Costly tickets and biting reviews add to Broadway's melancholy

By David Usborne
Monday 24 November 2003 01:00

Broadway is facing its most dismal season in years and it has nothing to do with terrorists or any 11 September 2001 hangover. Instead, theatre-goers in New York are being turned off by ever-increasing ticket prices and the sour mood of the drama critics, who have had little good to say about this year's new offerings.

Symptomatic of the dark mood was the embarrassment of the veteran actress Ellen Burstyn. A week ago, she was basking in lights and glory for the opening of her solo show, The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Twenty-four hours later, it was closed by its producers at an estimated loss of $1.25m (£735,000). That was the first time in seven years a Broadway play has folded a day after its opening.

By some standards, Burstyn was lucky. This month, a much vaunted comedy, Bobbi Boland, starring Farrah Fawcett, ended in previews.Harmony, a musical, was abandoned in rehearsals and the New York run of Stephen Sondheim's newest show, Bounce, was cancelled after disappointing outings in Chicago and Washington.

And Rosie O'Donnell's reworking of Taboo, a musical about the rise and fall in London's Eighties club land of Boy George, was panned on Broadway. The show, with a cast that includes Boy George, is still open, but only just. Most nights the theatre is half empty. Attending the show just after its opening two weeks ago, O'Donnell was provoked by the audience into responding to the critics who had called Taboo "tedious" and "a crazy, mixed-up mess". She made a gesture involving two fingers.

O'Donnell, who took the largely successful London version of Taboo and set about complicating the plot line for the New York audience, is determined to keep the show open, saying that the public has not yet "warmed up" to it.

Mediocrity has been the watch-word of most reviews. There has been no stand-out arrival on the Great White Way to follow Hairspray, the musical version of the John Waters film, which became the must-see of last season or The Producers two years before. In fact, nothing has caused more excitement this year than the imminent return of the two original stars of The Producers, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, to the show.

Jed Bernstein, the president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, said: "The reviews seem to have been tougher across the board. So far, the rose petals have been handed out very sparingly, and that's made it very hard on everybody." Others in the business are fretting that theatre prices have simply risen too high. The cheapest ticket to be found for Taboo costs $80. That represents a 533 per cent increase in 10 years. In 1993, seats forMiss Saigon could be bought for a mere $15. And it had good reviews. For the best view of Boy George on Broadway, fans must pay $100.

Concern for Broadway's health grew because of the 11 September attacks and the economic doldrums that accompanied them. But it bounced back strongly last year, thanks, in part, to Hairspray. This year, the numbers of bums on seats has dropped by almost 5 per cent, or 250,000 fewer tickets sold. Overall, box office earnings have risen slightly, but mostly by virtue of the exorbitant ticket prices and a larger number of shows being staged.

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