In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I try to calculate the odds against a straight play’s succeeding on Broadway. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
The conventional wisdom about Broadway is that it has degenerated into a theme park for commodity musicals, and that the horrifically high cost of producing shows has made it all but impossible to do artistically serious work there. Is that really true? Straight plays, after all, do get produced, some of which are amazingly good—but how often does it happen, and how well do such shows do? In particular, how hard is it for new plays to get to Broadway? Are contemporary playwrights fighting an uphill battle against the malign forces of philistinism, or can they still manage to stay afloat by faithfully plying their trade?
It’s a byword in the theater world that you can make a killing on Broadway, but not a living. Time was, however, when major plays usually had a decent chance of succeeding there. The original 1947 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for example, ran for two years—nothing to brag about next to “The Phantom of the Opera,” but spectacular by any other standard. And as late as 2007, Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” a three-and-a-half-hour play acted by a cast of unknowns from Chicago, ran for a year and a half solely on the strength of its high quality. Once again, though, the conventional wisdom says those days are gone for good. Today’s playgoers, we’re told, prefer fluffier fare and will only pay top dollar to see movie and TV stars onstage.
True or false? I pulled out my calculator the other day and started punching in statistics. Here’s what came out:
• How many straight plays now open on Broadway? A total of 108 plays opened in the five seasons preceding the current one.
• How many are new? Fifty-six of them were new and the rest revivals—an average of 11 new plays per season. That number, however, has been inching inexorably downward for a half-century. (By way of comparison, 25 new plays by American writers opened on Broadway in the 1964-65 season.)
• How long do they run? The average run of those 108 plays was 68 performances each—in other words, less than two months. New plays, by contrast, ran for an average of 88 performances, a bit healthier but not enough so to recoup their investments….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.