Defying gravity on Broadway: 'Wicked' makes $2 million in six days

Broadway has finally figured out how to best Hollywood at the grosses game. During Thanksgiving week, the Wizard of Oz-themed musical Wicked grossed $2,086,135, a new weekly record for a musical.

To put that into perspective, the movie adaptation of the Oprah Book Club selection The Road only grossed about $1.5 million nationwide in 111 cinemas over the entire Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and Sony's high-profile animated movie Planet 51 only mustered $1.8 million (akin to Wicked's previous house record) during the same period on more than 3,000 screens. Wicked pulled its $2 mil on one stage in just eight performances.

That's a massive amount of green, and it's also a solid achievement for a musical that's been playing for seven years, but let's not confuse this new ceiling with the illusion of runaway success. See it more as a new ceiling for the price of live performance. That $2 million doesn't mean more people are going to the theater. It just means that more than ever, you can't afford it.

The main reason that a successful Broadway musical can make $2 million in a week is because they now charge so much for a seat. In Wicked's case, that's a standard top ticket price of $131.25 a pop. The show also charges an astonishing $250 for each "premium seating" ticket (plus $12.25 in Ticketmaster fees, not included in the grosses).

"Premium seating," which are essentially seats in a prime area of the orchestra seating section, might as well be roughly translated into "sucker seats," "expense account seats," or "too lazy to plan ahead seats." Nonetheless, they contribute to the gross, and the few that are sold for each performance push up the tally by that much.

I used to be a booster of Broadway, from which so many American musical and cultural classics grew in the past, but for the past decade, it's been nothing but a venue for tourists to come see their favorite mediocre Comedy Central-aired movies regurgitated in musical form. Like Hollywood itself, it can rarely seem to muster the strength to be original, and here in New York, I've seen countless young artists give up the business in disgust.

Broadway is now Netflix on stage, and its pricing is set disproportionately high by a distasteful collaboration of producers and unions, out of the reach of average folks to enjoy on a regular basis. Worse, the people in charge seem determined to keep it that way.

One current show, Rock of Ages, opened last spring with prices that scaled back to mid-'90s levels, or $90 a pop, which constituted a price break of 25% for audiences. But, as rumor has it, the theater owners agitated to raise that fee to match the $120 everyone else is charging for musicals. Now seats peak at $127.50. Even when producers try to make shows more affordable, the powers that be (including unions that force salaries for multiple orchestra members even if only two musicians are required) force them to yank the rates up.

So while a few shows, such as Wicked, capitalize on the tourism market and become a must-see for short-term visitors to New York City (or in whichever city a production happens to play), most everything else limps along -- that is, if it can interest producers to begin with. Hollywood name-brand stars and well-known titles have squeezed out that original works that once made Broadway the incubator for Hollywood entertainment, and not the other way around.

In fact, while Wicked storms along by charging luxury prices, early 2010 is shaping up the be the kind of bloodbath that early 2009 was. So far, at least four Broadway have announced a January 3 closing: Oleanna (with movie stars Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles), the play Superior Donuts, the seasonal White Christmas (another "movie-sical"), Shrek: The Musical ('nuff said), and just a block away, the camp off-Broadway movie-sical The Toxic Avenger.

The show goes on, of course. But for now, the only musicals that Americans can really afford to see are on TV (Glee) or at the movies (Nine).
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