The Five Shows You Meet On Broadway

December 4th, 2012 Comments Off on The Five Shows You Meet On Broadway

The Broadway League released the results of its annual demographic survey of audiences yesterday, and as always, it’s a useful snapshot of the Broadway audience, whatever your philosophical view of Broadway may be. The percentage of tickets purchased by tourists (those residing outside of the tri-state area) inched up to 63.4% of all tickets sold (a slight rise from the prior year’s 61.7, but showing that roughly two out of every three Broadway tickets are purchased by visitors, not locals. 18.4% of all tickets were purchased by international tourists, which means that nearly 20% of all ticket sales are to foreign residents, while a bit more than 40% are to U.S. travelers. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising, since a variety of surveys show that Broadway is the number one attraction for visitors to New York.

Although the news yesterday was about the demographics, a number of outlets treated the release as if it were the first announcement about Broadway’s audience during the 2011-12 season, when in fact the League issued a release on revenues and attendance on May 29, two days after the official close of the season as they define it (roughly June 1 to May 30 each year). Indeed, if you looked to The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly or Deadline, you would have thought the League just managed to finish tallying the season that ended six months ago, as the demographics (admittedly inside pool) took a back seat to dollars and bodies.

The 2011-12 season marked a record high dollar gross for Broadway shows, at $1.13 billion, with total paid attendance of 12.33 million. While direct comparisons are slightly skewed, because for statistical reasons, the prior year had 53 weeks instead of 52, the figures were consistent with recent trends, with growth in revenues outpacing the growth in number of paid tickets. Yes, thanks to the innovation of VIP or premium tickets, the finite universe of theatres and seats manages to make more money with every passing year, because Broadway has fully embraced the simple economic principle of supply and demand.

You can expect that yesterday’s announcement will be followed in roughly four weeks time by the sales and capacity figures for the calendar year 2012 (as opposed to the theatrical season, creating a second opportunity for headlines sliced from the same data). So with percentages and numbers floating around, I decided to explore, on a top-line basis, how much of the Broadway wealth is being spread around, and how much of it is attributable to only a few shows.

Based on the tally drawn from, a total of 72 productions played, in whole or part, during the 2011-12 season, ranging from long-running hits like Phantom of the Opera to special limited events like Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway. Of those, 41 were new productions, and it’s worth keeping in mind that there are only 40 Broadway theatres.  Given that long runners occupy a portion of the designated real estate, this quickly reveals how many shows were coming and going throughout the year (as is the case every year), some intentionally (star vehicles that were planned for only 16 week stints), some not (Bonnie and Clyde).

So, I wondered, what were most people seeing? Utilizing data collated by The Broadway League, I pulled out the results of revenues and paid attendance for five shows, opting for those I thought might be the most popular. Here’s the results:


Gross $

Paid Attendance










The Lion King



Book of Mormon



Five show total



B’way Season Total






So what do we find? That out of 72 possible productions, five shows yielded 33% of the gross revenues for the Broadway season and 25% of the audience. That’s an awful lot of firepower in only five theatres. And given the nature of the shows and the length of some of the runs, I think it’s a fair assumption that those eight million tourists who attended Broadway last year bought a good number of the three million tickets sold by these shows.

What about Mary Poppins? What about Jersey Boys? I could have swapped either of them with Phantom and the results would have been almost identical. Why five shows – why not all seven? Simply for the optics of how a handful of shows can dominate Broadway, and five is somehow more effective than seven, to my mind at least.

When it comes to grosses, the presence of Book of Mormon has a significant impact: even though its paid attendance is smaller than any of the five shows selected, you can see that its gross is disproportionately high (it had an average ticket price of $159 in this period, compared to $80 for Phantom). But it isn’t an anomaly, it’s what you learn on the first day of Econ 101: the logical result of a smaller house, a hit show and premium pricing. We’re likely to see more shows follow this model as time goes on, as a “tight” ticket seems to only build demand.

All of this data goes to show that, when the theatergoing public thinks about Broadway, they’re likely defining it through the handful of shows that dominate at any given time, since those are the ones that most people see and those are the ones minting the money – and they are, as we’ve always surmised, the long-running hit musicals. And for all of the statistical benchmarks that make for success in headlines, the rising tide is not floating all boats — it’s concentrated in the hands of a very few hits, which have a disproportionate cut of the Broadway pie.


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