Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Commentary: Dark days ahead for Broadway, and perhaps theater in general

Monty Python's Spamalot
By Hap Erstein
T.S. Eliot was wrong. April is not the cruelest month. It is January, at least when it comes to the Broadway theater. Usually a tough month for the survival of marginally successful shows, next month is going to be disastrous for the New York commercial theater in the economy we are currently suffering through.

Eleven shows, from long-running hit musicals to a marginal drama, will close this January — fully one-third of the productions on Broadway. It could be expected that Irving Berlin’s White Christmas would pack it in on Jan. 4, since it was always designed as a seasonal item for a limited run, but three best musical Tony Award winners — Hairspray, Monty Python’s Spamalot and Spring Awakening — will also close their doors next month, clearly responding to slowed ticket sales in hard times.

Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, a sub-par stage adaptation of his first-rate movie from 1974, also will close on Jan. 4. It never reported its weekly box office grosses for the year it was open, so we’ll probably never know how many millions it lost overall. Also shuttering on the 4th will be the Tony-winning revival of Boeing-Boeing, Grease, a short-lived musical called 13 and an off-Broadway transfer of a Horton Foote play, Dividing the Estate.

The Tony-winning musical revival of Gypsy, starring Patti LuPone, just announced it will close a month and a half earlier than expected — on Jan. 11 — “due to these uncertain financial times.” Also folding that day is Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, the production that was critically panned, but limped along thanks to the star-casting of Mrs. Tom Cruise, aka Katie Holmes.

No, I’m not going to tell you that the theater is dying. Surely Broadway will rebound when the economy rebounds. But a disturbing study by the National Endowment for the Arts suggests a more pervasive and perhaps permanent decline for non-musicals. Since 1992, the audience for plays in the United States has fallen from 25 million to 21 million this year, and high ticket prices are not the primary factor. Instead, it seems, we have lost our taste for plays, with the supply of them outstripping current demand.

It is a bit depressing, but signs point to the fact that the theater’s problems are not strictly economic.

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