Talkin' BroadwayV.J.

Broadway's Last Audience

In the last year I've read many articles on the current state of Broadway and its myriad problems. The latest was in last Sunday's (1/27) New York Times by Mervyn Rothstein, "A Season of Graying Crowds and Whitening Stars". He states, "The aging of Broadway is a serious matter, and many theater people say that its impact on their industry, and the new stage generation is crucial".

Some of the problems addressed in this article (and others) is the plethora of revivals, producers playing it safe, (thus all the revivals and film transfer musicals), audience demographics, and last but not least, where are the writers?

I'm glad Mr. Rothstein pointed out that the writers are there, whether it be drama or musicals. And they are, they're just Off Broadway, or in Regional theaters. Their talents may be a bit too risky for Broadway producers who seem to be taking the safe road in the last few years. And what is that safe road? Well, it's the familiar to the core of ticket buyers on Broadway. It's why you currently have The Full Monty and The Producers, two wonderful shows for sure. It's why we had Saturday Night Fever, Victor, Victoria, The Summer of '42, why we're getting The Sweet Smell of Success, Thoroughly Modern Millie and God save us all, if we get Rocky or The Pink Panther. And let's not even mention I Dream of Jeannie.

Unfortunately, and as silly as those last three sound, it could happen. Now, that's not to point a finger at Broadway producers and blame them for some of the drivel we've endured in the last couple of years. Even those shows will present a certain amount of risk. Revivals are certainly less risky, and of course, we've seen a whole lot of them in the last five years with many more on the horizon.

So, what's happening here, and where is Broadway heading? Well, the answer lies in Broadway's demographics. The average age of a Broadway patron is 42, according to recent surveys. Nothing wrong with that you might think, but think again, and watch the numbers in the next few years. Two or three years ago, the average age was 39 or 40. Audiences are getting older as each year passes and unless that trend is reversed, Broadway, and theater everywhere, will suffer in attendence.

The answer, of course, is to attract younger people to the theater. And that is not an easy thing to do. Ticket prices alone, let alone dinner and parking, can easily add up to several hundred dollars. Yes, there is Student Rush and the TKTS booth in Times Square to help make it easier for those who can't afford full ticket prices. But the problem is bigger than that. It extends beyond Broadway.

For years now I've been attending theater in various cities around the country, and each and every time I take my seat prior to curtain I'll look around the theater and shake my head in wonder. Where are the younger people? And I don't mean teens or college students, I mean those in their twenties and thirties. They're not to be found. Oh, there are some, but they certainly don't measure to the crowds who are forty-plus. And one has to remember that that forty-plus crowd were probably attending the theater twenty and thirty years ago.

Broadway has been dying since 1929 when it reached its highest number of annual productions. Radio, Hollywood, and Television each took their chunk of audiences away from the theater. Still, the old dame survived. But if the 40-plus crowd is the last audience, commercial theater (regional and community theater for that matter, too) is doomed.

Producers are not to be blamed at all. They're simply supplying a product to their patrons who want the familiar, whether they come from films of old, or a revival of a musical from the Golden Age.

What's crucial to Broadway is not the babyboomer ticket buyers of today, but the next generation or two, who need to be nurtured today into becoming ticket buyers of tomorrow. Therein lies the paradox.

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