‘War Horse,’ ‘Anything’ Fill Seats, Not Coffers of Nonprofits
A year after their ambitious slates produced hits, flops and budget shortfalls, New York’s largest nonprofit theater companies have cut back on productions.
The Roundabout Theatre Company, whose three musicals included the Tony Award winning revival of “Anything Goes,” ended last season with a $2.1 million deficit, according to Matt Polk, a spokesman for the company.
Now it’s presenting its first lineup without a new musical in more than a decade. (Next season the company is planning a revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which won the Tony for best musical in 1986.)
Lincoln Center Theater’s current offerings include two acclaimed plays it introduced last season. They’re in addition to “War Horse,” an import from London’s National Theatre that remains Broadway’s top-grossing nonmusical a year after opening.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with playing it safe, especially in an economy as unpredictable as this one,” said Gregory Mosher, the former director of Lincoln Center Theater. “As long as you don’t make a habit of it.”
Lincoln Center Theater’s expenses exceeded revenue, contributions and grants by about $7 million in the 12 months ending in June 2011, according to its audited financial statement. (That excludes gains from $95 million in investments.)
Its season, like the Roundabout’s, includes no new musical productions, which tend to be more expensive to produce than plays. Spokesmen for both companies declined to comment, although they did confirm, and in some cases disclose, some figures.
“Sometimes the artistic ambitions of an organization outpace the box office potential,” said Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, an umbrella group of nonprofit theaters. “These are small businesses that specialize in an art form that is not economically efficient.”
The fortunes of commercial producers rise and fall a show at a time. In contrast, nonprofit producers like the Roundabout Theatre Company and Lincoln Center Theater use hits to underwrite other shows that don’t necessarily attract mass audiences but may fulfill their mission of advancing theater. The companies develop new work, spotlight forgotten gems and provide arts education for public school students.
They continue to feel the lingering effects of the recession. Government and corporate support has plunged. Roundabout subscription revenue fell 18 percent since 2008-09, as theatergoers made more last-minute choices rather than commit up to a year in advance.
The drop is partly to blame for the Roundabout’s deficit in the 12 months ending in August, said Thomas Tuft, an executive with the financial services firm Lazard Ltd. (LAZ) and chairman of the Roundabout board.
Tuft wrote in the company’s annual report that it budgeted for a shortfall this season, for a third consecutive deficit.
“We are looking at every part of the organization,” he wrote, “from how our staff is structured to who removes the garbage from our theaters.”
The Roundabout has an annual budget of $61 million -- two- thirds of which is funded by ticket sales. It operates three Broadway houses and two off-Broadway, totaling about 3,300 seats. Ticket prices range from a high of $252 on Broadway to $20 in its 62-seat underground black box.
“Anything Goes,” the Cole Porter musical that won three Tony Awards, had an operating profit of about $2 million, according to a financial statement. Currently extended until September, it remains profitable.
Another hit, the revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest” ran six months including previews, its longest-running play since “Twelve Angry Men” in 2004.
But Studio 54, the former nightclub that the Roundabout bought in 2003 for $22.5 million, was home to “The People in the Picture,” which was a box office and critical failure. Studio 54’s expenses exceeded revenue by $5.2 million, its biggest season shortfall in four years, according to statements.
The Roundabout’s presenting eight new shows this season, down from 10 a year earlier.
Lincoln Center Theater’s box office revenue last season plunged by nearly half, to $20 million.
Following the gleeful Seabees in the smash 30-month “South Pacific” revival, two expensive Lincoln Center Theater productions were box office failures: “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” -- a musical adaptation of the Pedro Almodovar movie -- and “A Free Man of Color,” a historical epic by John Guare.
With a budget last year of $49 million, Lincoln Center Theater operates the off-Broadway Newhouse Theater and the Vivian Beaumont, home of “War Horse,” a winner of five Tonys. Later this year it opens its third and smallest space, the Claire Tow, built on the roof of the Beaumont for about $41 million.
It has a hit this season at Broadway’s Booth Theatre with the drama “Other Desert Cities,” which debuted off-Broadway last season at the Newhouse. Next week, previews begin at the Newhouse for “4000 Miles,” which debuted last season at the 200-seat Duke Theatre, which Lincoln Center Theatre rented.
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