Taking to heart the old adage that the Lord helps those who help themselves, the New York City Mayor's office and Broadway producers are taking a proactive approach to bolstering the city's performing arts in the wake of the Sept. 11 Arab terrorist attacks. With tourism down and arts organizations still struggling to recover from the economic fallout, the city government listened to a plea for help from the League of American Theatres and Producers and agreed to buy up nearly 50,000 tickets to struggling Broadway shows.
As confirmed by a spokesperson for the League, tickets that generally sold for $65-$90 were purchased for $50 by the city. 14,000 tickets (purchased for $700,000) to Beauty and the Beast, Contact, The Phantom of the Opera, Less Miserables (all heavy tourist draws) and the soon-to-close Hedda Gabler were already given away free to rescue workers and the families of victims of the World Trade Center collapse.
The second wave of tickets — 15,000 ducats to be purchased for $750,000 to Beast, Cabaret, Chicago, Contact, Less Miz, The Full Monty, Urinetown, Proof, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and The Phantom of the Opera — will be for winter performances after the new year, a traditionally slow period for New York theatre even in ordinary times. Rather than a charitable giveaway, these ducats will be tied to marketing and commerce. Shoppers who spend at least $500 in New York City stores, restaurants and cultural institutions between Jan. 1-15 (and have the receipts to prove it) will receive a free pair of Broadway theatre tickets. Also, a number of tickets will be held for radio station contests and promotions by retailers.
A League spokesperson told PBOL that musicals will get "a higher allotment of tickets than dramas," because their weekly break-even is higher. A third wave of 20,000 tickets purchased for $1 million will follow the first two.
Cristyne L. Nicholas, president of the City's tourist office, NYC & Company, told the New York Times it's hoped the $2.5 million cost of the ticket buy up will generate $7.5-$12 million in consumer spending in Manhattan. Though Broadway theatres are generally a for-profit endeavor, with Broadway producing a speculative endeavor with very clear and very high risks, the bailout is seen as a way to help the general Manhattan economy, rather than just save some shows that might be struggling at this time of year anyway. Theatre League President Jed Bernstein told the Times, "...we've always felt that the city could use Broadway as a lure to bring attention to other things, because it is so visible." Expanding on that theme, a League spokesperson told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 19), "The decision to do this was to stimulate tourism. Broadway is a number-one tourist attraction and therefore, if people are coming in to buy tickets for a Broadway show, the tourism economy will be stimulated. If you have a large repertoire of shows, you're more apt to bring people in than if several shows close — especially shows that are very attractive to the international and domestic tourist."
Added Bernstein, "Supporting Broadway with a ticket subsidy has the domino effect of first stimulating related tourist industries, such as retail, restaurants and hotels, as well as the overall New York City economy."
The program, as with most of the financial aid plans for the theatre which have emerged since Sept. 11, is not without controversy, however. Off Broadway producers and theatres owners have begun to complain that they have been left out of the city’s relief efforts and, indeed, were never consulted or considered. Detractors view this oversight as particularly egregious since, they say, Off-Broadway has suffered more than Broadway since the economic downturn brought on by the terrorist attacks.
“I think it’s boneheaded,” Scott Morfee, the producer of OB’s Underneath the Lintel, told the New York Times. “There’s a lot of insulted theater owners right now.”
In response, League President Bernstein told PBOL, "Happily, I'm not in the position of having to weigh the relative merits of the many, many industries and constituencies that are in need. I'd never say Broadway is more worthy than anything else. I'm simply happy they're doing it. The League initiated discussions, and the city came through."
Bernstein added that although incoming Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not involved in creating the plan, he's expected to be "supportive of Broadway and the arts, as he has been in his private life."
— By David Lefkowitz
and Robert Simonson