GETTING TO KNOW YOU: A Profile of Today's Broadway Audience

Tony Awards   GETTING TO KNOW YOU: A Profile of Today's Broadway Audience
 
FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL

FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL

Eight times a week, an excited crowd spills out onto the sidewalk in front of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street, whereTitanic continues to draw packed houses a year after winning the Tony Award for Best Musical of 1997. On a recent evening, a high-school tour group is gathered in front of the theatre; they all hail from the same town, Texarkana, 20 of them from the Texas side of State Line Boulevard, and the remaining two from across the street in Arkansas. Each student cranes his or her neck to peek into the packed lobby as a burly usher bellows, "Doors open at 7:35. Please wait outside. There is no more room in the lobby." After a pause he adds, "It's a beautiful evening out there," ignoring the intermittent rain of this early spring night.

To no avail: The Texarkana group ignores the usher's plea, as does the elegantly dressed older couple from Long Island directly behind them, and the mid '20s, bleached blond, earring-clad New York man behind them. Before the doors finally open, the eclectic mix that makes up tonight's audience -- and most Broadway audiences -- comes together in a conspiratorial surge toward the lobby, tickets in hand and anticipation in their eyes.

Such are the enthusiasms of just a few of the many satisfied ticket buyers who attended a Broadway show this past season. The sheer thrill of being mesmerized by a showstopping musical number or the climactic scene in an acid-etched satire draws people to Broadway in droves. But who are these millions of theatregoers who snap up seats to the latest import from the London or a venerable crowd-pleasing musical?

A recent study conducted by Research International on behalf of the League of American Theatres and Producers (co-presenters of the Tony Awards) attempts to answer that question. The results, released in March in a report entitled "Who Goes to Broadway? A Demographic Study of the Broadway Audience 1997," reveal a host of good news for the theatre industry, providing the most sweeping overview of the Broadway audience in the past several years. In fact, the study has proven so helpful in shedding light on Broadway from the audience's perspective, League executive director Jed Bernstein says, that similar surveys will now be conducted on an annual basis, as opposed to the six-year gap since the last one. According to the new study, the number of Broadway tickets sold in the 1996-97 season reached 10.6 million, the highest number in 16 years, and an astounding 45 percent increase since the League's previous survey in 1991. Not that this comes as any surprise to producers trying to place shows on Broadway: Theatre vacancy rates have shrunk to nearly zero as a host of new and old shows continue to draw large audiences. There was a time when theatre pundits bemoaned the dearth of Broadway shows, but now they write about the long list of plays and musicals that are all dressed up with no place to go -- until a Broadway house becomes available.

The League's research was obtained throughout the 1996-97 season by means of a questionnaire distributed systematically to audiences at various performance times of 23 different productions. The shows were chosen to represent a wide range of Broadway offerings, from long-running megamusicals like Les Miserables to new plays such as The Last Night of Ballyhoo, last season's Tony winner for Best Play. Data for the report was compiled from 6,078 completed surveys out of 10,650 distributed -- an unusually high 57 percent response rate that surpasses the average response rate for marketing and promotional surveys employed by other industries.

Among the most surprising (and welcome) findings was that the number of theatregoers under age 18 more than doubled from the previous survey six years before, to 1.1 million. Similarly, the report noted a 60 percent increase in the number of 18-24 year olds attending Broadway shows. These young people represent the future of Broadway audiences, and their increasing interest is an unmistakable sign that Broadway remains a vital and vibrant cultural outlet for people of all ages.

Indeed, over the past few years, many of Broadway's biggest hits have been particularly popular with young people. Among such shows surveyed by the League were Rent, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, and the revival of Grease! Working in conjunction with the Theatre Development Fund, the League has recently undertaken more aggressive efforts to encourage young people to attend Broadway shows, like "Kids Night on Broadway," a hugely successful program that offers discounts and incentives for children to see a Broadway show. Other important theatrical organizations are also reaching out to youth -- including the Tony Awards' founder and co-presenter, the American Theatre Wing, which sponsors "Introduction to Broadway," for which participating Broadway producers make tickets to shows like Miss Saigon available for $5. "The cooperation of the producers has been wonderful," says the Wing's president, Isabelle Stevenson, who insists that the greatly reduced price of admission be split 50/50 by the Wing and each individual student. "It's very important that the students pay something," says Stevenson. "That way, they are making a commitment that is important in a variety of ways, in addition to being culturally important."

Even though the sharp increase in the number of young theatregoers may be the most significant revelation of the report, the role that the heavy-duty theatregoer plays in Broadway's overall renaissance can't be overlooked. Defined as people who attend Broadway 15 times or more annually, this group represents a mere 5 percent of the total audience, but they account for a disproportionate 25 percent of all tickets sold. Other findings also bode well for Broadway. For example, while there's been much speculation that megamusicals that primarily attract tourists are overwhelming the industry, the study reveals that over half the Broadway audience resides in or around New York City, an increase of almost one million since the 1991 survey.

No report was necessary to reinforce another commonly held belief: A simple scan of a typical Broadway audience proves that Broadway theatregoers remain disproportionately female. In fact, the League's report found that 62 percent of audience members were women. And the importance of women isn't limited to attendance, since the survey reveals that women make two-thirds of all ticket purchasing decisions. A similar audience scan would also point out some possible areas of expansion that the report corroborated. For example, compared to numbers in the most recent U.S. Census, African-Americans, Latinos and -- perhaps surprisingly -- senior citizens are underrepresented among theatregoers, meaning that Broadway has new markets to tap, new audiences to reach out to.

How do theatregoers make decisions about which show to see? Of course, newspaper reviews, familiarity with the show (in the case of revivals), star power and Tony Award appearances all have quite an impact. In addition, the recent onslaught of publicity about the renovation of the Times Square district, the falling crime rate in New York City, and the overall impression that the Big Apple is once again a "user-friendly" destination for tourists has clearly benefitted Broadway.

But according to the study -- and common sense -- the most important factor by far in show selection is word of mouth. That was the main reason that the Texarkana group, many of whom had never visited New York before, found itself in front of the Lunt-Fontanne on a Thursday evening in spring. And positive word of mouth is why houses will continue to be filled on Broadway in the future; a stroll by the Lunt-Fontanne at 11:30, nearly an hour after the Titanic sank into the dark waters of the North Atlantic, revealed a different crowd of high school students, from neither side of State Line Boulevard, gathered for a group photograph next to the theatre doors. All clutched cast recordings, t-shirts and other Titanic memorabilia as they waited patiently, happily, for the snapshot.

-- By Jeff Hoover

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