Broadway blues: the credit crunch effect

New York's theatreland has been hit hard by the economic slowdown, with the curtain going down on big-name – and big-money – productions. David Usborne reports
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The Independent Culture

Their celluloid kingdom far, far behind them, Shrek and Donkey are putting down their stakes in New York, and as they survey their new surroundings they may not much like what they see. The eve-of-holiday sizzle that should be gripping the Great White Way about now looks more like fizzle.

The gloom that has been enveloping much of Broadway throughout the autumn – with a few notable bright spots, including the warm reviews for the recently opened West End import Billy Elliot – is turning into something close to ink-dark night. Thanks go primarily, of course, to the rotten economy.

The past week has been especially grim, with four shows folding or setting January dates for closure. The loudest thud came from the Hilton Theater, with word released on Monday that Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein was bound for the crypt and will play its last performance on 4 January. Replicating the extraordinary success of The Producers, also by Brooks, was not as easy as it was meant to be.

"With the continuing draconian prospects for the economy, and as we looked at what the prospects were for January, the question was whether it was the responsible thing to try and swim upstream or face the reality of where the economy had put us," Robert Sillerman, the producing partner of Brooks, explained in a statement, adding that a national tour is planned for the show next year.

Theatre owners and producers are eager to avoid giving the impression that Broadway has collectively caught the flu and is dropping to its knees. After all, every show comes to an end eventually – The Producers, buoyed by all manner of Tony Awards, held on for six years – and January is often the time they take their last bows, because the early cold months are the hardest for getting bums on seats.

"Closings are a natural part of our business, and the big ones that have announced have had long runs," insisted Charlotte St Martin, executive director of the Broadway League. Other productions that have raised the white flag include Spamalot, the Monty Python-inspired romp directed by Mike Nichols. Its producers first said it would close on 18 January, only to bring it forward one week to 11 January.

Also in their dying days (so much for Christmas cheer) are Hairspray and 13, both of which will close on 4 January, as well as Spring Awakening on 18 January. The theatre occupied until recently by Xanadu is dark, and Gypsy is set to close on 1 March, the day that the contract with its main star, Patty LuPone, expires. It was only a short run for 13, the first Broadway musical with an all-teenage cast and band.

Condolences all round, meanwhile, for the cast of David Mamet's American Buffalo. With John Leguizamo in a lead role to boost sales, the play drew mostly negative reviews when it formally opened at the beginning of last week. By Sunday, the producers confirmed the rumours that had been swelling from the start. After just eight regular performances after the previews, American Buffalo has already closed.

Musicals are meant to provide cheer in times of economic hardship, but the reality, of course, is that they are themselves hurt by the effects of a recession. And it is not just the sudden spate of closings that is telling a sad story – so too are the broader box-office numbers. In the week ending 23 November, five shows hovered around the dreaded 50 per cent mark – playing, in other words, to half-empty auditoria.

Among the productions struggling to survive anaemic ticket sales is Equus, the Peter Shaffer play brought over from London with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths. Latest figures show it achieving attendance rates of just 49.9 per cent. In common with everyone else, the folk at Equus are just hoping that the period between Thanksgiving this week and Christmas brings a new box-office tide.

The optimistic at heart will point to the various new shows that are planned for the weeks and months ahead. When Frankenstein has moved out, the Hilton Theater, one of the largest in New York, is expected to play host to Spider-Man, a much-anticipated collaboration between Julie Taymor and Bono.

But others predict that the economic slowdown will leave some gaps in the usual roster of Broadway offerings, with the prospects of straight plays hurt disproportionately. "It's reasonable to assume there'll be a few empty theatres in the spring," Emanuel Azenberg, a longtime Broadway producer, suggested earlier this month.

While Billy Elliot seems to have got off to a good start – "Broadway's long, dark, dry spell of big, smart, smash musicals is officially over," was the verdict of Newsday when the musical opened earlier this month – there may even be cause for concern over at Shrek. True, it has not been reviewed yet, so the public cannot quite know what to expect, but in previews it too has been playing to only half-full houses.

Meanwhile, there is the demise of Frankenstein, which should be adding to the general chill. At some level, however, the rest of the theatre community in New York is enjoying a degree of schadenfreude on hearing that the Mel Brooks magic this time didn't quite pan out as expected. Frankenstein will have lasted only a little bit longer than a year, which is not what everyone was told to expect when it opened. According to Sillerman at the time of its opening last year, it was the musical to beat all musicals.

Indeed, Frankenstein may have been brought down in part by its own hubris. Other Broadway producers looked with a measure of bewilderment when from the get-go, Sillerman priced the best seats for the show at $450 and adopted a stand-offish policy for group sales, which can often turn out to be the bread and butter of a Broadway production. "There's no level of expectations we could set that this show couldn't exceed," Mr Sillerman famously remarked two months before the opening on Broadway.

Now it isn't even clear to outside observers if the show – which cost $16m to launch – will have made any money by the time the last applause dies down in January. And Mr Sillerman, by his own admission, is feeling chastened. Talking to The New York Times, he admitted that the critics, who were hardly kind to Frankenstein, had accused him of arrogance. But that, he said, wasn't really the problem. "What they perceived as our arrogance," he said, "was nothing more or less than my ignorance."

But enough of the doom. Spies over at the Broadway Theater report that those who have been showing up for the previews of Shrek the Musical have been rewarding it with enthusiastic laughter. Even Mr Nichols, setting aside for one night the sad news of Spamalot's death notice, was spotted busting a gut in the orchestra seats one recent night. At least Princess Fiona and Donkey are doing something right.