In early January, as Broadway was settling in for its annual post-holiday slump, there was a glimmer of good news: the last week of December 2022 had been the industry’s best week, by a long shot, since 2019.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, with tourists swarming the city and ticket prices rising in response, Broadway grossed more than $51 million, compared with $26 million in the same week the year before.
The boom came after months of low revenue and a host of closing notices as the Manhattan theater scene — the biggest in the world – struggled to recover from the pandemic.
And it was, perhaps, a sign of what’s to come. January through March are typically the slowest months of the year on the Great White Way, but attendance and revenue are markedly higher than they were last year.
According to data compiled by the Broadway League, the slowest week by this point in 2022 grossed just $15 million. The slowest week so far this year grossed $23 million.
Even more dramatic are the number of tickets sold so far this season — so far in the 2022-23 Broadway season, revenue is up 137% compared to the 2021-22, and attendance is up 127%. As tourist season draws near, the industry is ramping up — a whopping 16 shows are slated to open before the end of April, and many are already in previews.
Alex Tavis, a group sales representative who works independently and with BroadwayPlus, said his sales in January 2023 more than tripled from January 2022.
“It’s definitely been a big, big improvement,” he said.
Tavis secures tickets for groups of ten people or more. Some of his biggest clients are schools, summer camps, and retirement homes, but he also works with tour groups from around the U.S. and overseas.
An actor himself, Tavis has been working in group sales at least part-time since 2017. But that work all but died out in 2020 and early 2021, he said, and it remained slow when Broadway reopened in September 2021.
“The last four months of 2021 into I would say even mid-quarter one of 2022, it was still a lot of reticence, still a lot of ‘Well, I’m not quite sure I want to go in because of this latest COVID mutation,” Tavis said.
COVID and crime kept audiences at bay
Unlike individual ticket sales, which are more immediate — and sometimes day-of — group sales are usually made weeks or months in advance, and COVID spikes were unpredictable. Shows were being canceled due to COVID cases in the cast, and would-be audience members didn’t want to get sick.
The pandemic wasn’t the only thing keeping audiences away.
“I deal with quite a few schools in the area, public and private and parochial, and most of them were not doing any excursions at all into New York City, not necessarily because of COVID, but because of their perception of crime,” Tavis said.
Reports of violent crime, especially on the subway stoked fear in locals and tourists alike, even though actual crime rates remained below pre-pandemic levels for the most part. Schools didn’t want their students on the trains or walking through the streets, and older tour groups were hesitant, too.
But over the past five or six months, Tavis’ clients have been less worried about COVID. In the last two or three months, fears about crime have also decreased. Group sales are still relatively niche, Tavis said, and don’t necessarily reflect wider trends — but in terms of what the rest of the year holds for Broadway, he may have some insight.
“Group sales, many times, goes hand in hand with tour operations and travel into the city,” he explained. “I have people requesting tickets for the summer already. It tends to be a further-out way of thinking.”
Summer camps are already requesting tickets for the new show “& Juliet,” which has been a hit for younger audiences, he said. Other popular shows, like “MJ,” the Michael Jackson musical, and “Funny Girl,” only have tickets on sale through the spring, and clients are calling trying to book in the summer and fall.
“Phantom of the Opera, because it’s closing, I’m getting a lot of requests and some denials from the box office because of lack of availability,” Tavis said.
When “Phantom” announced its closure last year after almost 30 years on Broadway, it seemed like a bad omen for the whole industry — it had been performing poorly for some time, despite its long history and popularity with tourists and theater-lovers alike.
Now, it seems theater can continue on fine without its Phantom. Among the top-grossing shows last week were two newcomers: “A Doll’s House,” featuring Jessica Chastain, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical “Bad Cinderella,” both still in previews.
“I would say [ticket sales are] getting very close to pre-pandemic,” Tavis said. “I can say, with my sales, in 2022, they weren’t, but in 2023, they have been very close.”
