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What recession? Broadway ignores economic downturn

 A Broadway street sign hangs in New York
A Broadway street sign hangs in New York's Time's Square, November 29, 2007. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
— image credit: Reuters

By Louis Charbonneau

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street may be in a slump as the global economic slump grinds on, but 4 miles north in midtown Manhattan, Broadway theaters continue to lure crowds as they have for decades during times of recession.

Some people might find it hard to believe Broadway has proven so resilient in the face of rising unemployment and record losses at some of the biggest U.S. corporations.

Half a year ago, predictions for Broadway were dire. The gloomier newspaper headlines included "Broadway braces for recession fallout" and "Recession to finally kill Broadway."

So far there are no signs that Broadway -- which survived the post-September11 economic slump and a lengthy strike by stagehands in 2007 -- is dead.

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League industry group, said she has analyzed 30 years of attendance data for Broadway houses during recessionary periods and concluded that New York's theater row has been virtually impervious to economic declines.

"What that tells me is that when there's great product, people go to the theater," she said. "When there's not great product, they don't go to the theater."

St. Martin said many Americans may be scrapping plans for vacations in Europe or elsewhere and traveling instead to New York City to see Broadway shows where they can enjoy a several-hour "escape from reality."

Time Out New York theater critic Adam Feldman said a wave of rave reviews and the limited size of New York's theater industry were both helping to keep it buoyant.

"Broadway is a fairly small industry in some ways," he said. "We're talking about theaters that only seat a limited number of people serving a fairly resilient industry."

Among the most successful new productions is a revival of the 1967 tribal rock musical "Hair." It has grossed over $7 million since performances began in March, according to Broadway League data. A new revival of the 1957 musical "West Side Story" has pulled in nearly $13 million since January.

Tourists account for the majority of their audiences, St. Martin says, adding that U.S. and foreign tourists make up an estimated 65 percent of Broadway's public.

LEANER BUSINESS MODEL

There is also the star factor.

"I don't ever remember a season where you've had as many Academy Award winning, Emmy Award winning, Tony Award winning stars on Broadway," St. Martin said. "So even if the shows aren't well known, a lot of the stars are."

Feldman says producers staging plays at one of the several dozen Broadway venues in New York's theater district are also becoming more conservative as the economic crisis continues and have turned to a new business model.

Instead of investing $10-15 million in a big new musical in the hopes of making $100 million back, producers are investing $3 million into a play and hoping to earn back $4 million.

"That means produce a show conservatively," he said. "You produce a good show that will create buzz and enthusiasm, that will sell out its planned limited run, and pack it with stars, good stars, that will bring people in."

Two examples of this new more conservative model are a revival of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist drama "Exit the King," starring Oscar-winners Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon and Yasmina Reza's hit comedy "God of Carnage," starring Emmy Award winner James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels.

Both productions received rave reviews and continue to play to near sell-out audiences months after opening.

Not all Broadway productions are doing well, though. A few shows that received good reviews are having trouble drawing large crowds because there are so many plays on Broadway to choose from. That, St. Martin says, is "business as usual."

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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