New York theater tentatively bounces back
On any given Saturday night, 1,000 people seeing ”The Music Man” is nothing extraordinary. But on Sept. 22, those ”Trouble”-loving theatergoers represented something larger: Broadway rebounding from its worst week in recent history.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the redubbed Grim White Way has been in crisis, losing an estimated $3 million to $5 million in one week alone. Producers quickly shuttered five shows, including the revival of ”The Rocky Horror Show” and ”A Thousand Clowns” starring Tom Selleck. And the Roundabout Theatre Company canceled the November opening of Stephen Sondheim’s topically sensitive ”Assassins.” (But Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes says, ”An experience like this makes me want to produce it more than ever.”)
Then Broadway began its own relief effort: Big-budget musicals such as ”Rent” and ”The Phantom of the Opera” took four-week, across-the-board pay cuts; authors, like ”Cabaret”’s John Kander and Fred Ebb, refused royalties; and theater owners waived rent for shows in need. ”Everyone’s making concessions,” says ”Music Man” star Robert Sean Leonard. Witness ”Kiss Me, Kate,” whose company members are sacrificing half their salaries, with a quarter going to buy tickets for the American Red Cross and other charities. And through October, firefighters, rescue workers, police officers, and members of the military can obtain $25 tickets to any show — just one of the incentives from the League of American Theatres and Producers.
The plans may be paying off. ”Definitely, people were making an effort to come to the theater,” says producer Cameron Mackintosh, who saw his ”Les Misérables” and ”Phantom” 75 percent full last Saturday. In fact, total grosses were up $4.3 million for the week ending Sept. 23. ”It’s not enough,” cautions Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, which operates 17 Broadway houses, ”but it certainly indicates reasons to be hopeful.”
The key will be the return of tourists to the Big Apple. Mackintosh estimates 80 percent of his business comes from out-of-towners. ”So much depends on that,” says The New York Times’ theater critic Ben Brantley, ”on people coming from the heartland to see the theme park that is Times Square, who are willing to pay $100 for the ride.”
Already, there are early signs of a resurrection. ”I was in the theater district; I saw them lining up to buy tickets,” says Neil Simon, whose new play, ”45 Seconds From Broadway,” opens in November. ”It’s the only place in America you can see theater like this. No one wants it to disappear.”