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Will Audiences Give Their Regards To Broadway?


Thanksgiving traditionally kicks off Broadway's most lucrative season. Last year most shows were closed for that holiday because of a strike by stagehands. This year the theaters are open for business. So now there's just the problem of finding theatergoers who can afford the tickets. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Ever wonder how the word "turkey" came to mean a lousy show? Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News explains.

Mr. JEREMY GERARD (Editor, Bloomberg News): The term "turkey" refers to a production that a producer traditionally puts up between Thanksgiving and New Year's when he knows he's got a dog. He's got a show that probably won't pass muster with the critics or the New York crowd, but will do business during that holiday season when there are plenty of tourists. And so it was called the holiday turkey.

LUNDEN: When times are good, Broadway can feed off holiday ticket sales to get them through the leaner parts of the year. Jeremy Gerard estimates that about 30 percent of the annual box office take comes in the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Extra holiday matinees are added for the crowds. Ticket prices for premium seats are jacked up for the biggest hits. But he says right now people are tightening their belts.

Mr. GERARD: The question is, are the tourists interested in going? Are there going to be as many tourists as the Broadway community would like there to be? And what's going to happen to all the shows that aren't really there for the tourist trade? Shows are dropping like flies now.

LUNDEN: In the last several weeks "Legally Blond," "American Buffalo," and "A Tale of Two Cities" gave up the ghost after disappointing runs. But even more ominous, right after New Year's, some of Broadway's biggest musicals are bringing down their curtains forever: "Spamalot," "Young Frankenstein," "Spring Awakening," "Hairspray."

Ms. MARGO LYON (Lead Producer, "Hairspray"): There's no question that the economy has hit Broadway hard and particularly family shows.

LUNDEN: Margo Lyon is lead producer of "Hairspray."

Ms. LYON: We certainly saw a sudden drop-off with "Hairspray" in the fall. And we draw a big family audience, so I think that the economic climate has really hurt us there.

LUNDEN: With full-price orchestra seats hovering around $120, it costs a small fortune to bring a family to see a Broadway show. But last Friday evening, practically every show on Broadway was offering seats at the half-price ticket booth in Times Square.

(Soundbite of Times Square hubbub)

LUNDEN: A trio of women waited over an hour in the chilly weather to see what tickets were available. They had flown into New York on frequent flyer miles, were staying in a hotel on rewards points, and said they had done more window shopping than actual shopping.

Ms. LYNNE PARKER(ph): Hi, I'm Lynne Parker, and I'm from Stockton, California, and we're hoping to see "South Pacific" or "Mary Poppins" tonight.

LUNDEN: And would you normally buy full-price tickets?

Ms. PARKER: Oh, definitely. I've come to New York and had two or three shows planned ahead of time. And with the economy like it is, I just decided, girls, let's just stand in the line and suck it up and do the half-price tickets, yeah.

LUNDEN: And it isn't just ticket buyers who are unwilling to part with their money. Plummeting portfolios and a serious credit crunch have made investors more cautious. Margo Lyon has a new musical in the pipeline, an adaptation of the Steven Spielberg movie "Catch Me if You Can." And she's trying to catch some investment capital.

Ms. LYON: Very recently I did start dipping my toe into the investor pool. And when my most prominent investor, who is in real estate, came and said to me, not now. I said, well, you know, I'm just going to wait till after January 20.

LUNDEN: Lyon hopes that there will be a change in attitude with a new administration, but she admits money may still be hard to come by. Even in the best of times, 80 percent of Broadway shows fail. But when they hit, they hit big. "Hairspray" cost $10.5 million to produce and has grossed 275 million to date. So Jeremy Gerard thinks those kind of numbers will always be attractive to somebody.

Mr. GERARD: It's a huge risk. And I do think hope springs eternal, and that's what keeps it moving forward. As Margo Lyon said, if you would have invested in the London production of "Hairspray" and in AIG, you'd be doing better with your London production of "Hairspray."

LUNDEN: By next Monday, when the Broadway grossers are published, producers will know if this season is a turkey or the goose that lays the golden egg. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.