Arts

Broadway Bounces Back With ‘Best Week Since the Before Times’

Broadway, still struggling to rebound from the lengthy pandemic shutdown, is starting the new year with a sign of hope: Last week was, by far, the best for the industry since the arrival of the coronavirus.

The 33 shows running grossed $51.9 million, which is the most since the final week of 2019. And “The Lion King,” which last fall celebrated its 25th anniversary on Broadway, notched a remarkable milestone: It grossed $4.3 million, which is the most ever taken in by a show in a single week on Broadway.

The boffo numbers — 21 shows grossed more than $1 million last week — come with caveats. Both Christmas and New Year’s days fell on Sundays, concentrating holiday travelers into a single week. Twenty shows added extra performances for the holiday week, giving nine instead of the usual eight. And ticket prices were high: The average Broadway seat went for $166, up from $128 just four weeks earlier.

But the strong week sent a signal that under the right circumstances, Broadway can deliver. During the holiday week — the week that ended Jan. 1 — the 22 musicals and 11 plays running were, on average, 92 percent full. Overall attendance was 312,878, which is not a record (in fact, it was the 27th-best-attended week in history, according to the Broadway League), but is good (by comparison, attendance over Thanksgiving week was 259,298).

The two final weeks of the year saw combined grosses of $86.7 million, which is up 115 percent over last year, but down 12 percent compared to those key holiday weeks in 2019.

“What you see is that we’re continuing to build and maintain our audience,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League, a trade association representing producers and theater owners. “We’re not back to where we were, but we’re doing very well at a time of uncertainty.”

According to the League, last week was the third-highest-grossing in history. The highest was the week ending Dec. 30, 2018, when grosses were $57.8 million and attendance was 378,910; the second-highest was the week ending Dec. 29, 2019, when grosses were $55.8 million and attendance was 350,714.

“The Lion King,” with a nine-performance week, toppled the previous record for the top-grossing week by a single show, which had been held by “Hamilton,” which grossed $4 million for eight performances during the week that ended Dec. 30, 2018. (The figures are not adjusted for inflation.)

“The Lion King” earned $4.3 million last week, the most a single show has ever earned in one week. It resumed performances in September 2021.Credit…Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for The New York Times

The holidays are traditionally strong for Broadway, but in 2021 the final weeks of the year were a bloodbath because the Omicron variant led to cancellations of multiple shows. Now, despite the “tripledemic” of circulating respiratory illnesses, Broadway has largely figured out how to keep going: During the last three weeks, 12 scheduled performances were canceled, compared to 221 cancellations during the final three weeks of 2021.

Throughout the industry, shows were trumpeting breaking records last week.

“Chicago” had the highest-grossing week in its 26-year history, as well as its highest single-performance gross. The once-struggling “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which revived its fortunes after the shutdown by consolidating from two parts into one, was already the highest-grossing play in Broadway history, and last week set a record (nearly $2.7 million) for weekly gross by a play. And a starry revival of “The Piano Lesson” became the highest grossing play by August Wilson — the much-celebrated and oft-performed bard of 20th-century African American life — in Broadway history.

Several shows set house records at the theaters where they are being performed, including the revival of “Funny Girl,” which had been floundering financially until its producers brought in Lea Michele to star. Also setting records were shows including “Beetlejuice,” which closes Jan. 8 after a bumpy ride; “Six,” the pop-concert-style reconsideration of the wives of Henry VIII; “& Juliet,” a new musical imagining an alternative history for Shakespeare’s famously star-crossed lover, and “MJ,” the Michael Jackson biomusical.

“We had our best week since the before times,” said Victoria Bailey, the executive director of TDF, a nonprofit organization that runs the TKTS discount ticket booths, who said her staff is noticing increasing geographic diversity among ticket buyers.

“We were seeing people from lots and lots of states and lots and lots of countries — it wasn’t the same folks making the numbers bigger, but it was folks from further away,” Bailey said. “I don’t have any reason to say we’re out of the woods, but I don’t think this was just a one-off. And if we get to a point where you periodically have good weeks, that will be helpful.”

Bailey and St. Martin both noted that tourists from China have not yet returned in significant numbers as that nation battles surging coronavirus cases. But both said they were particularly heartened by returning domestic tourism.

Broadway now enters a period of greater challenge: January and February have historically been weak months for the industry. There are 12 shows scheduled to close this month, which is at the high end of the normal range for January closings. But there are a raft of openings planned in March and April — it looks like the overall number of new shows this season will be within the typical range — and St. Martin said she is feeling good about the industry’s trajectory.

“I am overwhelmingly optimistic about the spring,” she said.

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