Is Broadway OK? Here's a little song and dance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Despite a dearth of new musicals or plays this fall, Broadway ended 2004 with an increase in sales and audience, according to a year-end report just released.

Through Dec. 26, sales for Broadway shows in 2004 were $748.9 million, an increase of 3.2 percent over last year's total of $725.4 million. Paid attendance also increased, with some 11.3 million tickets sold during 2004, up from 11.1 million in 2003.

The attendance and sales figures, released Tuesday by the League of American Theaters and Producers, a trade group, were helped by a sizable increase over the last year in ticket buyers from overseas.

Jed Bernstein, the president of the league, said a weak dollar accounted for that surge in foreign sales. "You're talking about the overseas component returning to pre-9 / 11 levels," Bernstein said.

For all of the good news, however, celebrating year-end figures on Broadway is a bit like popping the champagne while holding a halftime lead in the Super Bowl. The most important gauge of the industry's health is how Broadway does season-to-season, a period that is technically defined as from one year's Tony Awards to the next year's, or from June to June.

Using those parameters, the health of Broadway seems less rosy. Halfway through the 2004-2005 season, the total gross stands at $419 million, slightly less than the $422 million the industry sold during the first half of 2003-2004. Attendance is also down, with some 6.32 million thus far in 2004-2005, compared with 6.34 million at this point in the 2003-2004 season.

Part of the flat sales during 2004 could be attributed to a fall season that saw only one new musical open -- the struggling pop rocker Brooklyn -- and only two new plays (Democracy and Gem of the Ocean). Filling the void were a number of one-person shows and play and musical revivals, of which only one, Twelve Angry Men, was a bona fide hit.

Indeed, while Christmastime is usually a happy time at the box office, the last weeks of 2004 also seem to be particularly ego-deflating for those solo performers playing along Broadway.

The one exception to that trend has been the staggering success of Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, which took in a whopping $787,206 in one recent week at the Broadhurst Theater, smashing box-office records for a solo show and -- amazingly enough -- even eclipsing the take for many of the musicals on Broadway.

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