A Spring in Broadway’s Step: After a Grim Fall, the New York Theater Industry Finds Reasons to be Upbeat

Are we back yet?

That’s the question Broadway has been asking for the past three years, as the theater industry emerged from lockdown into a harsh new reality of rising costs and slow-to-return audiences. But now, after a grim fall, a springtime surge of buzzy new openings and a heartening spike in sales suggest that bated-breath Broadway may be ready to exhale.

More from Variety

“We’re in our second full season out of lockdown, and 15 fully financed new musicals opened on Broadway — many of them from younger producers and younger artists. That to me is exceptional news,” says Kristin Caskey, executive vice president of content and creative at Ambassador Theatre Group and chair of The Broadway League. “I’m incredibly optimistic about the future, even if we still have to overcome a few of our present challenges.”

For many, the main cause for optimism is that since early March, sales and attendance have finally gained momentum. That’s especially encouraging after an unusually slow summer and autumn: long, fallow months when, by one insider’s estimates, overall box office was 15% short of expectations and attendance was off by some 40,000 people a week.

As the city has warmed up for spring, Broadway sales have picked up steam. For the week ending May 5, 35 productions pulled in a combined $34.8 million, up 15% from the comparable week in 2023, while attendance came in at just under 290,000, or 88% of capacity. It’s the latest mark of a surge that has helped close the gap between this year and last year’s season-to-date tallies: By the end of week 50, the 2023-24 Broadway season had brought in $1.47 billion (3.1% less than last year at this time) and an attendance of 11.7 million (almost on par with 2022-23).

Factoring into the upticks is the almost-like-old-times return of tourism, which has seen hotel occupancy rise notably all spring. Recent projections from New York City Tourism + Conventions predict 64.5 million domestic and international visitors to the city in 2024 — within spitting distance of the 66.6 million reported in the halcyon pre-pandemic year of 2019.

“When you see a dozen shows grossing well over a million dollars every week, that says to me that people are coming back to Broadway,” says Mandy Hackett, the longtime Public Theater executive who has shifted full time to the commercial sector as a lead producer of the new Alicia Keys musical “Hell’s Kitchen.”

That show, recently nominated for 13 Tony Awards including best musical, was one of the headline titles of a jam-packed April, with 14 Broadway productions opening in the space of two weeks. The scheduling crunch made it difficult for any one show to stand out and prompted grumbling from exhausted critics. But that collective burst of activity also raised the public profile of Broadway as a place where a wealth of new shows spark excitement, critical debate and even, in some cases, boffo sales.

“Hell’s Kitchen,” for instance, started strong and, fueled by Keys’ music and awards attention, has grossed more than $1.25 million in the two most recent weeks of box office reports. Meanwhile, ATG’s starry transfer of London hit “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” may have divided critics, but it’s played to full houses since it began previews and grossed more than $1.9 million for the weekend ending May 5, its best number yet. Despite a Tony shutout, “The Wiz” is pulling in $1.5 million a week, while lit adaptations “The Outsiders” (12 Tony noms) and “The Great Gatsby” (one nod) have done well with school audiences.

Among plays, “Appropriate” (eight noms), a slyly cutting family drama starring Sarah Paulson and Corey Stoll, snowballed into a buzzy success that prompted a commercial transfer from its initial nonprofit run. “An Enemy of the People” (five nods), headlined by Jeremy Strong, has played to full houses throughout its run. The critical darling “Stereophonic” (13 noms), a three-hour-plus vérité look at a rising 1970s rock band, has seemingly against all odds found a foothold with rapidly rising sales. Meanwhile, the dance-storytelling hybrid “Illinoise” swooped in at the last minute to swipe some critical adoration and Tony love, and looks poised to continue its box office growth after nabbing four nominations.

Not everything has clicked. Huey Lewis musical “The Heart of Rock and Roll” is struggling, and “Lempicka,” a love-it-or-hate-it musical about the art deco-era artist, posted a closing notice immediately after the show was left out of the Tony race for best musical.

Across the board, Broadway still faces significant challenges, particularly the rising production costs that for many shows have pushed the break-even gross past $1 million a week. And those suburban audiences that have been so slow to return since lockdown lifted? Many are still staying away, in a trend attributed to changing work habits (including remote work, keeping commuters out of midtown) and sensationalist press coverage of city crime.

“I don’t think there’s any aspect of the business that will ever be back like we were before,” says John Johnson, who moved “Stereophonic” to Broadway with producing partner Sue Wagner. “There’s been a generational shift in the audience, and a generational shift in the creative teams, the directors, the producers — all of it. We’re in a transitionary moment, and as the shift happens, the newer audience isn’t quite there yet. But it will be.”

Wagner adds: “Everybody blames the pandemic, and of course that didn’t help things. But the reality is, this was always going to happen.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.