Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Today in Theatre History: The Mystery of the Long-Running Show

In  the “Today in Theatre History” series, we take a specific event in theatre history and use it as a starting point for discussion about aspects of theatre – past, present, and future.
The cast of Signature's Dreamgirls.
Photo: Chris Mueller
Today in theatre history:
-         “Rise and Fall of Little Voice” closes at the Neil Simon Theatre after 9 performances (1994)
-         “Earl of Ruston” closes at Billy Rose Theater  after 5 performances (1971)
-         “Shuffle Along” opens at Broadway Theater for 4 performances (1952)
-         “Funny Thing Happened” opens at Alvin Theater for 965 performances (1962)

All shows must close. The question then is how long will the show survive?

When it comes to theatre there are two terms used to define the "run" of the show (aka how long the show plays for):

The Broadway cast of The Phantom of the Opera
In an open-ended run there is no set end date. The greater the demand for tickets, the longer the run. When there is no longer a demand for tickets or when it becomes more profitable to license the show to other producers, a closing date is picked. Shows like The Phantom of the Opera,  Cats and Wicked all had open-ended runs on Broadway. Because Signature Theatre only has two performances spaces and produces up to eight fully-mounted productions a season, open-ended runs are simply not feasable. 

Signature shows therefore have what is called a limited engagement run. This means that there is a specific end date set for the show before performances even start. If the show is selling very well towards the end of the run, sometimes a show will receive an extension, meaning that another week or two of performances are added. While this is one way for patrons to gauge whether or not a show is selling well, there are times when a show is selling well but there is no extension because the space is needed for another production.

So why do some shows get extended and others don't? Why do some open-ended runs only last for five performances and others 5,000? In looking at Signature Theatre's production history, some themes became apparent:

Star Power
Big names have a tendency to draw big crowds. A popular actor's fan base will fill a surprising number of seats. In Signature Theatre's recent production of "Dreamgirls" actress Nova Y. Payton garnered an impressive amount of attention for her phenomenal performance of Effie. By the end of the show many people were coming to see Payton perform because they had heard great things and tickets were in such high demand that the show was extended. 
Nancy Robinette and Sherri L. Edelen in Walter Cronkite is Dead. Source:
Signature's production of Walter Cronkite is Dead was extended before the show even opened because the show's two actresses, Sherri L. Edelen and Nancy Robinette, were (and still are) both DC area stars.

Known Titles
The barricade in Signature's production of Les Miserables.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera or Sweeney Todd. In today's economy the average person is less-inclined to spend money on a show they've never heard of, as unfortunate as that is. Tourists in New York are more likely to spend money on a ticket to The Phantom of the Opera than a ticket to Return to the Forbidden Planet (the irony being that Phantom started off as an unknown show - but that's a discussion for another blog post). When Signature produced Les Miserables tickets sold incredibly well and the run was extended
because of the combination of a quality product
and also a well-known show.

An Overall Good Production
Fiona Shaw in The Testament
of Mary.

Then there are the shows that don't have a star or a well-known title and still manage to be incredibly successful. Shows like Really, Really that had a young cast and a young playwright but would have been extended if not for another show needing the space.

And let us not forget the shows with great casts and great scripts which, artistically speaking, deserve a longer run; shows like The Testament of Mary that managed to nab several Tony Award nominations but will shortly be closing.

Statistics show that three out of four shows on Broadway are a financial failure. Who gets the open-ended run? Who gets the extension? Who closes after four performances? The ticket-buyers will ultimately decide.



Post a Comment


Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More