RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Broadway is booming. Between Christmas and New Year's, theaters broke attendance and box office records, taking in close to $30 million. That figure also reflects big changes in how Broadway sells tickets.
Jeff Lunden explains the new math.
(Soundbite of stage play, "42nd Street")
(Soundbite of song "Lullaby of Broadway")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) C'mon along and listen to the lullaby of Broadway…
JEFF LUNDEN: There are a lot of Broadway producers who are sleeping well these days, like David Stone - whose shows include the smash hit "Wicked."
Mr. DAVID STONE (Stage Producer, "Wicked"): Broadway is doing so well because of the tourist boom that's come back after 9/11. But I think, you know, you have to credit our last two mayors with really cleaning up Times Square, and people want to come into the city. When suburban people want to come in, when tourists want to come in, then Broadway is the beneficiary, really. It is still the number one tourist attraction in New York.
LUNDEN: Tourists represent more than 60 percent of Broadway's audience. And they're helping to fill almost every seat at shows like "Jersey Boys," "Mary Poppins," and "Wicked." But how much theatergoers pay for those seats has changed in the last several years. The top listed ticket price on Broadway is $115, but for quite a bit more, you can have the best seats in the house.
Popular shows are now offering premium tickets. It's become an industry standard, says Gordon Cox, theater reporter for Variety.
Mr. GORDON COX (Theater Reporter, Variety): "The Producers" was the first to introduce it, and I believe the premiere ticket price was 480. There is still a perception from a lot of people - at least in the business - that these ticket prices are sort of, you know, price gouging.
(Soundbite of stage play, "The Producers")
(Soundbite of "I Wanna Be a Producer")
Mr. MATTHEW BRODERICK (Actor): (Singing) I wanna be a producer with a hit show on Broadway…
LUNDEN: There have always been premium tickets on Broadway. Scalpers and brokers have offered seats to hit shows at high markups for years. But producer David Stone says if extra money is to be made, it should go to the people who took the risks.
Mr. STONE: Why should brokers get money instead of the people who created the show - the producers, the investors, the writers, the director?
LUNDEN: "Wicked" has been sold out since it opened in 2003, so Stone says they take about five percent of the available tickets and sell them for a premium rate of $300, though that percentage fluctuates depending on the demand for seats.
This kind of flexible pricing is part of what made Christmas week record-breaking, since more premium tickets were offered for all of Broadway shows.
David Stone says premium tickets not only help producers recoup their costs more quickly, it also allows them to offer less expensive seats.
Mr. STONE: We have this lottery where people can come in for $25. We have cheaper seats, obviously, up in the mezzanine and student pricing and things like that. So it afforded us a way of scaling the house in a way I think that, you know, the sporting events have done. You know, you have courtside seats at the Knicks, you're paying a lot more money than you are all the way at the top. And it ends up being more democratic.
(Soundbite of stage play, "Wicked")
(Soundbite of song, "Popular")
Ms. KRISTIN CHENOWETH (Actress, Singer): (Singing) Popular, I know about popular…
LUNDEN: Charlotte St. Martin, the new executive director of the League of American Theaters and Producers says she's both bullish and cautious about the current climate on Broadway.
Ms. CHARLOTTE ST. MARTIN (Executive Director, League of American Theaters and Producers): When we continue to see that Broadway's having its best year ever with the highest occupancy and the best pricing, your thought is then why would Broadway have any problems? Well, the reality is, as our grosses are going up, our costs continue to go up. We have aging theaters. We do have high costs in labor - it's a very labor-intensive business.
LUNDEN: And indeed, labor costs will come into play later this year when Broadway stagehands renegotiate their contracts, says Variety's Gordon Cox.
Mr. COX: When the stagehands come to the negotiating table, they say, look, we want a raise. And you're making a lot of money, so don't tell us you can't afford it, which is a really strong point. And so the League and producers in general are always quick to point out - and they're not wrong - that costs are always escalating.
(Soundbite of stage play, "Gray Gardens")
(Soundbite of song, "Around the World")
Ms. CHRISTINE EBERSOLE (Actress): (Singing) Around the world…
LUNDEN: Even with all these smash hits, the reality is most Broadway shows fail. And Cox says industry insiders are looking closely at how two critically acclaimed, but offbeat musicals - Gray Gardens and Spring Awakening - will fare in this boom and bust economy.
Mr. COX: They're the kind of things that attract, you know, local theatergoers. And the challenge for both of them will be to make the leap that "Phantom" has and "Les Mis" has to latch onto that sort of out-of-town audience and bring them in and convince them that this is not - I don't know - too artsy or too edgy.
LUNDEN: And they'll have to hang on through the two chilliest months, January and February, when tourists are thinking about warmer places.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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MONTAGNE: You can find the top ten Broadway shows at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.