The renowned composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has expressed his deep concerns about the future of Broadway, attributing his apprehensions to the substantially elevated operating expenses.
Webber, aged 75, witnessed the final performance of his latest production, Bad Cinderella, in a New York theatre on Wednesday. His globally acclaimed creation, The Phantom of the Opera, had its final performance on Broadway in April after more than 30 successful years, even as it continues its run in London.
The theatrical spectacle of The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running musical on Broadway, performed its final act after a 35-year run. This marks the end of an era for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s grand masterpiece, with its ensemble of 130 cast, crew, and orchestra members, array of 230 costumes, and a 6,000-bead replica chandelier of the Paris Opera House.
Broadway’s time-honored tradition of grand musical theatre, which has been a staple since the 19th century, is truly a high-stakes endeavor. It necessitates large audiences willing to pay hefty ticket prices, a risk emphasized by London’s recent revival of Cabaret. The intricate workings of such productions might well be described as a defiance of gravity.
Phantom had been witnessed by nearly 20 million people on Broadway, amassing a gross of $1.3 billion. Despite a temporary closure during the pandemic, it continues its run in the West End, having played to an audience of 145 million people across 41 countries since its London opening in 1986. While it may not compete with classical operas in artistic stature, its financial prowess is undeniable.
In a conversation with CBS Sunday Morning, Webber admitted his growing anxiety about Broadway’s future, stating;
The running costs are incredibly high. Broadway seems to be becoming akin to Fifth Avenue – where brands establish themselves knowing well that they won’t be profitable, but the presence itself is deemed necessary.
He further conveyed his unease about the evolving landscape of Broadway, where only “very big hits” are likely to survive. This shift particularly troubles him.
Bad Cinderella, a revamped version of Webber’s West End musical Cinderella with a new leading lady, title, and songs, has been met with less than favorable reviews since its March debut at the Imperial Theatre. It failed to receive any nominations at the upcoming 2023 Tony Awards.
The primary challenge is not the initial investment in a new production—sizable as that might be—but the ongoing high costs of maintaining the show. Drawing a parallel with yacht ownership, acclaimed British producer Cameron Mackintosh once said, “The happiest days are when you buy and sell it. The running costs are extremely high.”
Musicals exemplify the “cost disease” in performing arts, a concept identified by economist William Baumol in 1966. Increasing salaries and other expenses cannot be counterbalanced by greater labor productivity, as every performance necessitates the same number of people for identical output. Apart from dropping the chandelier, enhancing Phantom’s financial efficiency has become a formidable task.
This struggle intensifies with high inflation. Mackintosh estimates that the weekly cost of producing Phantom on Broadway has surged from approximately $850,000 pre-pandemic to nearly $950,000, with additional increases in energy and other expenses looming. Given its current average weekly gross of $850,000, the math no longer works out.
The predicament is exacerbated by the fact that long-running musicals in metropolises like London and New York increasingly rely on tourists. While locals might be drawn to limited runs of new shows or revivals such as The Music Man, performances like Phantom rely more on visitor attendance. However, fewer tourists have been flocking to New York since the onset of Covid, especially from Asia.
As the demand for tickets wanes, prices plummet, rattling the economic foundation of venerable musicals.
But fear not, for the spellbinding tale of the enamored masked man is unlikely to vanish from New York forever; Phantom may re-emerge in the future in a more economically viable incarnation. In the meantime, it will continue to enchant audiences worldwide with limited runs in cities from Sydney to Vienna. If the tourists won’t journey to Phantom, then Phantom will journey to them.
Broadway musicals are not ready to fade into obscurity yet, though the journey forward will indeed be tougher. It would be anticipated that the growing demand for smaller casts and orchestras will be required, to maintain profitability in this industry. Rest assured, the music won’t stop; it will simply resonate through a more condensed ensemble.
This precarious state of affairs brings us face to face with critical questions about the feasibility of future extravagant musicals on the scale of Phantom or Les Misérables. Musicals have traditionally been a gamble, with a syndicate of investors carrying the high risk of premature closure before a new production even recovers its initial costs, all for the slim chance of a windfall (as in the case of Cats’ original London investors, who reaped a staggering 60-fold return).
The ripple effect of a Broadway smash hit has historically been vast, sparking the creation of countless productions like Phantom. Downsizing musicals may mitigate risks, but it could also diminish the potential for a new show to rise as a global sensation and secure a steady stream of revenue for years to come.
Lloyd-Webber also took the opportunity to critique the practice of awarding Tony Awards to producers who contribute minimal amounts to a production. He said, “An individual can invest 20,000 USD (approximately £15,910) into a play, and if that play wins Best Play, they can claim to be a ‘Tony Award-winning producer’. This needs to be addressed, as it seems quite absurd. There have been moments when around 30 individuals would ascend to the stage during the ceremony, all claiming to be producers.”