Are there fewer long running shows on Broadway now than there used to be?

There was an interesting chart in last week’s Variety that listed all of the “long running shows” in Broadway history year by year (a “long run” by Variety standards is anything over 1,000 performances, or a little under 2.5 years).

Have you ever wondered if we’ve been producing the same number of 1000 show-runners as in previous years?

I did.

So, I broke it down by decade (since we’re almost at the end of another one), and here’s what I found out:

1910 – 1919    1 Long Runner
1920 – 1929    1
1930 – 1939    4
1940 – 1949    10
1950 – 1959    8
1960 – 1969    17
1970 – 1979    22
1980 – 1989    11
1990 – 1999    16
2000 – 2009    12*

*The actual count in our current decade is 11, but I’m going to predict that Billy Elliot will get added to the list and make it a perfect dozen.

You can see that Golden Age for the long running shows was in the 60s and 70s. So what did we lose in the 80s and beyond that took a bite out of these totals?

Well, here’s a hint . . .

In the 60s, 6 of the 17 long runners were plays.
In the 70s, 5 of the 22 long runners were plays.
In the 80s, 2 of the 11 long runners were plays.
In the 90s, there were ZERO long running plays.
In the 00s, there were ZERO long running plays.

The long running play is dead, and it has been for 20 years.

That doesn’t mean that plays can’t be successful.  The past two decades have produced financial and artistic successes like Doubt, Proof, and August.  But these unfortunate statistics should be used to help manage expectations for Producers and Investors when planning a production of a play.

The bigger question is what caused this shortened lifespan?  Is it the increase of our expenses? A change in our audience’s appetite?

Or is it simply the fact that Neil Simon isn’t writing new plays as often as he used to.

In the last five decades, 3 of those 13 long running plays or a whopping 1/3 of all the long running plays were by the master of two act comedies himself (and Mr. Simon also wrote one of the long running musicals as well).

Where is the next Neil when we need him/her?

The long running show faces significant challenges in the years ahead, thanks to our continued inflation of expenses, as well as the audience ceiling we’re smacking our head against.

My prediction is that the next decade will produce the lowest amount of long running shows since the 50s.

In the meantime, next season will see the revival of two of Mr. Simon’s best.

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  • Ken, I wonder if plays have been harder hit by the impact of television/cable/etc than musicals? It seems to me that the types of plays Neil Simon wrote are easily found in other media today and that the plays that currently succeed on Broadway now are more theatrical, “arty” or experimental, and/or thought-provoking. Just a hypothesis.
    In addition, though there are less “long-running” shows, weren’t there more “mega-long-running” shows in the past few years? i.e., Cats, Phantom, Les Miz — shows that ran more than a decade? Were those shows counted in every year they ran, or just for the first 1,000 performances?
    Thanks for crunching these numbers! Always enjoy your analysis.

  • Richard says:

    I think Mr. Zimmerman gets it partly right. The other issue is that there are only so many storylines out there. Just as there are only so many personality types, human behavior patterns, for example, there are only so many themes that playwrights can mine.
    But further to Mr. Zimmerman’s point, 40 years ago, the way in which people unwound/spent non-working time was significantly different. For the average person today, it’s about plopping onto the Lazy Boy, beverage in hand, and getting lost in marketing.
    I couldn’t possibly illustrate it better than telling a very short story: an older gentleman, with whom I was discussing options in shows to go see (he was going with his family), reacted as if I should know better when I suggested a non-musical play. “You know what you go to the theater for.” He said something to that effect. Of course, he doesn’t know why I go to the theater, but his attitude is prevalent. Theater isn’t about theater anymore. It’s about getting lost and subsumed by something you can feel overwhelmed by.
    It’s all quite sad.

  • Robert D. Carver says:

    One long running (I presume you mean by today’s standards) play or musical between 1910 and 1919 was a real anomaly. A show could run 6 months on the “Main Stem,” and make back its investment.
    There were also more theatres available, anywhere from twice to three times the present number. And not all of those have been torn down! One at least still exists, hidden behind Madame Tussaud’s on 42nd Street!
    It would then play theatres in the outer boroughs (the “Subway Circuit”) as well as Long Island, New Jersey, Upstate, followed by a road tour, or stock productions, usually with a name attraction heading his or her own repertory company, throughout the country.
    The same was true through most of the 1920s. “Maytime” was one such, so was “Abie’s Irish Rose.”
    The monster hit of that decade was, of course, “Showboat,” which toured the major metropolitan centers then returned to B’way. Ziegfeld even planned to open a second company in NYC.
    Things changed with the advent of talkies in 1927, and of course the Great Depression impacted Broadway, making it less easy to turn a profit.
    The 40s saw the advent of the first true “long run,” by which all shows since have been judged. However, there is some doubt that it would have even made it out of New Haven with its original title, “Away We Go!”
    The true question is, what is being done today to encourage playwrights, lyricists, composers, and most importantly, producers to invest the time, effort and money in potentially long-running (high quality) new works for the commercial theatre, rather than looking at the fast buck?
    Does every new musical have to be based on a critically well-reviewed film? Or even a mediocre one?Or does it have to have a name like Elton John, or Mel Brooks attached? Or does the composer’s father have to put up the money?
    Far be it for me to complain about the success, particularly, of these shows–or that of their creators–they deserve it!
    Let’s rethink what makes a success, and apply different standards to musicals and non-musicals, not just in terms of the number of performances, or the box office take, but examine the quality of the material.

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