The first Broadway show I ever attended was My Fair Lady. My mom took me to the show, and I remember enjoying it but being disappointed by the ending. My only other live theater experience, when I was growing up, was going with my mom to Radio City Music Hall every time there was a new Cary Grant film, and where every movie was accompanied by a live musical performance by the Rockettes. In those days I had not yet experienced my first economics course, not yet majored in economics in college and not yet earned my PhD in economics. Fast forward to today and from that very limited initial exposure to professional theater, I now try to see almost every Broadway musical but, given my educational background, I also think a lot about the economics of Broadway.
Last night I attended a performance of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical. The show, not surprisingly, focuses on the life of Carole King and also on the music of Carole, Carole and Gerry Goffin as well as the music of their contemporaries, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. I grew up with this music and I enjoy it as much today as I did growing up. Songs like “So Far Away,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Walking in the Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Beautiful,” are classics that are easy to listen to and have broad audience appeal. In Broadway terms, the fact that the music is known and liked also helps the show succeed and takes some of the risk away from the almost speculative investing that is part of almost every Broadway show. You need to look no further away than Spiderman which at its closing, almost three years after it opened, still had a loss of 10’s of millions of dollars. If the story is good, and that was certainly the case for Beautiful, and the music memorable to begin with, the show has a greater chance of success and the risk involved in the investment is somewhat mitigated. Added evidence in support of this conclusion include Jersey Boys, Motown, and Mama Mia. But great music is not a guarantee of a great show or even a modestly successful show. All Shook Up featured great Elvis music and a great cast, but a story line that just didn’t work. Other Broadway shows featuring the hit songs of very popular groups have closed before I even had the chance to see them. Nevertheless, beginning with top notch music is a recipe for financial and artistic success
Because the costs of putting on a Broadway show are as high as they are, and because there is very substantial risk in the investment, the ticket costs of Broadway show are high and very much limit the potential audience. Turning shows into movies (Les Mis) and into television specials (The Sound of Music) can increase their accessibility. So can not-for-profit- family theaters such as New York’s New Victory. College and high school groups also enhance accessibility. I am an advocate for the arts and for the profound impact that theater can have. I know that the economics of professional theater requires high tickets prices to cover costs and recoup investments but I also know we need to do a better job in promoting accessibility and providing alternatives. When done right, the experience and the educational impact is certainly beautiful.
Originally published on Inside Higher Ed