Bright Lights, Broken Dreams

Bright Lights, Broken Dreams

A new study suggests that Broadway success is due to many fickle factors.

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“An Empirical Study of Factors Relating to the
Success of Broadway Shows” by Jeffrey S. Simonoff and Lan Ma, in
class="text31">The Journal of Business (Jan.
2003), Graduate School of Business, Univ. of Chicago, 1101 E. 58th St.,
Chicago, Ill. 60637.


The business of Broadway is as dramatic as anything
that appears on the stage. In 1999, theatergoers bought more than 11
million tickets to the Great White Way’s dramas, comedies, and
musicals, yielding gross revenues of more than $550 million. Yet all too
often failure waits in the wings: More than half of the 91 Broadway shows
that opened in the three seasons from 1996–97 to 1998–99 closed
after 10 or fewer performances. Only six shows, all of them musicals, ran
for more than 800 performances:
Cabaret class="text52">, Chicago "text52">, Jekyll and Hyde "text52">, Ragtime,
The Lion King, and class="text47">Titanic. Such winners can rake
in profits of $50,000 per performance, but investors in a loser can see
their entire investment—as much as $10 million for a musical—go
right down the drain.


The rise of the musical is familiar to anybody who
follows theater, but there’s another, less familiar story: the
declining clout of the drama critic from
The
New York Times
, that august personage who once
held an almost absolute power of life and death on Broad­way. After
studying three Broadway seasons in the late 1990s, Simonoff, a professor of
statistics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Ma,
a professor at Rider University, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, found that
many of the shows “got poor reviews in the
"text47">Times but were very successful. [And]
several shows getting very positive reviews closed very quickly.” Overall, the authors conclude, reviews in the
Times class="text52"> had no impact at all on a show’s longevity.


That contrasts with favorable reviews in the tabloid class="text9">Daily News, which were
statistically associated with “a significantly more successful
show,” report Simonoff and Ma. Of course, that may only mean that the
class="text9">Daily News is more in step with
popular tastes, not that it is wielding
Times class="text4">-like influence.


Winning major Tony Awards can work wonders at the box
office, Simonoff and Ma found. But winning a Tony nomination and then
losing the award apparently hurts, as the producers and cast of
class="text9">The Wild Party learned during
the 1999–2000 season. Nom­inated for four major Tony Awards, the
musical won none. A week after the awards were announced, the show went
dark.