The State of Broadway: Part I

As the 2017-2018 Broadway season nears its final weeks, producers and performers alike are hoping to be a part of the next big hit that stays on the Great White Way for years to come. With more and more high-profile shows hoping for a lengthy lease on their theater, we combed through all 790 Broadway shows that have opened in the last 20 years to see if there was anything that the previous seasons could teach us about the future of Broadway.

Over the next few weeks, leading up to the 72nd Annual Tony Awards®, we’ll be diving deep into our findings as we examine not only the general trends that emerged from looking at all 790 shows, but the specific performances that stood out from the pack with incredibly long or notably short runs – we’ll call those Broadway’s Outliers. But, before we hold up the microscope as to why certain shows were tops or flops, let’s break down these three main points that hold true for all Broadway shows.

1) Broadway Runs Have Gotten Shorter

The average show on Broadway in 1998 ran for approximately 275 performances and has dropped in the last twenty years to about 175 performances in 2018. That amount comes from looking at the number of performances from every musical, play, and special that hit the Great White Way from 1998-2018. Our observation is that while plenty of shows have continued to go on to successfully long runs, statistically, more shows are running for less performances.


2) More Hits = Less Shows

It stands to reason that if more shows stick around for a lengthy run, fewer theaters are available for new shows to open. Of the 41 Broadway houses in NYC, 44% are filled by productions that have run for one or more full seasons, while another 39% are housing shows that opened this season, and 17% are currently dark, awaiting shows opening in the 2018-2019 season. How many more will open up before the next season kicks into high gear? While some shows have limited runs, like Angels in America or Three Tall Women, others like Mean Girls, Frozen, and Once on This Island are hoping to stick around for many seasons to come. If even half of the shows that opened this season stay open until 2019, then only about a third (37%) of the theaters will be available for new shows in the next season.

3) Musicals Run Longer Than Plays, Plays Run Longer Than Specials

While we mentioned before that the average show has a shorter run regardless of type, within musicals, plays, and specials, those declines have varied greatly. In 1998, the average musical ran for about 600 performances, a play for about 125, and specials for around 60. Fast forward to today, and while the rankings have remained, musicals now run for approximately 300 performances, plays just under 100, and specials for just over 30. Much of this reflects the nature of the shows themselves. Specials often feature engagements from celebrities or niche genres that, as their title suggests, are meant for a special occasion. Plays are featuring star turns more frequently too, but also often emerge out of repertory theatre companies, with another show is scheduled to take the stage in a few months’ time. Meanwhile, musicals open almost exclusively as open runs — save a few limited engagement revivals — and remain open for as long as ticket sales and audience interest are sustainable.

Now that we’ve laid down this basic overview, in the coming weeks we’ll be taking a look at the shows that broke the mold to become a Broadway Outlier, or data points that stand out from the observed trends. Because there is such a range in the run-lengths of musicals, plays, and specials (without even mentioning originals versus revivals!), we’ll be exploring those topics in three separate posts to see what it takes to become the next longest- (or shortest-) running show on Broadway.

*Statement of methodology: These numbers come from the Internet Broadway Database collection of data on a show’s 1) opening date, 2) number of performances, and 3) categorization as a play, musical, or special performance (original or revival). The official start date used was any 1998 production that opened after the previous season’s Tony Awards® nominations came out on May 3rd, starting with Side Man on June 25th, 1998, and ended after the Tony Awards® nominations window closed on April 26th, 2018, with the revival of St. Joan. The performance count for each show represents the number of performances as of May 6th, to preserve consistency in measuring trends. A full list of shows can be found here. The data was then organized by type (musical, play, special) and as a whole to demonstrate the average length of a show’s run sequentially, over time, via scatter plot. The average is taken by the calculated line of best fit.
The data on shows currently running was pulled from the same sources as above, with additional information about theater location to assess any two shows that may represent the same theater (i.e. Farinelli and the King and the upcoming Gettin’ The Band Back Together, both slated at the Belasco). Seasonal representation was determined by relevant Tony Awards® eligibility, as found on the Tony Awards® website.