If It Opens, Will They Come?

by Martine Sainvil

In the last complete Broadway Season before the global COVID pandemic, Broadway was breaking attendance records with the highest numbers in its history. But the nearly 18 month shut down changed everything and the subsequent return has been slow going. Industry insiders always knew that getting back to business would be a challenge, but the pandemic’s effects on audiences are still being felt.

In a recent interview with the New York Times Barry Grove, Manhattan Theatre Club’s outgoing Executive Producer said, “It’s now clear that we’re still not out of the woods on the pandemic aftereffects. The numbers are just down.” He went on to make a plea to the general public to support local theater now more than ever.

Before the global COVID pandemic, Broadway was breaking attendance records with the highest numbers in its history.
PHOTO: Jen Brodski

In commercial theater, traditionally only one out of every five shows recoups its capital investment. These days the landscape has become increasingly precarious. Several industry insiders confidentially shared that ticket buyers are not making purchases in the same way. Subscriptions are down, single ticket-buyers are not making purchases as far in advance as they did before the pandemic nor are they buying as frequently.

With lingering public health concerns, the global economy still struggling, inflation at a high and the average paid admission on Broadway at $135. 57 (the week of Jan 15, 2023), it’s possible that there remains a ways to go.

Despite all this, there are sparks of hope emerging. NYC & Company, New York City’s official convention and visitor’s bureau, announced last month that it anticipated the total number of travelers to the City in 2022 would be upwards of 56.4 million, which is a 71.4% increase over 2021. This roughly breaks out to 47.4 million domestic and 8.9 million international travelers. That’s triple the number of international visitors over 2021.

Last month it was announced the total number of travelers to the City in 2022 was thought to be upwards of 56.4 million — a 71.4% increase over 2021

“New York City’s economy continues to surge back with thriving tourism as domestic and international travelers seek the magic of the Big Apple,” said Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development Maria Torres-Springer.

This is good news indeed since according to the Broadway League (the industry’s trade association) 2018-2019 demographics report, 65% percent of admissions were made by tourists: 46% from the United States (but outside New York City and its suburbs) and 19% from other countries. At the time, that was the highest number of attendances by international visitors in history (2.8 million).

Photo: Matthew Papa

Broadway saw pre-pandemic attendance numbers return over the holiday week ending January 1, 2023 with over 312 thousand admissions. Historically attendance dips after the holiday season but it is also the time of year which marks attractive incentive programs and deals including Broadway Week, off Broadway week and Kids Night on Broadway among others.

Although some new shows have struggled to find an audience, long time favorites continue to attract theatergoers including Six, Wicked and Moulin Rouge: The Musical among others which have consistently surpassed the 90% attendance mark.

Additionally, there’s a healthy slate of new productions that have been announced for the spring season including highly anticipated revivals, some boldface names and exciting transfers: Camelot, Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House, Josh Groban in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Fat Ham among others. There’s a lot of buzz about the future.

We asked some theatergoers what got them into the theater last year and what they’re looking forward to this year. Here’s what they had to say:

KC -Saw: Ain’t No Mo (Twice). Looking forward to Fat Ham.

Leopoldstadt NYC PHOTO: Joan Margret

DS – Saw: Leopoldstadt, Chains at the Mint, Into the Woods, Cost of Living, Camp Siegfried, Kimberly Akimbo, The Hours at the Met.  Looking forward to Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window.

CH – Saw: Hamlet at BAM, Looking forward to the new Zadie Smith (The Wife of Willesden) also at BAM.

JGP – Saw: Into the Woods, Fat Ham, Kimberly Akimbo, Tosca, Straight Line Crazy and Mike Birbiglia (The Old Man in the Pool). Looking forward to Merrily We Roll Along.

MP – Saw: Leopoldstadt. Looking forward to Camelot.

BZ – Saw: A Christmas Carol at McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ and Come Blow Your Horn at Kelsey Theater, NJ. No plans now for another play until A Christmas Carol comes round again.

JB– Saw: Orestia at the Armory (my only live theater since pre-pandemic). Hoping to see Kimberly Akimbo.

EL– Saw: American Buffalo and Leopoldstadt. Looking forward to Angels in America at BACCA Center in Lindenhurst, NY.

PFM– Saw: A Little Life at BAM and Downstate at Playwrights Horizons. Looking forward to seeing Six.

Six NYC PHOTO: Liz Lauren

JB – Saw: Leopoldstadt, American Buffalo, Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski at Theatre for a New Audience, Into the Woods. Looking forward to A Doll’s House.

MA – Saw: American Buffalo, Potus, Funny Girl, A Christmas Carol, Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish). Looking forward to Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera, Leopoldstadt, Pictures from Home.

HO– Saw: The Hours by Kevin Puts and Greg Pierce. Looking forward to: Champion by Terence Blanchard and Michael Christofer.

AM–Saw: How I Learned to Drive and Porgy and Bess at the Met. Looking forward to: Origin’s 1st Irish Festival, The Immortal Jellyfish Girl at 59E59, Vaclav Havel’s Audience, The Hip Hopera of 5P1N0K10 at La Mama.

JP-I actually haven’t seen any live theatre in the past 12 months (Part pandemic and part newborn). Looking forward to: The Collaboration.

JA – Saw: Most of the shows running on Broadway this past fall (and more off Broadway) at least once. Looking forward to: The Met’s new production of Lohengrin. Excited to see Merrily We Roll Along, Fat Ham and most eager to see Life of Pi.

Creators, producers and industry professionals continue to work hard on various initiatives and incentives to get theatergoers back in the seats. This could prove to be very exciting for audiences and provide a wider variety of offerings and programming. Now may be the perfect time to get a ticket and head to the theater. 

Martine Sainvil is a Brooklyn-based Playwright and Communications Strategist. Recent credits: Pursuit (2022 EAG Barbour Award Finalist), The Mary Lou Shine (2022 StatueFest: Monologues about Statue-Worthy Women at Purchase College), Strange Happenings at the School Library co-written with Jenny Lyn Bader (Published by Next Stage Press; 2021 Luna Stage), Indispensable (2020 Resonance Ensemble Waldman Play Development Program). Previously, Director of Communications at the Broadway League and was on the publicity team for various Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. 

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