It goes without saying that the 2001-02 Broadway season was unlike any other. Its very existence was in question after Sept. 11, and ever since there's been an ongoing, very public struggle to keep box office numbers heading north.
But now, as the season nears an end, and at precisely the moment when all the new Broadway shows have opened and when all the nominations, including the all-important Tony Awards, have been announced, Broadway's box office looks precarious, unpredictable, and unstable.
Discerning patterns in box office grosses is the equivalent of reading theatrical tea leaves. But just by looking at the four productions up for the Tony for Best Musical—"Mamma Mia!," "Sweet Smell of Success," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and "Urinetown"—it's nevertheless clear that the nominations aren't guaranteeing any of those shows a solid, across-the-board box office bounce. For the weeks ending April 21 and 28, the take for "Millie" rose $86,726 to $481,070, and $132,340 to $613,410, respectively. For the week ending May 5—right before the Tony nominations were announced—the "Millie" grosses plunged $103,489 to $509,921, then rose $101,741 last week to $611,662. An impressive number, to be sure, but while 11 Tony nominations for "Millie" resulted in a box office mini-boom, last week's uptick only returns the tuner to the revenue level it enjoyed before, at just under 85% of capacity.
By contrast, "Urinetown," which received ten Tony nods, had been struggling for the three weeks prior to May 6 just to maintain box office equilibrium, falling $14,830 and $11,177 for the weeks ending April 28 and May 5, respectively. Last week, the show's box office jumped $52,852 to $267,587, in what was the second best showing of all 34 shows now on the Main Stem. The show, however, is still only playing at 82.33% of capacity, suggesting there remains a great deal of room for improvement.
"Sweet Smell of Success," meanwhile, continues having a difficult time sustaining any box office improvement at all. The show, mercilessly lambasted by the critics yet loved by some musical theatre stalwarts, saw its grosses fall last week by $82,957, the largest drop of any Broadway show except "The Lion King," which fell a whopping $145,270, perhaps due to all the attention being given to the new productions on the block. (Disney needn't fret: "The Lion King" played last week to 101.18% of capacity, anyway.) The size of the "Sweet Smell" revenue decrease erased entirely the $71,512 improvement the show had the week before. Clearly the show's seven Tony nominations had a surprisingly negative effect.
And "Mamma Mia!," of course, didn't need the help of its five Tony nominations. The show has been hovering around the $1 million mark consistently for months, never playing at less than 98% of capacity over the last four weeks alone.
Reviving Revivals, Playing Plays
Of the two productions up for Best Revival of a Musical, a similar picture is emerging. "Oklahoma!," which raked in over $900,000 for each of the two weeks ending April 21 and April 28, has suffered an erosion of fortune ever since. For the week of May 5, the "Oklahoma!" take tumbled $53,385 to $855,951, at a still impressive 91.3% of capacity. Last week, despite receiving seven Tony nominations, the show's grosses inched forward a barely perceptible $3,604 to $859,555. The show has only one competitor in its category, "Into the Woods," whose box office rose $52,510 last week to $431,714, and that came on the heels of an $83,563 improvement for the week ending May 5.
Only a handful of productions have shown box office improvement over three of the last four weeks, and all but six productions saw declines for the week ending May 5. Two of those six are nominated for Best Revival of a Play: "Morning's at Seven," with nine nominations (the most of any play overall), and "Private Lives," with six.
"Morning's at Seven," which is riding high on delirious reviews, jumped $57,674 to $168,695 for the week ending April 28; then climbed another $24,339 to $193,035, for the week ending May 5; and then snuck up a tiny tick last week, $307 to $193,342 (at 69.85% of capacity).
As for the other two plays in the category—"The Crucible" and "Noises Off," which scored six and two Tony noms, respectively—any box office boost is really a matter of whether one considers the glass to be half-empty or half-full. "Noises Off" added just $7,560 to its grosses last week, following a $47,887 plunge the week before and a $14,342 slide the week before that. Last week, the gross for "The Crucible" climbed $47,850 to $375,188, but that followed a disastrous $118,934 collapse, the largest drop of any Broadway show, for the week ending May 5.
Clearly last week's boost for "The Crucible" can be tied to the show's nominations—at least insofar as reminding the public that Liam Neeson and Laura Linney are on Broadway—but given that the show's take also fell a staggering $64,926 for the week ending April 21, the show's endurance level, even in its limited run, is open to question.
The revival of "The Elephant Man," excluded from the list of shows up for the Best Revival of a Play, has now seen its box office fall for two weeks in a row, down $20,670 and $33,079 for the weeks of May 12 and May 5, respectively. The show received two Tony nominations, for stars Billy Crudup and Kate Burton.
Looking at the productions up for Best Play, once again there's a mixed bag. Last week "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" had its best week in some time, its grosses climbing $18,611 to $140,761, at 56.28% of capacity. That may seem relatively weak, but last week's improvement was, in fact, the second largest of the four plays in its category. The others are: "Fortune's Fool," up $9,089 last week to $201,414; "Metamorphoses," rising $15,647 to $215,372; and "Topdog/Underdog," which enjoyed a $32,914 uptick to $324,432.
Then there's the fascinating fortune of "The Graduate." Last week, the show's grosses rose $16,465 to $500,425, the highest-grossing play currently on Broadway. The improvement edged the show once again past the half-million mark; it also has the largest advance sale of any play in Broadway history. And that without receiving a single Tony nomination, which reveals, perhaps, the naked truth about the impact of nominations and awards on the not-so-resilient revenues along the Rialto.