This Winter, More Cause For Broadway Discontent The recession has hit Broadway hard: Nine shows, including Young Frankenstein, closed this week, and four more have posted notices. Jeff Lunden talks to a veteran producer and a young investor to see how bad the outlook is.
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This Winter, More Cause For Broadway Discontent

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This Winter, More Cause For Broadway Discontent

This Winter, More Cause For Broadway Discontent

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. These are unprecedented times on Broadway. In the next two weeks, four shows will close. That's after nine shows closed last Sunday. Reporter Jeff Lunden got together with a veteran producer and a young investor to find out why so many Broadway theaters have gone dark.

JEFF LUNDEN: So here we are on...

NORRIS: On 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th at the takeout. It's when the scenery comes out of the theater. This is "Hairspray," or this was "Hairspray."

LUNDEN: January and February are notoriously bad months for Broadway's box office. And with the economic downturn, their producers decided it would be better to close than to continue to sustain losses. Azenberg and I walked into the wings of the theater. Carpenters were disassembling flats and putting bubble wrap around the props.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARPENTERS DISASSEMBLING STAGE SET)

NORRIS: This is what it looks like. Used to be scenery.

LUNDEN: Azenberg says shows are loading out all over the theater district right now.

NORRIS: There are, what, seven or eights shows coming out of theaters right now.

LUNDEN: Nine shows closed this week.

NORRIS: And a few more next week and the following week. Probably coming to a total of somewhere between 16 and 20 since September. There was a time, I think in the '70s, when there were only eight or nine shows on Broadway. And that was a crisis. And this will be a crisis, as well. And probably a more significant one because the economics are much harsher - ticket prices are too high, costs are too great. And so replacing what has left town will not be simple.

LUNDEN: Since those dark days in the early 1970s, Broadway's three dozen theaters have more or less been filled. And there are several productions lined up to open in theaters where shows have recently closed: revivals of "West Side Story," "Hair" and "Guys and Dolls;" Dolly Parton's new musical version of "9 to 5;" and quite a few plays. But Manny Azenberg says investment capital on Broadway is getting tight. It's a risky business, where only one out of five shows turn a profit.

NORRIS: You can ironically say that the theater is a better investment than the stock market at the moment. On the other hand, that cavalier money that was around to invest in the theater has certainly diminished. There are major investors that I know that - they used to put in a half a million dollars, so they'll put in a $100,000. That's going to affect a lot of things.

LUNDEN: While there are those big investors who make Broadway hum, there are also lots of smaller investors who chip in from 10 to $25,000 for a piece of the Broadway dream, like Brad Rubenstein.

NORRIS: There was a wonderful song in "[Title of Show]" that talks about being part of it all. And I think that that's the motivation for a lot of smaller investors, is that this is their opportunity to be a part of that life and that glamour and that key part of what makes New York, New York.

LUNDEN: Rubenstein has invested in 15 shows. Most, like "[Title of Show]," were flops. But a couple, like "Hairspray," were hits. He says he's still getting pitches from producers though lately, he's been feeling the pinch.

NORRIS: There's less capital for me to invest that, you know, for me and a lot of other investors, constrains our - in a sense, our vanity investments or our charitable contributions or our philanthropy. All of those things contract with the economy.

LUNDEN: Still, as soon as he's able, Rubinstein says he'll likely give in to the seductive pull of being part of it all.

NORRIS: There will always be room in New York City for theater. There will always be an audience for theater in New York City. And so, I'm pretty optimistic.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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