Broadway's polarised economy
On Broadway, the hits (and the prices people will pay to see them) just get bigger and bigger. Broadway revenues have literally doubled in the last ten years. The 2018/19 season that ended last month saw box office takings hit a record $1.829 billion, with attendances of 14.77m.
Yet two of the season's shows just yesterday announced imminent closings; both The Prom and Be More Chill will shutter on Broadway on 11th August. As veteran Broadway commentator Michael Riedel wrote of The Prom's closing: "It was probably doomed from the start: Broadway, because of its insane economics, has become a place where only shows with famous titles, stars, hype and gazillionaire backers can survive. The Prom had none of those."
And while the numbers - both in attendance and the prices that are charged - keep going up, there may come a breaking point. Riedel quotes an unnamed producer saying, "We are about to see how strong this business is. Can we really sell enough tickets to keep all these shows in business? Or are we going to start cannibalizing each other?"
Of course, hits make hits. Broadway is a self-generating hype machine. But given that there's always a self-limiting factor on even the biggest hits - you can't be more sold out than sold-out - audiences may find themselves opting for the next show that they can actually get into. There's a bigger danger, though, that some will simply shell out for the ever-escalating premium prices being asked for, and have nothing left to see anything other than the biggest hits.
Do reviews still matter?
In a recent interview, John Brant - one of the lead producers of Bitter Wheat - commented of the play: "Look, it is a controversial subject, which has been systematic in the movie industry and in plenty of industries for years. It's not going to be to everyone's taste. I don't think anything David Mamet has ever written really is, and he wouldn't apologise for that, and nor should he. But I think theatre is quite a good medium to get a conversation going and to hold the mirror up to what's going on."
It's certainly got a conversation going, but it may not be the one that the producers want to hear. As Matt Wolf commented in a review for the New York Times, "Bitter Wheat is unlikely to reverse the prevailing feeling that Mr. Mamet has skidded off course of late, despite the attachment of big names to his works - like Al Pacino, who starred in the poorly received China Doll on Broadway in 2015, or Mr. Malkovich, on hand on this occasion as commercial catnip."
Yes, the star presence of Malkovich has ensured a healthy advance box office. But after reviews like this, will any more people be encouraged to actually buy tickets? A scattered few may be tempted to go for all the wrong reasons now. As 'Phantom of London', a contributor to the theatre chat bulletin board theatreboard.co.uk, "Unfortunately the reviews are so uniformly terrible that this has been elevated to a must see."
But while many of the above-the-title producers are Broadway players like Jeffrey Richards, Steve Traxler and Scott Landis, I can confidently predict that any ambitions to take this play to Broadway now are likely to be shelved.
The irresistible momentum of this 'sleeper' hit has become something to behold. It originally premiered at the Old Vic in July 2017, and seemingly came from nowhere; there was next to no hype. But audiences responded, and it was propelled to a West End transfer to the Noel Coward that Christmas.
Last October it duly transferred in turn to the New York Public Theater, where again it received glowing reviews. In a review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley got to the very heart of its beautiful contradictory nature: "The show's most heartbreaking moments are perhaps its happiest. I’m thinking in particular of the jubilant performance of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" that begins the second act. It's performed as a sort of hoedown celebration, with dancing that defines each participant as an idiosyncratic individual and as part of a synchronized whole. You may find yourself thinking that this is as close as mortals come to heaven on Earth. And for just a few, infinitely precious moments, a radiance eclipses the all-devouring night."
That is the show in a nutshell. I can't wait to see it again... and again.