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Broadway’s Shrinking Audience Overshadows Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks as newspaper columnist Mike McAlary in
Tom Hanks as newspaper columnist Mike McAlary in "Lucky Guy." The play grossed $1.4 million last week. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

May 25 (Bloomberg) -- Broadway enters the final weekend of the 2012-2013 season with its worst attendance record in eight years, despite sold-out audiences for Tom Hanks, Bette Midler and a handful of hit musicals.

The season, which ends Sunday, is further shadowed by darkened theaters and ever-increasing ticket prices.

Box office sales helped mask the damage. Average ticket prices rose to $98, up from $92 last season. Total grosses are on track to be $1.14 billion, little changed from last season.

Michael Taustine, an independent blogger, argues that continually raising ticket prices to meet demand could be self-defeating.

“There is no goodwill left among theatergoers,” wrote Taustine, who is the treasurer of the Lyceum Theatre.

“They are resentful and angry at the arrogance of Broadway pricing policies,” he continued. “That’s not the way to build customer loyalty, or foster a habit of theater going in what one might hope will be new generations of frequent Broadway attendees.”

Taustine said he doesn’t speak for his employer, the Shubert Organization, Broadway’s biggest landlord and owner of the Lyceum. He noted that the Metropolitan Opera reduced prices for some seats for next season. Its average ticket will drop to $156 from $174.

The final figures for the season will be released by the Broadway League on Tuesday. But if the current trend holds, the trade association should report that about 11.6 million people saw shows in 2012-13, the lowest tally since 2004-05.

Unlucky 13

Of 40 houses that are designated as Broadway theaters (and thus eligible for Tony Awards), 13 currently are dark. That’s an unusually large number in the weeks preceding the Tonys, Broadway’s glittering derby.

The number could increase after the June 9 awards telecast, when troubled shows often post closing notices.

The shuttered theaters are evidence of a brutal season that fell short creatively. The best-reviewed drama was a starless revival of Edward Albee’s dark three-act classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” It struggled to find an audience before closing at a financial loss after five months.

Star vehicles with Fiona Shaw, Alec Baldwin, Katie Holmes, Henry Winkler, Emilia Clarke, Patti LuPone and Debra Winger suffered abbreviated runs, generally after mixed or negative reviews.

The League will likely report that “playing weeks” -- the number of shows times the number of weeks each ran during the season -- were the lowest in more than a decade, according to figures tracked by Bloomberg News. As of May 19, playing weeks, like attendance, were off 6 percent from 2011-2012.

Sandy Impact

Producers frequently cite the impact of Hurricane Sandy in October, which caused regional power outages, transportation snafus and flooding for weeks.

The season was particularly back-loaded. The most popular offerings -- “Matilda,” “Motown,” “Kinky Boots,” “Pippin,” “Lucky Guy” with Hanks and “I’ll Eat You Last” with Midler -- all opened in April during the run-up to the deadline for Tony nominations.

Many of the dark theaters are accounted for, as Daniel Craig, Orlando Bloom and Zachary Quinto arrive in high-profile revivals.

“A lot of shows are booked,” said Paul Libin, the executive vice president of Jujamcyn Theatres, the No. 3 landlord. “By Labor Day I don’t think we’re going to see many dark theaters.”

How long can Broadway keep raising prices?

“That question has been asked for the last 100 years,” Libin said. “It costs a great deal of money to produce a play and operate a play. Everything in New York keeps going up.”

Libin said he isn’t concerned about the attendance decline. “I don’t think it’s a trend,” he said. “They keep coming. And they keep buying tickets.”

Taustine is less sanguine.

“Most of the gains in dollars are not coming from increased attendance, but from higher prices,” Taustine wrote. “How long can this trend continue? The answer is unknowable, but it can’t go on forever.”

Muse highlights include New York Weekend and movies.

To contact the reporter on this story: Philip Boroff in New York at pboroff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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