Even after an 18-month pause, the show must go on.
Several Broadway productions are reopening this month, a crucial step in New York City’s road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, the Great White Way welcomed back such fixtures as “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “Chicago.”
And that follows a handful of other recent openings and re-openings, from the 2019 Tony Award-winning musical “Hadestown” to the new, critically acclaimed play “Pass Over.”
“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke of the significance of Broadway’s return in a speech to the audience on Tuesday. “I don’t ever want to take live theater for granted ever again,” he said.
Such heartfelt sentiment notwithstanding, Broadway’s comeback begs a big question: As the industry tries to woo theatergoers, who will have to wear masks and show proof of vaccination in order to attend shows, will it be prepared to offer significant savings on the notoriously expensive tickets, which averaged $123.87 during the 2018-19 season? (And so-called “premium” seats often went for more than $400.)
For now, Broadway doesn’t appear to be in a bargain frame of mind.
So far, shows are selling tickets in solid numbers, according to producers and industry officials. A production of “Waitress,” the Broadway hit that first opened in 2016 and was revived this September, set a single-performance sales record of $197,878 at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where it’s playing through early January.
‘Lion King’ tickets are slightly cheaper, and scoring ‘Hamilton’ seats is a little easier
That means there may be little incentive for producers to lower prices — at least at this stage. Some producers told MarketWatch they are keeping prices in line with what they charged prior to the pandemic. But it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of where things stand now, because, in a break from tradition, industry trade group the Broadway League isn’t releasing weekly price and sales data this season.
That said, some prices have dropped slightly. Tickets for a late September “Lion King” performance start at $75 and run as high as $215, according to Ticketmaster . Just prior to the pandemic, the range for the show was $97 to $235, according to the Broadway League. (Disney /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS +0.46% , which produces the show, declined a request for comment.)
One piece of good news for theatergoers: There may be a chance to get a seat for shows that previously sold out months in advance. A case in point: “Hamilton,” one of Broadway’s toughest tickets to score, has some limited availability in the weeks ahead, according to Ticketmaster listings. (A “Hamilton” press representative declined to comment.) The top ticket can reach $599 for select fall performances, according to Ticketmaster, though seats are also available for $199.
No one expects Broadway to break any attendance records this season
It’s possible prices for shows could go lower in the coming weeks and months, theater professionals note. In recent years, the industry has embraced a dynamic pricing model that allows productions to readily adjust what they charge based on supply and demand. And even in Broadway’s best years, it often faces a sales slump in the traditionally slow post-holiday period of January and February.
Plus, this season brings all sorts of added challenges.
When the industry shuttered its theaters in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, it had been on a roll for several years, buoyed by a wave of recent hit shows, including “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away.” In the 2018-19 season, Broadway set a new box-office record of $1.83 billion. Attendance also soared to a new high 14.8 million.
But no one expects any records to be broken this season. For starters, it will be months before all of Broadway’s 41 theaters reopen. Producers are rolling out productions, both new and returning, slowly over the coming months, almost as if to give each show its own runway.
The industry is also grappling with a health crisis that refuses to go away. When the first Broadway production opened in June — a reprise of Bruce Springsteen’s simply titled “Springsteen on Broadway” show — COVID-19 case numbers were coming down. But since then, the delta variant has prompted a nationwide uptick in both cases and deaths.
Broadway has instituted a number of safety measures, both for audiences and performers. In particular, theatergoers must wear masks and, under a New York City mandate, must show proof of vaccination .
With such protocols in place, Broadway professionals say audiences seem to feel the risks are minimal. And as more shows open, the confidence level among theatergoers is likely to only grow, said Dori Berinstein, a Tony Award-winning producer and chief executive and co-founder of the Broadway Podcast Network.
It’s about “people taking that first step,” she said.
Broadway is still missing a big chunk of its audience
Still, the biggest challenge Broadway may face is that a sizable chunk of the audience — namely, the tourists who come to New York City and see shows as part of their Big Apple adventure — simply isn’t there at the pre-COVID levels. In 2019, the city welcomed a record 66.6 million visitors, but in 2021 it’s anticipating the total will be 36.1 million.
Producers remain hopeful that tourism will rebound over time. In the meanwhile, they say they are marketing heavily to the regional and domestic markets. Some producers also say they may benefit from the fact their shows are more geared for a theater-savvy, local market — meaning an audience that favors serious-minded musicals and plays.
Chris Harper, producer of a revival of the landmark Stephen Sondheim musical “Company,” believes his show, which opens this fall, will be one that appeals to such theatergoers. Plus, he notes that the show’s key theme — about the importance of human connection — will have special resonance in the COVID era.
“’Company’ is very relevant” right now, he said.
Broadway’s return is part of a much larger effort to bring New York City back to life. Off-Broadway theaters are also reopening: One of the hottest tickets in town may be “What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad,” a drama, staged in a 74-seat theater, that touches upon the COVID-19 crisis.
The arts are coming to life in other ways, too. The Metropolitan Opera will resume regular performances at the end of this month.
But Broadway remains central to the city’s identity. And perhaps the surest sign of its resiliency is the fact professionals are looking well beyond the current season, and planning shows for the years ahead. Barry Weissler, the veteran producer behind “Chicago” and “Waitress,” has a number of shows in the planning stages, including one based on the 2002 film “Real Women Have Curves.”
Weissler says it hardly feels like Broadway has missed a beat, despite the long shutdown. “You can feel the surge,” he said.