Broadway Gains Fans Even as It Struggles

It has been a record-breaking year on Broadway, in terms of both attendance and box-office revenue. NPR's Bob Mondello explains why theater is booming in the Big Apple, if not elsewhere in the country.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Broadway doesn't seem to need any artificial boost these days. All time records have been set this year for both attendance and box office. This Sunday, the theater crowd gathers in New York to hand out its annual Tony Awards.

And Bob Mondello reports the mood will quite naturally be one of celebration.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

Hollywood is only having a so-so year, but strike up the band 'cause Broadway is booming.

(Soundbite of music)

In the season that ended last week, 12 million people saw shows in Broadway theaters and they spent more than $861 million to do so. Broadway, which has often been called the fabulous invalid, is anything but sickly this year. It is attracting big stars, including Julia Roberts, Ralph Fiennes and Denzel Washington. It's benefiting from a rebound in New York tourism, finally back from pre 9/11 levels. And it has perhaps inadvertently done something very smart.

Where shows in years past have generally tried to be all things to all audiences, most of Broadway's new shows have a targeted appeal and they're targeting folks who don't usually think theater when they look for entertainment. Take the 2006 Tony nominees for best musical. While the traditional theater crowd is flocking to the spoof The Drowsy Chaperone -

(Soundbite of The Drowsy Chaperone)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Wedding bells will ring. Wedding bells will chime. Wedding bells will celebrate our happy wedding time.

MONDELLO: - it is baby boomers who are lining up to see the Frankie Valli show, Jersey Boys.

(Soundbite of Jersey Boys)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Big girls don't cry. Big girls don't cry.

MONDELLO: A younger crowd that came of age in the 1980s is embracing The Wedding Singer, based on the Adam Sandler movie.

(Soundbite of The Wedding Singer)

MONDELLO: And African American audiences and folks who watch Oprah Winfrey are keeping The Color Purple near capacity.

(Soundbite of The Color Purple)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Like a waterfall on a part of me. Like the color purple.

MONDELLO: Harry Connick's fans are flocking to his revival of Pajama Game, too. And as all those new audience members spill into a Disney-fied Times Square, there is bound to spillover. For the first time in decades, this Broadway season has seen a lot of standing room only dramas, some with big names - Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain, for instance - others without names at all, like the British ensemble sensation The History Boys.

Now, as with nearly all record breaking these days, Broadway's latest numbers require an asterisk. Attendance and prices are indeed up over last year, but not enough to account for a box office jump of almost $100 million. What's helping make that difference is a newly widespread practice called premium seating, in which producers take the very best seats in the house and charge as much as three times the usual ticket price whenever demand is high. This year, almost half of Broadway's producers used that gambit, sometimes for hundreds of seats at each performance, and it's skewing the numbers.

It's worth noting, by the way, that as Broadway has surged ahead, touring shows have been faltering. The British mega musicals that roamed the country during the 1990s have mostly gone into mothballs and there aren't enough newer hits -Wickeds and Spamalots - to fill out subscription seasons on the road. Happily for out of town producers, this good year on Broadway means that will likely change next year. And the fabulous invalid is definitely kicking up its heels.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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