Broadway’s Annual Worst Winter Ever

December 15th, 2011 § 1 comment

With “10 Best” lists filed, it won’t be long before we start seeing another seasonal staple of theatre coverage in New York: the stories about how a spate of January closings marks one of the direst winters on Broadway in recent memory. These stories come as regularly as stories about the turkey hotline do in November. They are, simply put, a staple of theatre journalism. So before anyone starts panicking over this year’s inevitable doom and gloom tales, which ironically get the greatest play in media that cover the arts least (I’m looking at you, business news outlets), let me attempt to debunk them, because apparently my memory for these recurring alerts is greater than that of those who propagate them.

Yes, many shows will close in the next four to six weeks. A number of these are not unexpected: they were genuine limited runs planned so they would not be plying their trade in the tourist-depleted Manhattan of mid-winter, or they were shows at institutional theatres which have to clear out for the next production. There are also those shows which opened in October and November and didn’t catch on, whether due to critical response, poor marketing, the oft-cited “crowded marketplace,” a generically-evoked “economy,” or ingrained audience indifference to the product.  These are the shows without the cash to survive the fallow months, even with the range of discounts that will be offered to induce audiences to attend as a savings, rather than necessarily a true value, proposition. (Now that prices appear in lobbies on video screens, some may be entertained by watching the ticket tariffs drop, like an old stock ticker.) There will also be the occasional long runner, which has simply run out of steam.

But none of this is terribly new and given that a good percentage of Broadway’s roughly 40 theatres are occupied by long-runners that aren’t going anywhere, the winter closings rarely vary by more than a few productions from year to year. The numbers game is stacked for doomsaying when every theatre represents 2.5% of the total pool. This is one of those times when numbers can be employed completely accurately, but also misleadingly.

The first snowflake of this particular blizzard fell when Private Lives announced that its limited run would end five weeks early. This is not good news and I feel for those involved (I mention it by name only because their situation is public; I will not prognosticate on the fate of shows that may be on the bubble, despite abundant indicators of their ill health). But that news prompted none other than The New York Times to list some other shows that were also closing soon as part of the burgeoning January trend, and they opted to include one limited run show which had actually extended by a week, all to fit the perennial story template.

Look, this is a field in which the popularly held generalization says that perhaps one in five shows ever recoups its investment, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that for many shows, closings follow openings quickly, as few shows run for a long time at or barely above their breakeven point. For fall shows, this is accelerated by the desire of theatre owners not to have a show operate just above its “stop clause” (part of the theatre agreement which allows owners to close shows that aren’t generating high enough revenue), only to have them falter in March. Why the worry? Because a March closing means there’s not enough time to get a new show in before the Tony deadline, and that may result in an empty theatre until the fall. A January or February closing allows time for another production to open by late April, so there’s a chance that the real estate known as Broadway theatres is filled with revenue-generating tenants who may well stick around longer than their autumnal counterparts. Indeed, it is not unheard of for shows to be offered financial incentives to close up shop around this time, when the stop clause itself can’t be invoked.

If this seasonal winnowing did not occur, if the fall shows were all big successes, we’d end up with spring theatre coverage bemoaning the lack of new material to accompany the crocuses and daffodils. Keep in mind, the only reason 35 to 40 shows compete at the Tonys each year is because so many close from the fall, whether by intent or fortune; the relatively small number of venues, less the number of theatres occupied by those long-running hits, would not allow for that many new shows if there was not a culling of the herd.

Despite “the economy,” there remains heated competition for Broadway’s theatres. The dark years of the 80s when houses sat empty for months at a time has not returned, even though a decrease in production was anticipated (and reported on) each year since the crisis of 2008. Shows close, other shows open, this is the circle of Broadway life. So when the seasonal horror stories start to appear, chalk them up to weak memory and/or journalistic laziness, because it isn’t news, just something to fill space on a slow day, and bad news is so much more enticing than the positive.

As sure as the president will pardon a turkey, just as we’ll all be forced to ponder the meteorological skills of a groundhog, Broadway will – we are told – be under a black cloud very soon. But the sun will indeed come out tomorrow (March and April, to be exact) and the cycle renews itself again. Perhaps if you see these stories, you’ll now take them for what they are, or better still, if you’re called for a comment, you’ll use this as a template for debunking the perennial premise, as the winter’s chill ostensibly threatens the health of the remarkably resilient fabulous invalid.

P.S. This post, with minor emendations, will also be applicable in early May and mid- June, when closings will be blamed on the lack of Tony nominations and/or wins, and again on Labor Day when theatres must be cleared for new fall shows. I will not, however, rewrite this and post variations of it at those times. I hope I’ll have new ideas then.

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  • Randy Cole

    Thanks for writing this, Howard. I always appreciate your point of view. It’s easy to neglect our memories of how frequently the gloomy stories recirculate, but not this season. Not now!

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