This January, Broadway is thriving

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Jessie Mueller in the title role and Jake

Jessie Mueller in the title role and Jake Epstein as as Gerry Goffin star in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" opening on Broadway Jan. 12, 2014 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.

We are a bit late for our usual January-is-hell column about Broadway. And timing is not all that's different this year. It appears our winter's tale has changed.

At least it has for now. January has always been the saddest month around Times Square -- the annual plunge into another inevitable winter of discontent. Shows that didn't make money over the holidays are packing up or already have vanished. Tourists have fled, along with the festive lights and New Yorkers able to follow the more fortunate birds.

February is at least as deep into the dark side, but, if you clap your hands and believe in musicals, you can almost sense the stirrings of spring shows around rehearsal rooms and on credit cards of theatergoers who actually buy ahead.

But what's this? After two big snows and what a smart friend has called the bi-polar vortex, Broadway's worst month of the year isn't as bad as a usual January. In fact, like the weather, box-office numbers have been wildly unpredictable -- even shockingly hearty. According to the weekly statistics published by The Broadway League, the percentage of bodies in seats is amazingly decent.

That is, the bonanza Christmas week ending Dec. 29 filled 94.31 percent of the theaters' capacity. The week ending Jan.5 -- still New Year's holiday -- went down to 89.34 percent. The week ending Jan. 12, smack in the middle of the tundra, was down to 83.36 percent, and the week ending Jan. 19 went up to 84.8 percent of filled seats. Even after the return of snow and miserable cold, capacity for the week ending Jan. 26 merely went down to 83.5 percent.

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, is naturally delighted to agree that the numbers are "counterintuitive. It feels like the coldest weather since I came to New York eight years ago," says the Texas native who moved here after years as a hotel executive. She attributes the phenomenon to a strong fall season, which is true yet still doesn't explain why this January is different from other winters after strong autumns. But somehow, she marvels, the weather "isn't stopping the theatergoing public."

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No shows were canceled during the storms; in fact, Broadway hasn't closed since superstorm Sandy, when the city asked producers to shut it down. (Ticket holders who couldn't make it to the theaters are, as always, advised to contact their point of purchase.) Some theaters, including the Roundabout, offered $20 "snow specials." This, along with deep traditional winter discounts, can certainly explain why the weekly grosses are not as encouraging as the attendance.

"Being an old hospitality executive, I look at the occupancy," she told me. She can't explain the change, except to opine that there's "something magic going on" and, more realistically, that people who had bought tickets figured they might as well brave the cold. But statistics are not the only unseasonable weirdness.

For starters, it's a Broadway truism that you never, ever open a show in January. Years ago, veteran independent producer Elizabeth McCann joked, "I wouldn't open a can of tuna in January."

But here is "Beautiful," the musical about Carole King, which dared to open Jan. 12 and, despite mixed reviews, played to 97.8 percent capacity in the week ending Jan. 19.

And what about monster-hit Shakespeare? For as long as I can remember, the smart money said you can't sell Shakespeare on Broadway without a movie star, and you especially can't sell a two-play Shakespeare repertory without a movie star and you certainly can't sell them in January.

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But here is the double bill, "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III," without a movie star, but with the dazzling theater icon Mark Rylance and the virtuosic all-male productions from London's Globe. Not only has the package recouped its investment, but it played to 101.9 percent capacity during the week ending Jan. 19. This was the fourth week this unlikely adventure set a box-office record at the Belasco Theatre.

St. Martin will even admit that, even though Shakespeare isn't her favorite playwright or the favorite of "many of my dearest friends," they agree that these two productions are "a miracle. We actually love them."

And even a show with less happy news, "A Night With Janis Joplin," isn't letting bad business and bad weather chase it out of town. Yes, producers decided to leave the Lyceum Theatre later this month. Instead of shutting down, however, the show -- with adjusted contracts -- will move to Off-Broadway, where, not incidentally, Tony voters may be able to remember it by spring.

Then there is the wild card of today's Super Bowl. At this writing, it is impossible to know whether fans visiting Broadway's renamed Super Bowl Boulevard know -- or care -- that musicals and plays are beckoning from the side streets. The League has been pitching the potential audience hard, offering alternate curtain times during the past week, even creating a website, to make it easy to buy tickets.

Meanwhile, the League is continuing its usual Broadway Week 2-for-1 promotion -- visit -- which is really more than two weeks, from Jan. 21 through Thursday. The bargain comes around every January and September, what St. Martin describes as "our two crisis months." Ticket sales started setting records in the first couple of days.

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Could it be that the January crisis is history? Let's check back next year.

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