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'No Room For The Modest Hit Anymore': Broadway Prepares For Summer Closings

The musical <em>King Kong</em>, which stars Christiani Pitts alongside a giant ape puppet, will end its run Aug. 18.
Joan Marcus
Courtesy of King Kong
The musical King Kong, which stars Christiani Pitts alongside a giant ape puppet, will end its run Aug. 18.

Broadway is coming off a record-breaking season, in terms of attendance and box office receipts. But this weekend and next weekend, five musicals, representing an investment of $95 million, will close.

Broadway attendance was up 14% between 2018 and 2019, generating $1.83 billion in ticket sales. But not everyone has been invited to the party, says Jeremy Gerard, who has covered Broadway as a reporter and critic for over three decades.

"It's been a great year for Broadway, and that's true if you're one of the producers of a blockbuster show on Broadway," he says.

When Gerard tallied up the 11 shows that opened and closed this season, he says they accounted for around $140 million in investment.

"And that's a huge number," he says. "That's a tremendous amount of money lost on Broadway at a time when we're seeing these blockbuster shows and more reports of higher and higher box-office grosses. So that tells me that we're in trouble, that there's no room for the modest hit anymore. There's only room for the big blockbusters that command premium prices."

Several shows usually close right after the Tony Awards, if their box office takes are soft and they haven't won any Tonys. That happened with three shows this year.

Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, the organization that represents producers and theater owners, is one of Broadway's biggest cheerleaders. She says that shows close every summer.

"We have a history of summer closings that goes back forever," she says. "In 2014 there were six, in 2012 there was eight."

But this year, there are more. And what's unusual is that instead of hanging on until Labor Day to cash in on tourist dollars, five musicals are closing in the next two weekends: King Kong (which bumped up the losses significantly because it cost a staggering $36.5 million), The Prom, Pretty Woman, The Cher Show and Be More Chill.

Jerry Goehring is a lead producer of Be More Chill, whose cast album enjoyed more than 200 million streams before a sold-out off-Broadway run last summer. But it never found real traction on Broadway.

"It was a lot of factors, like a lot of shows," he says. "We didn't get the Tony love. We didn't get a straight-across critical response. I think that, yes, Broadway is incredibly expensive, and you have to fill a lot of seats."

To stem the losses, the producers decided to close in mid-August, because a lot of its target audience — teens — goes back to school before Labor Day. Goehring says they're hoping to make back some of the $9 million they lost with a tour and licensing.

The Broadway League's St. Martin points out that most shows lose money.

"Four out of five shows don't recoup," she says. "And yes, a lot of people lost a lot of money. There's no question that shows cost more. And if they don't recoup, there's more money being lost."

But why so many this summer? The New York Times critic Ben Brantley has a theory.

"All the shows we're talking about — the musicals, at least, including the unfortunate King Kong — just aren't that good," he says. "So, perhaps we're talking about discernment for once."

Jeremy Gerard has another theory.

"There are five shows lined up for every theater that becomes available, and it's a seller's market," Gerard says. "It's a market for the landlords and they want the big hits in there. So, I believe that they're putting a lot of pressure on producers of shows that are underperforming to cut bait as quickly as possible to get the potential new hit in."

For example, afterKinky Bootsclosed this spring, Moulin Rouge! moved right into the same theater. And it's a smash hit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.