My friend Adeline and I have been planning to see the play Significant Other on Broadway for a few months, and we’ve been patiently waiting for our spring trip into Manhattan to see it. However, the production, an off-Broadway transfer, was not performing well. The show was making around 20% of its potential gross per week¹, and the infamous Broadway message boards spoke of the play’s inevitable demise. The show’s producers soon announced a July closing date, but only 5 days later, announced that the play would actually close April 23rd after only 79 total performances—and just one day after Adeline and I are to see it.
Sadly, this story isn’t unique—shows shuttering suddenly is not an unusual occurrence on Broadway. According to statistics compiled by Adeline earlier this year, seven of the 11 new musicals that opened on Broadway last season closed before reaching 150 performances, which is roughly 19 weeks of eight-week shows. One musical, Tuck Everlasting, closed after only 67 performances, or just over eight weeks, with only six day’s notice of closing. (For a closer look at similar statistics, check out Adeline’s blog post about it!)
When Broadway seasons are crowded with new plays and musicals, with so much competition, it makes sense that not all of them can survive—especially plays with no “big-name” actors, like Significant Other. This season alone, there are 10 new plays and 13 new musicals, and already many of them are struggling to stay afloat. While it’s wonderful that the Broadway stage allows show’s creators to bring their works to wider audiences, if their show doesn’t do well, the creators will see their years of time, love, and hard work crumble before their eyes. Not only that, it also puts countless people out of work—all of the actors, techies, and bartenders working on the show lose their jobs.
In non-commercial theatre houses (like regional theatre companies and the two Broadway non-profit, subscription-based theatre companies, Roundabout Theatre Company and Manhattan Theatre Club), shows are not intended to run forever. There is an opening night and a closing night set in stone before the show even enters production. And while there are other special cases on Broadway, where commercial productions can run for limited engagements (like this season’s revival of Sunday in the Park With George), most often, shows are backed by producers who have invested millions and wish to both recoup and make a profit, hoping the production will have a long life with tours, regional licensing, and merchandising in tow.
With all this focus on the monetary aspects of theatre, it begs the question: why are we doing this in the first place? Is it for the sake of turning a profit, or for the sake of art itself? In a perfect world, art would be made for art’s sake, period. And in many communities, that is the case. But when you’re taking on Broadway, a behemoth, 1.36-billion-dollar-a-year industry², money can’t help but factor into the question. Some shows never make it to Broadway because producers don’t think of them as commercially viable. But there are also producers who follow the mindset of entering the business purely because they love the art—because they are so passionate about a piece of theatre that they don’t want to live in a world where it doesn’t exist—and know that they will most likely take a loss. (On average, only 21 percent of shows recoup³.)
The drama surrounding shows closing quickly was not always present on the Great White Way. In fact, in very first Broadway “hit” ran for 50 performances¹¹. Now, with long-running shows like The Phantom of the Opera (with over 12,000 performances), the 67-performance run of Tuck Everlasting seems minuscule, whereas it would’ve been (healthy) back then.
One infamous “flop” was Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. A show about songwriters, playwrights, and the theatre industry itself that wrestles with the question of selling out for money at the expense of artistry, Merrily closed after only 52 previews and 16 performances. But, decades later, the musical has a cult following, celebrating the production and its storied life. Financially, the show probably lost millions. But should that mean it wasn’t a successful piece of art? The story has since touched countless lives. While money came and money went, good art was made, and that should be enough. As the show’s lyrics go, “If it only even runs a minute / At least it’s a wedge / It’s the theatre and we’re really in it / Not just on the edge.”
Theatre is, at its core, an ephemeral art form. To truly experience it, you have to be in the room where it happens. But even while it’s happening, it’s slipping away. You can never experience the same piece twice—each night there are new moments, new nuances to the show, and each time you are in the audience, you are a different person, seeing the show through different eyes. So, it’s only fitting that shows can’t—and don’t—run forever. But, for the people who do manage to see Tuck Everlasting, Significant Other, and the other shows that close quickly, they will hold on to those experiences for the rest of their lives, carrying with them the stories, songs, and emotions that touched them those nights. While money dictates which shows thrive, when it’s all said and done, Broadway is a place where good art is made, and I think we need to cherish that.
What do you think when Broadway shows close quickly? Let me know in the comments below!
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¹”Broadway Grosses.” BroadwayWorld, http://www.broadwayworld.com/grosses.cfm.
²”Broadway Season Statistics.” The Broadway League, https://www.broadwayleague.com/research/statistics-broadway-nyc/
³Davenport, Ken. “Sure, These Broadway Shows Recouped! But Why? A By The Numbers Infographic.” The Producer’s Perspective, https://www.theproducersperspective.com/my_weblog/2015/01/sure-these-broadway-shows-recouped-but-why-a-by-the-numbers-infographic.html.
¹¹”The History of Broadway.” History Things, http://historythings.com/the-history-of-broadway/.