Success has its metrics: dollars earned, customers served, units sold. For a Broadway show, it’s the run. The gross and the attendance depend on several factors, such as the size of the theater, the ad campaign, the ticket pricing. But the run, the number of performances staged for a given production, goes directly to the show’s appeal, its magic, whatever it is that keeps audiences coming back. Independent of venue and marketing strategy, it is a measure of the success of the art, not the business, of the theater.
Without the business of theater, however, there would be no theater. Long gone are the days of imperial patronage. One mighty impresario of the theater business, Hal Prince, recently came to the end of his run.
Prince’s laudatory obituaries spoke of his many hits, his artistic successes, and his innovative collaborations. He produced show after show, sometimes with more than one hit at a time. He worked with everyone who was anyone, even before they were anyone: composers, lyricists, choreographers, and directors.
His first show—and his first hit—was The Pajama Game (1954, 1,063 performances). He worked with producer George Abbott, but eventually the protégé found his own path. He worked on West Side Story, and produced Cabaret (1966, 1,165 performances), and then a string of hits with Stephen Sondheim, starting with Company (1970, 705 performances), and then a couple of blockbusters with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Evita (1979, 1,567 performances) and A Phantom of the Opera (1986, over 13,000 performances and counting).
Each of those shows went on to other stages after the original Broadway run, and then touring companies, road shows, revivals, movies, and high school musicals reproduced the works to the point of mass producing them. He was a producer, and later director, but most impressively, he played to his audience: his work had a very long run.
Over Prince’s long career, theater and the business of theater changed, well, dramatically. He came to Broadway just as the American musical matured: the successes of Rogers and Hammerstein had refined and replaced the revues of Tin Pan Alley. Movies had displaced vaudeville in local theaters all over the country, but on Broadway, the musical reigned.
He worked through the competitive disruptions of television, rock ‘n’ roll, and the internet, the rise of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. He worked through prosperity, inflation, recessions, and bubbles, through urban decay and gentrification: the demise of the Times Square neighborhood that surrounded Broadway, its rejuvenation as a historic district, and its reincarnation as a tourist center.
Longevity in any industry is a feat of resilience, innovation, and adaptation, and Prince was no less a titan of industry than any CEO who guides a corporation for decades. He did not invent the musical or compose the music or write the lyrics. But he took those innovations and turned them into marketable products, juggling all the complicated logistics of production. Then he created distribution, performances, for all the world to see. And he made it make a profit.
By doing this, he not only brought joy, or at least popular culture, but he also made an art lucrative. He employed thousands—from actors and directors to designers and choreographers to pit players and costumers to stagehands and advertisers—creating jobs and income and a way to practice their arts. He helped keep an industry going in a city at a time when urban centers were being emptied of industries and audiences. Between the 1920s and 1970, Broadway had lost more than half its theaters.
Today, the industry has consolidated: just three companies now control the theaters of Broadway’s Great White Way (Schubert owns 17, Nederlander owns nine, and Jujamcyn owns five). Meanwhile, the numbers just keep rising. The industry claims to account for more than 87,000 jobs in New York City. Audiences have shifted from locals to tourists, who now account for 63 percent of ticket sales. The 2018-19 season’s gross was over $1.83 billion, with attendance of ca. 14.77 million, which is more than for all ten New York professional sports teams, combined (data from the Broadway League). Show business is big business.
As with any long career, Prince’s was not without its failures and setbacks. Musicals folded and flopped and there were empty houses and productions shut down. But there was always another project in the pipeline, always another play to be staged, and always another song to be sung. Good night, sweet Prince.