Off-Broadway perks up
Off-Broadway, things are looking up, too. There are dozens of smaller houses dotted around Manhattan — some, like the Public Theater, host larger-scale productions that sometimes end up transferring to Broadway.
Others are home to smaller, more experimental works with much smaller budgets. The theaters themselves often rely on revenue from renting their spaces out and donations as well as ticket sales to make ends meet.
The road to recovery off-Broadway has had an additional hurdle — the loss of rehearsal spaces, many of which closed permanently during the pandemic, in large part due to high real estate prices.
On Jan. 24, a coalition of local theater companies and organizations — the New Ohio, Rattlestick, HERE, and IndieSpace — cut the ribbon on a brand-new rehearsal space in the West Village.
The 1,500 square-foot West Village Rehearsal Co-Op is tucked into a brand-new development, and is the product of an agreement between developers and Manhattan Community Board 2, who negotiated the inclusion of a rehearsal space in a rezoning. The Co-Op has a 99 year lease — and rent is just $1 per year.
“IndieSpace was also originally created to address issues in the real estate community, and issues that artists are facing consistently are always around funding and real estate,” said Randi Berry, the organization’s executive director. “This was in play years before COVID … and this is an issue that has plagued our field for decades and decades.”
For half the year, artists working with HERE, the New Ohio, and Rattlestick will make use of the co-op. For the other half, IndieSpace will rent it out to artists at a special subsidized rate — no more than $10 per hour.
Without readily available rehearsal spaces, theater artists will always find a place to work, said Daniella Topol, artistic director at Rattlestick. But that means spending money and resources finding a place to create work, and less time on the art itself.
And artists and audiences are ready for some new off-Broadway shows. In December, before the space was officially opening, the Co-Op welcomed artist Gelsey Bell as she prepared her show “Mourning” for the Prototype Festival at HERE.
The run was sold-out, and the show got great reviews from all the major papers, said Kristin Marting, HERE’s founding artistic director.
Since then, the Co-Op has been “bubbling and bursting,” Berry said, with eight theater companies taking their turns there and 40 more on a waiting list. When they opened their applications for the next available two months, 34 troupes applied.
Because of the pandemic pause, there is “such a hunger to create work” and to collaborate, Topo said.
“I think that audiences are really hungry to be back in theaters,” Marting said. “I think an issue that all the theaters need to grapple with is that people are able to be unmasked in many spaces now, and a lot of small theaters are still masking because we feel it’s necessary to protect our artists who are onstage and don’t have a choice of whether to wear a mask or not.”
Tavis concurred — while not many of his clients are looking for off-Broadway tickets, those who take an interest are sometimes turned off by continued mask mandates.
Data for off-Broadway ticket sales and revenue is not readily available, but the continued churn of artists at the Co-Op and the success of “Mourning” is a good sign, mask issues aside.
FRIGID Fringe Festival, a three-week long annual indie theater festival hosted across two tiny venues in the East Village, is on track to make $40,000 in ticket sales this year — more than it’s ever made in its 17-year history, and almost twice its total revenue last year.
About 15% of the tickets sold prior to closing weekend were for streaming, a festival rep said, as audience members watched from home. For the most part, masks were not required for live audiences at FRIGID, but the organization did include one mask-required weekend to allow for more accessibility.
“We’re hopeful. It’s still complicated to produce right now, it’s just complicated,” Berry said, “I think the community wants to come back. I think we know when theater is back, New York City is back. We’re seeing that, we’re seeing the bubbles of it.”
Tavis said he expected sales to approach or meet pre-pandemic levels fairly soon. Producers and audiences have been watching the ebb and flow of COVID and crime and ticket sales, deciding whether to act now or wait, and many are done waiting.
Theatergoers are buzzing about new and soon-to-be-opened shows — “Sweeney Todd,” “Parade,” and “Back to the Future,” especially, and there’s plenty more opening in the summer months.
“Especially later this year, and in 2024, I’m pretty confident it’s going to be pre-pandemic levels for sure,” Tavis said. “For sure.”