A Look Behind the Curtain at Broadway's Billion-Dollar 2009-10 Season

News   A Look Behind the Curtain at Broadway's Billion-Dollar 2009-10 Season
The Broadway box office hit $1 billion in 2009-10. Its leaders offer their perspective.


In 1969 William Goldman published "The Season," his landmark account of a single year on Broadway, 1967-68. At the time, hit shows were grossing $100,000 a week, and Variety reported that Broadway took in $59 million for the season, a new record.

That year Judy Garland enjoyed a triumphant return to the Palace, followed by a double bill of Buddy Hackett and Eddie Fisher on the same stage. The rock musical Hair made its way uptown to Broadway after a debut at the Public Theater, and the Burt Bacharach-Neil Simon musical Promises, Promises was preparing for its debut.

Broadway changes and yet it remains the same: Recently Liza Minnelli performed a Tony-winning run at the Palace, Eddie's daughter Carrie offered a solo show at Studio 54, Hair is again letting the sun shine in, and Promises, Promises has brought its groove back to the Great White Way.

But the latest chapter in Broadway's history may be its best. Despite a storm that clouded the entire global economy, Broadway, that so-called "fabulous invalid," is breaking the $1 billion mark for the 2009-2010 season.

Wicked and Next to Normal producer David Stone reflected on Broadway's not-too-distant darker days: "Last winter, we thought that this idea of opening 40 new productions a season with all of the attendant risk, we thought all that was over. Not everyone said it aloud and not everyone wrote it, but everyone thought it. So, to be here now with a record-breaking season is beyond impressive," he says of Broadway's resilience. During the 2009-2010 season 39 shows opened, down only two from the year before. A total of 71 productions, including long-running shows and works now closed, filled Broadway's stages, and most recent reports from The Broadway League show that attendance and box-office sales were up for the first quarter of 2010.

"New York City is the cultural capital of the world, and Broadway has long been at the center of it all. Attendance at Broadway shows continues to grow, and that's great news for the many New Yorkers who work in theatre-related jobs - and for our entire economy," says New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

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Even as Broadway faced major challenges, the industry supported an estimated 84,400 full-time jobs in New York City from 2008-2009, with 10,200 directly tied to Broadway, according to The League. The total economic contribution from Broadway tourists was $7.7 billion, while Broadway production expenditures contributed $2.2 billion and theatre costs generated $51 million; making for a grand total of $9.8 billion. Broadway League executive director Charlotte St. Martin says, "I think one of the reasons Broadway is holding its own in this tough economic climate is because Broadway is becoming much more diverse — in its shows, in its audiences and who the shows are for," citing bold works like Race and Next Fall, which are "stirring people to come."

Stone believes that Broadway is experiencing a resurgence. He points out, "If you look at the past dozen years or so, there have been a lot of popular shows, and, more importantly, a lot of really good shows."

St. Martin also ties Broadway's success to its visibility on the national scene: "You see the President and his wife and his children come to Broadway and they're saying, 'Art matters,'" referencing the First Family's visits to Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Memphis and The Addams Family. "That's good for Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, museums and everyone. But certainly for theatre, it says it's important as a family to go to theatre."

Three generations of a Los Angeles family recently purchased tickets for the Afrobeat musical Fela! The eldest said of their first Broadway show, "I brought my son here so he can experience it and said we must see a Broadway show. That's an experience."

"I splurge on shows," said recent college graduate Amber Dickerson outside the St. James Theatre, where the Green Day musical American Idiot is rocking audiences. "I think it's really important to see theatre, it makes you grow," she explained.

Oskar Eustis, lead producer of the Tony-winning revival of Hair, said the live theatrical experience "is not something that is easy to get at any price for something in our society. The message is that if you do work that matters to people, they'll come."

In the late 1960s, Goldman lamented that Broadway was not attracting the best talents and would wither unless it was able to diversify its works and draw in young, new audiences. It looks like producers took note.

During the 2009-2010 season daring playwrights like Tracy Letts, Geoffrey Nauffts, Martin McDonagh, Sarah Ruhl, Lucy Prebble and Yazmina Reza are being produced alongside contemporary songwriters Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, Elton John and Andrew Lippa.

"It's a thrilling season," says Jujamcyn Theaters President Jordan Roth. "We're seeing the canvas consistently expanding and that makes it a great time to create on Broadway and a great time to come see Broadway."

(This piece appears in the Playbill for the 2010 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall. Adam Hetrick is a staff writer for Playbill.com. Write him at ahetrick@playbill.com.)

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