive and trend-setting.

Three shows that are not star-driven
(Wicked makes stars - 
above, Megan Hilty and Caissie Levy)

  • appeal to a wide spectrum of theatre-goers - musical lovers, people who love romance, larger than life heroes and villains.
  • have universal and easy to see themes that give audiences a sense of understanding, and therefore are a part of the event themselves.
  • appeal to audience members who never otherwise attend theatre - all three are accessible story-wise, none have that stigma of being "typical Broadway" (like that's a bad thing).
  • have been advertised and merchandised in such a way that international audiences have been cultivated.
  • have logos that are instantly recognizable, even with people who do not follow the theatre scene at all.
  • and this might be the most important thing for their long-term success: aside from the original casts, none of these shows is star-driven or dependent.

@jkstheatrescene (Twitter); (email); Comment below (Blogger)

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