Broadway’s Covid Autumn: Brand-Name Hits Thrived While Riskier Shows Starved – Report

Broadway’s pre-Omicron autumn might best be described using a song lyric sung on stage every night by American Utopia‘s David Byrne: “Same as it ever was.”

As disappointing but hardly surprising private box office data obtained by The New York Times indicates, Broadway audiences returned from the 18-month pandemic shutdown last fall with old habits intact. Ticket-buyers chose big, brand-name musicals (think Hamilton, Wicked, The Lion King, and some equally high-profile plays (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lehman Trilogy) while largely ignoring plays that were unfamiliar (Chicken & Biscuits) and/or experimental (Dana H., Is This a Room).

New musicals did not go unscathed: The critically panned Diana played to half-empty houses during the week that ended Dec. 12, while musicals that were acclaimed (Girl From the North Country) or received mixed reviews (Flying Over Sunset) didn’t seem to fare much better, at least during some fall weeks.

The box office figures obtained by The Times offer the first detailed glimpse of Broadway business during the post-shutdown era. The Broadway League, which has traditionally released show-by-show weekly grosses, this season has opted to release only the combined weekly figure for all Broadway productions. The League has said it made the decision at least in part due to the unusual nature of this season and the difficulty of using the figures in the season-to-season comparisons that have always figured into the League’s research data.

The Times‘ report does not include show-by-show breakdowns for the post-December Omicron era, when Broadway attendance, receipts and the number of productions have plummeted to modern history lows. In early January, overall attendance dropped to about 60% of capacity, though more recent weeks have indicated steady, if sleight, improvement.

But as The Times report suggests, the League’s combined box office figures give little hint of whatever pain or joy is being experienced by each individual show. During Thanksgiving week, Times journalist Michael Paulson writes, the average ticket price at Hamilton was $297, while at Chicken & Biscuits the average was $35.

The figures obtained by The Times cover mid-September through Dec. 12, just prior to the Omicron surge.

Among the findings:

  • During the week that ended Dec. 12, approximately a third of the shows grossed more than $1 million, including Hamilton, Wicked, The Lion King, Moulin Rouge!, Tina, Six, Aladdin, The Book of Mormon, Hadestown, The Phantom of the Opera, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lehman Trilogy;
  • New, critically acclaimed plays Pass Over, Is This a Room and Dana H. played to houses that were at times between one half and two-thirds empty;
  • Other than the hit, limited engagement Lehman Trilogy, the strongest new play was Thoughts of a Colored Man, which grossed in excess of $400,000 some weeks (the play was among those that closed early during the December Omicron surge);
  • Diana (since closed) played to 51 percent capacity houses and grossed only $374,000 (for seven performances) during the week that ended Dec. 12. That same week, Girl From the North Country, which has closed but is considering a spring return, played to 47 percent capacity audiences and grossed $310,000, while Flying Over Sunset, which closed early, played to 69 percent capacity and grossed $323,000;
  • Jagged Little Pill was “playing to houses that were about four-fifths full in the late fall, and it grossed $768,000 the week of Dec. 12. It closed a week later,” according to The Times;
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child seems to have benefited from its post-reopening trims. Previously a two-part play, Potter has been slimmed down into a one-part show, and the shorter version had weekly grosses of about $1.7 million in early December, “significantly better than it was doing during that same period in 2019,” writes Paulson.
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