Why the play's the thing for Broadway box offices this season
When you think of Broadway, you naturally think of musicals: the indigenous art form that the New York theatre developed out of European operetta but made into their own unique (and probably greatest) contribution to world theatre in the last century. In 42nd Street, the great celebration of how musicals are made that was recently revived at the West End's Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the director Julian Marsh famously tells the understudy he needs to take over from the indisposed star of her special responsibility to save the show: "Think of musical comedy, the most glorious words in the English language!''
Those words have come ringing down the years to be revived this week in some of the reviews of Tootsie (reviewed by me for our partner site, New York Theatre Guide here), the latest film-to-stage adaptation that has just opened on Broadway and makes the Marquis Theatre rock to the sound of an audience laughing. As I wrote, "It's great to be having fun at a Broadway musical again, and this show is just the ticket for fans of old-fashioned musical comedy."
But elsewhere on Broadway, it is the hushed sound of an attentive audience paying attention to words and being awed by drama that is most resonant - and also, suddenly and surprisingly, also the most profitable.
Last week the new stage version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, scripted by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Bartlett Sher, grossed some $1.72m across eight performances - a record for the highest gross for an American play on Broadway, and bringing its box office tally since it opened last December to nearly $35m. It now has an advance sale of over $20m, and is selling tickets up to a year in advance: unlike the standard 12-16 weeks that plays routinely programme themselves on Broadway for, this run is turning open-ended.
The same, of course, is true of the Broadway import of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a stage sequel to the novel and film franchise that is unique for being a brand-new story and not just an adaptation of the existing source material. It celebrated its first anniversary on Broadway on Monday, and has become the highest grossing play in Broadway history with over $100 million in weekly gross sales so far. Last week alone, it took in $2,021,091 for eight performances.
Those numbers are massive - on a par with the musicals that traditionally drive the Broadway box office to excess. Total revenues across Broadway last week came to a tally of $40,219,790, across the 36 shows now playing there. 21 of them played to sell-out or near sell-out business, with attendance at 98% or more. All but six of them were musicals, of course - but the fact that there are six plays doing business at that level is surely a cause for rejoicing.
And besides Mockingbird and Harry Potter, there's some seriously challenging fare in there. In my review of Taylor Mac's Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus that opened on Broadway last Sunday, I wrote: "This is bold, audacious work - Broadway has not seen anything quite like this before." Stanford Friedman's five-star review of What the Constitution Means for New York Theatre Guide described it as "a master class in contemporary feminism": not necessarily an easy sell for Broadway, but a sell-out nonetheless.
Likewise, Network - which came to Broadway via a run at London's National Theatre - is a seriously provocative work about media manipulation that packs a powerful punch. As I said in my review at the time: “In an America ruled by fake news, the honesty of this show could become a beacon and rallying point for change."
And the spotlight on the media itself is also being held by another transfer from London for James Graham's Ink, which opens at Broadway's Samuel J Friedman Theatre tonight (24th April) with Bertie Carvel reprising his towering performance as media mogul Rupert Murdoch. That's another important play about a divisive figure whose influence on the global media now spreads all the way to the White House - or rather especially to the White House, with Fox News becoming virtually a propaganda channel for the current President. But Ink long predates all that, and revolves around the (re)birth of The Sun newspaper in 1968 as a Murdoch title, and how it quickly became Britain's top-selling newspaper.
The influence of newspapers may be waning today, but the play's still the thing on Broadway - a vibrant reminder of where we've come from, in plays like Ink and What the Constitution Means to Me, to where we are going, in plays like Gary.
Gary image by Julieta Cervantes