The Theatre Business: Looking Backward – and Ahead

Reprinted from "The Pits," the newsletter of the Broadway Theatre Committee

Volume CII, No. 5May, 2002

Bill Dennison

In less than a year Local 802 will begin negotiations for a new agreement covering musicians employed on Broadway. How has Broadway theatre fared over the last decade? What kind of economic environment are we now facing? What was the impact of Sept. 11 on theatre, and what may lie ahead for this important part of the entertainment industry in our city? All of these questions deserve serious analysis as we prepare for the 2003 negotiations with the League of American Theatres and Producers.


The decade of the ’90s was a period of strong economic growth for the Broadway theatre industry. The revitalization of midtown and the new theatres brought into service in the mid-1990s produced a substantial climb in attendance and in theatre grosses. From 6.5 million theatregoers in the mid ’80s, attendance rose to 11.9 million by the 2000-01 season. Box office grosses set records in each year of the decade. The city- and state-assisted revitalization of 42nd Street included the nearly-complete reconstruction of two major Broadway-size theatres and one smaller theatre. Additionally, two Off-Broadway-size spaces in the theatre district are currently being utilized as musical houses and the construction and reconstruction of two additional Off-Broadway-size theatres is under way.

This revitalization of midtown Manhattan included the entrance of major entertainment conglomerates into the theatre business. Lured by substantial tax incentives, Disney and Livent (which became part of SFX and is now part of Clear Channel Communications) entered the theatre business with substantial investments. Cablevision, involved to a lesser extent on Broadway, now owns both Madison Square Garden and Radio City Productions.

During the 1990s, Broadway’s box office (plays and musicals) grew from $267 million in the 1990-91 season to $666 million in the 2000-01 season – a 149 percent increase. Attendance during the same period grew from 7.3 million to 11.9 million – a 63 percent increase. Looking at the decade more closely, Broadway’s attendance figures were stagnant or declining from 1990 to 1993. The largest growth began with the 1993-94 season, and both attendance and grosses posted substantial growth in each year thereafter.

The 1993-94 grosses of $356 million had nearly doubled to $666 million by the 2000-01 season. The total wages paid musicians during this period went from just over $20 million to over $31 million, a 55 percent increase. About half of this was a result of wage increases; the other half was due to an increase in the number of musicians’ jobs on Broadway.

There are several sources of the increased employment. First of all, more theatres have been occupied with musicals, particularly a number of smaller theatres that had rarely housed musicals in the past. Rent at the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street is one example. At the Cort and the Belasco, a total of five musicals have run during the last four years. In the ten prior years, there had been only one musical in each.

The two large Broadway houses that were refurbished and opened in 1997 – the New Amsterdam by Disney and The Ford Center by Livent/Clear Channel – have had continuously-running musicals for most of the last four years. Lastly, given the larger budgets being spent on musical productions, primarily on more elaborate sets, lighting and sound systems, there is more pressure to keep shows running to make back the investment.

All of these elements helped produce a growing level of musician employment on Broadway that peaked each spring around Tony award time and then again during the holiday season. The number of full-time Broadway jobs exceeded 400 for brief weeks in May and December of 1997, December of 1999 and again in April of 2001. The off-peak employment levels typically dropped to around 300 during the summer and late winter months. Average yearly employment grew from about 220 in 1993 to 350 in 1998, and then fell back to around 320 in 2001.


Even before Sept. 11, and beginning as early as the spring of 2001, attendance levels were trending downward, reflecting early signs of a declining economy. From January through September of 2001, audiences were down from the prior year by about 4 percent. The Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center closed Broadway theatres for two days and brought air travel to a standstill. Theatre attendance, which had been 168,000 in the week prior to the attack, plummeted to 65,000 for the week ending Sept. 16. Attendance dropped sharply for the rest of 2001, remaining between 10 and 15 percent below the levels reached during the same period in 2000. The temporary wage cuts agreed to by all of the Broadway unions helped to keep at least five shows running though the remainder of 2001. By the end of December, Broadway grosses were within 8 percent of the prior year and nearly all of the wage cuts had been repaid.

To some degree, the full impact of Sept. 11 was delayed. Only one musical temporarily suspended performances in its immediate aftermath. However, five musicals had closed by the first week of this year, bringing employment to just under 220 – a level not seen since before 1993. While several musicals are slated to open this spring – including Sweet Smell of Success at the Martin Beck, Into the Woods at the Broadhurst, Oklahoma at the Gershwin, Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Marquis, One Mo’ Time at the Longacre and two limited runs (Bea Arthur on Broadway at the Booth and Elaine Stritch: At Liberty at the Neil Simon), as well as several other shows slated for later in the year – employment will fall short of the peak levels of the last few years by 70 to 80 chairs. That is likely to remain the case through the end of this year. While several other musical productions are in the works, the time lines for bringing them to Broadway may be slowed until the general economic situation improves.

Overall, the growth of the Broadway theatre business during the 1990s was the result of a confluence of circumstances: (1) a major expansion of theatre spaces, (2) a healthy economy in New York and the country as a whole, and (3) substantial new investment capital in theatre productions. The creative talent that Broadway ultimately depends upon responded with a wealth of new material from composers, lyricists and writers. During the later part of the ’90s, productions were lined up waiting for available theatres.

Whether we will see this same level of growth in the near future is problematic. In the aftermath of 9/11, New Yorkers demonstrated a loyalty to the theatre that kept attendance at respectable levels, despite the sharp drop in tourism. For Broadway to fully recover will require a sustained economic recovery, both nationally and in the New York metropolitan area; a return of tourism and air travel to pre-Sept. 11 levels; and a more audience-friendly sales and marketing plan for Broadway, that focuses as much on attendance as it does on box office grosses.