Meet You at the Theatre at 8 PM. Or Is It 7 PM? 11 AM?

By Robert Simonson
20 Aug 2007

illustration by Greg Kalafatas
illustration by Greg Kalafatas

Charting the various curtain times on Broadway would make Beauty and the Beast's Cogsworth pop a spring. Playbill.com tells how and why the times they are a changin'.

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Life Begins at 8:40 was the name of a 1935 Broadway musical revue by Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin and Yip Harburg. The producer didn't mean 8:40 AM, when folks tumble out of bed, gulp a cup of coffee and begin the day's work. They meant the evening hour when almost every Broadway curtain went up.Sometime after World War II, as theatergoers moved to the suburbs and commute times into the city increased, the evening openings were pushed back to 8 PM. And so, more or less, did they remain for some years, until an 8 PM evening curtain was the only time a generation of ticketbuyers had ever heard of. A theatregoer without a ticket on him or a newspaper to consult could arrive at the Winter Garden at 7:45 and assume he had ample time to take his seat.

That is no longer the case. Over the past several years, producers have become more and more flexible regarding their schedules. Shows are no longer hidebound by the standard, eight-show set-up of Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM or 3 PM. Productions play at 7 PM or 7:30 PM. Some offer shows on Monday and Sunday nights. Others do away with Sunday or Tuesday or Wednesday altogether. Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, a hit last holiday season, will this fall offer shows at 11 AM, 2 PM, 5 PM, 7:30 PM, as well as the old standby, 8 PM.

"Today's theatregoing consumer has slightly different lifestyle that the consumers of 30, 40 years ago," said Susan Lee, an executive at the Nederlander Organization, which owns several Broadway theatres. "More women are working than ever before. Our lifestyles are more jam-packed. The demographic shifts that are happening in our society are impacting who goes to the theatre and when."



"As Broadway has become more diversified in its audience, it's important that shows happen when the audience is available," observed producer Kevin McCollum, a scheduling innovator who has long played around with existing models to best exploit the audience potential of his long-running musical Rent. "It's just a question of the show and the audience and also staying out of the way of other shows."

If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be 7 PM

Though unorthodox scheduling was in evidence here and there in the late '90s, Broadway timetables arguably began to truly loosen up after 9/11 when producer Cameron Mackintosh, Dodgers Theatricals and Disney Theatrical convened to study a consumer report they had commissioned.

"There was an insight in the report that people would come to theatre on a weeknight if the curtain was early," recalled Susan Lee, who at the time was with the marketing agency Serino Coyne, which then called all three producers clients. "It was decided that 7:30 wasn't enough of a difference." A 7 PM curtain on Tuesdays was agreed upon.

Serino Coyne put together an advertising campaign to publicize "Tuesdays @ 7 PM," announcing with program at the Tourneau watch store. The Cogsworth clock character from Beauty and the Beast was on hand to symbolically turn back the clock. "Shameless promotion," laughed Lee.

"Tuesdays @ 7" is still very much part of the Broadway landscape. It is particularly favored by family-oriented shows, such as Wicked and Les Miserables, although more adult offerings like Chicago and Jersey Boys also employ it. "What we found is that parents can bring their kids to the theatre on Tuesday night, because they can get home early enough, especially for short shows," stated Lee. (It is an open secret that the 7 PM curtains are also highly popular with work-weary critics and Tony voters, who might like to get home to bed as soon as possible.)

The "Tuesdays @ 7" slot is not for everybody, however.

"We don't do 7 PM on Tuesday nights," stated McCollum about Rent. "We're an 8 PM show." You won't find a 7 PM curtain for his other shows, either, including Avenue Q and The Drowsy Chaperone. "We do musicals for adults," he explained. And adults like to go out on weekends. As a result, Rent plays a five-show weekend, with matinees on both Saturday and Sunday. McCollum said he may also use a five-show weekend for In the Heights, the upcoming Broadway show that is expected to draw a hip, youthful audience.

Getting Out of the Way of the Competition

For many years, Monday was traditionally a dark day on Broadway. Not any more. A tourist visiting Times Square on the first day of the week would be able to choose between several shows, including Rent, Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. What do these shows have in common? They've been running a long, long time.

"Typically, the longer running shows will employ a Monday night, because there's not as much competition," explained McCollum. A more sparsely populated field helps to remind consumers that such standbys still exist and might be worth a visit.

Marc Thibodeau, a spokesman for Les Miserables, which recently returned to Broadway after a brief break, said the popular musical typically exchanges its Sunday show for one on Monday in the summer, "to take advantage of more tourists being in town. Conversely, we feel Sundays aren't as strong in the summer because locals are at the beach or out of town."

It should be noted, however, that with every new scheduling rule of thumb, there seems to be an exception. The runaway hit Spring Awakening is not a long-running show, and, at present, doesn't have to worry much about competition. Yet, its schedule (one of the most peculiar on Broadway) boasts a Monday performance. Such is the free nature of Broadway timetables in the 21st century.

Of the Times You'll Go!

There is no question that the most unusual show schedule of the 2006-07 season, as well as the current season, is that of the limited-run holiday show Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!: It will offer curtains as early at 11 AM, 15 performances per week and eight-show weekends. It's doubtful the producers even consulted the typical Broadway models.

"What we found was there was a very high demand for matinee performances," said producer Thom Miller. "For families, 7:30 PM is still too late." Her solution was to add shows at 11 AM, 2 PM and 5 PM. The morning performances were also key in snagging desired school groups. "If it's a 2 PM show, they get back after school is over and you have to get special permissions. At 11 AM, they're back before school ends."

The crammed weekend set-up, meanwhile, takes advantage of the droves of tourist that descend on New York in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's. So far, audiences seem to have adjusted well to the unorthodox timing. Miller reported no incidences of confused patrons arriving to the theatre at incorrect times.

While the Broadway scene is still not as flexible as its London counterpart where 7:15 PM and 7:45 PM shows and phenomena like Thursday matinees have long been the norm it's getting there. Broadway observers expect time to become more pliable in the future.

"If I were a producer, I'd be even more all over the place," said Lee, "because different shows lend themselves to different kinds of consumers who have different kind of lifestyles."

McCollum, who personally no longer sees variant schedules as unusual or unorthodox, expects nothing to halt the trend. "The good news," he said, "is you have seven days to choose from to best manage your show."