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Broadway shows are more expensive than ever to make, but audiences aren't showing up

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW BROADWAY CAST OF MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG'S "OVERTURE")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Broadway today is more extravagant than ever. Production budgets are the highest they've ever been. Nearly two dozen shows have opened since the beginning of the year. Everything from "Illinoise" featuring the music of Sufjan Stevens...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICAGO").

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing) You came to take us...

SHAPIRO: ...To "Hell's Kitchen," featuring the songs of Alicia Keys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALEIDOSCOPE")

ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) Feel so good when it's all out.

MALEAH JOI MOON: (Singing) Running through the dark till the sun's out...

SHAPIRO: It feels a bit like the Roaring '20s - appropriate since the current Broadway season also features a musical adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." And like the '20s, there are signs of a looming crash. Boris Kachka has a look behind the curtain for his piece in Vulture headlined, "We've Hit Peak Theater." Boris, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BORIS KACHKA: Thanks, really happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: You write that this moment is, in some ways, the best and worst time to open on Broadway. How so?

KACHKA: There's a lot of variety. There are a lot of shows. A lot of projects that have been in development since well before the pandemic, which was a boom time for Broadway, have been waiting their turn. And what that means is that you can sample anything. If you are into your backstage music drama, you can watch "Stereophonic."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT (TAKE 22)")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) The nighttime loves you, but it is not your friend.

KACHKA: If you want a big brassy musical, there's "Gatsby," of course. If you want Sondheim, there's not only Merrily We Roll Along, but a revival of "Sweeney Todd."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIRELLI'S MIRACLE ELIXIR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #3: (As characters, singing) Let me have a bottle. Make that two.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Pardon me, ma'am. What's that awful stench?

KACHKA: I mean, you just have your pick. The problem with that is that the audience is just not there. It's about 17% down since before the pandemic, and there's no sign of it really trickling back enough to justify the kind of money that's being put into Broadway right now.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, not only are audiences down, but the cost of putting on a show is way up.

KACHKA: Yeah. I mean, they're basically balloons. Some of that has to do with the pandemic and inflation, but we are already on an upswing. And, you know, 20 million used to be the kind of impossible high-water mark maybe five, 10 years ago. And now five shows at the very least have opened this season that are well over $20,000,000 in capitalization.

SHAPIRO: And not all of them are still open. Give us an example.

KACHKA: "Lempicka" - just under 20 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOMAN IS")

EDEN ESPINOSA: (As Tamara de Lempicka, singing) Woman is plane, lines, form.

KACHKA: Relatively modest musical with an obscure subject and Eden Espinosa, who is beloved by Broadway fans but not the kind of giant draw that, for instance, Eddie Redmayne is in "Cabaret" - never stood a chance. And it's closing this weekend after getting three Tony - only three Tony nominations. And I think that's the canary in the coal mine for this summer.

SHAPIRO: Most Broadway shows lose money. That's been true for a very long time, but is it all worth it if, one day, another "Hamilton" comes along or another "Wicked" comes along? Is this just the nature of the kind of gambling that investing in Broadway shows has always been?

KACHKA: Well, I think this really speaks to the wait-and-see moment that we're in because there is no "Hamilton" on the horizon at this point. You know, the top vote getters for the Tony nominations are going to be fine. But person after person that I talked to - this was right before the nominations - said, you know, there are 15 new musicals out, and I have no idea what's going to get nominated. When nobody has any idea what's going to get nominated, you just don't - "Hamilton," even when it was on - at the Public, people were already...

SHAPIRO: The Public Theater is where it ran before it went to Broadway.

KACHKA: That's right. That's right. It was sold out. You had that sense of buzz. You're hearing that a little bit for the - this off-Broadway commercial production, "OH, MARY!" We'll see what happens. It's coming to Broadway.

SHAPIRO: Cole Escola's play about Mary Todd Lincoln.

KACHKA: That's right.

SHAPIRO: Zany comedy - yeah.

KACHKA: Yeah, zany comedy. Is it Hamilton? Probably not. But...

SHAPIRO: Definitely not.

(LAUGHTER)

KACHKA: Well...

SHAPIRO: I think anyone associated with that production would tell you, it is absolutely not Hamilton (laughter).

KACHKA: Right. So where is that show that's, like, this crazy concept, and all of a sudden people are flocking to it? That's not happening this season.

SHAPIRO: Is part of the problem that since the pandemic, people are not flocking to live theater in the numbers they were for reasons that are a long-term, perhaps permanent change? - that it's not going to rebound.

KACHKA: Well, all of the trends that we are seeing toward remote, toward streaming - the pandemic accelerated those trends, and those trends have certainly affected theater. You know, somebody is not coming into the office every day and saying, you know what? I'll see a show tonight. They're in their pajamas working, and they don't want to cross the bridge to get into the city. It's a habit of mind that's been broken.

SHAPIRO: For you, as somebody who not only covers theater but clearly loves theater - do you look at the offerings on Broadway and think, this is wonderful, it's a smorgasbord? Or do you think, oh, God, it is overcapitalized. Everything is too expensive. Audiences aren't showing up. Shows are closing. Like, do you feel a sense of joy or dread?

KACHKA: I really liked "Stereophonic," which I saw during my whirlwind week of seeing Broadway shows. You know, I saw some other shows that were not that impressive. But I mean, it's just - I think people are going to want to see it if you can make an event out of it. And the variety is there. But, you know, I'm still - we're still all waiting to - for that one hit that's just knocking it out of the park. And that, I don't quite see.

SHAPIRO: That's Boris Kachka. His latest piece for Vulture is called "We've Hit Peak Theater." Thank you. Have a great weekend.

KACHKA: Thanks. Happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW BROADWAY CAST OF MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG'S "OVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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