September 12, 2008 / 1:23 PM / 10 years ago

Broadway hopes "Shrek," "Billy" defy economic woes

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe gets naked, Tom Cruise’s wife Katie Holmes does Arthur Miller and cartoon ogre Shrek vies with ballet-dancing Billy Elliot in a battle of the monster musicals.

A Broadway street sign hangs in New York's Time's Square, November 29, 2007. The new season on Broadway offers plenty for the theater fan, but it is not just fans who keep a close eye on the ups and downs of New York's theater world. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The new season on Broadway offers plenty for the theater fan, but it is not just fans who keep a close eye on the ups and downs of New York’s theater world.

The Broadway League, a trade association, says the 39 Broadway theaters contribute $5.1 billion per year to the economy of New York, on top of ticket sales, and support 44,000 jobs.

“Every major tourism city has to have a driver, and for New York, the No. 1 driver is theater,” said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League.

Nearly 12.3 million tickets were sold in the 12 months up to the end of May, producing $937 million in gross revenues. Some 65 percent were bought by people outside the immediate area.

Broadway producers will be trying to break the $1 billion barrier in annual ticket sales this season at a time when the slumping economy is making consumers think twice about spending $100 on theater tickets.

Musicals are the big earners, accounting for between 85 and 90 percent of gross revenues in the last three years.

Among the most anticipated new shows is “Shrek,” based on the 1990 book and the 2001 Oscar-winning Dreamworks film about a green ogre and a princess.

Also based on a movie is “Billy Elliot,” the story of a British boy from a coal-mining town who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. A hit in London, it has songs by Elton John and was adapted from the Universal Pictures film.


“Last year we didn’t have a lot of well-known titles, brands that were already established, and this year we have more of those,” St. Martin said.

In that category she also pointed to a revival of “West Side Story” and “9 to 5,” with music by Dolly Parton and based on the 1980 film starring Parton and Jane Fonda.

Fans of the French Revolution tale “Les Miserables” will be the prime target for another big new show, “A Tale of Two Cities,” based on the Charles Dickens novel.

Lacking a brand name but with a catchy idea is “13,” a musical about teen-agers with an all-teenage cast.

Disney, whose mega-shows “The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Little Mermaid” regularly gross more than $3 million a week between them, has no new offerings this year.

The musical menu may be rich, but the economic downturn has had an impact. A planned revival of “Godspell” was dropped after a financial backer pulled out last month.

“This is a direct reaction to what’s happening on Wall Street,” said Stewart Lane, one of the “Godspell” producers.

Coming to the end of his Harry Potter years, Radcliffe will make his Broadway debut, and get naked, in Peter Shaffer’s psychological thriller “Equus” with Richard Griffiths.

Katie Holmes will also make her Broadway debut in a revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Other big names will include Kristin Scott Thomas in “The Seagull,” Frank Langella in “A Man for All Seasons,” Jeremy Piven in “Speed-the-Plow” and John Leguizamo in “American Buffalo.”

Despite the gloomy economy, St. Martin said ticket sales had not been hit and the weak dollar was attracting more foreign visitors even as Americans choose domestic vacations.

“For us right now it’s still all talk and no reality,” St. Martin said of recession fears. “We’re still achieving better results than we were at the same time last year.”

Editing by Xavier Briand

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