Is actor absenteeism at Broadway shows affecting our audience’s attitudes? A study tells all.

This past August, Michael Riedel wrote an article in the Post (in his usual smartly-snarky style), about a plague of absenteeism at West Side Story.

I’ve been concerned about absenteeism for some time, mostly because of its macro effects on our audience.  As theater tickets get more pricey, and the economy gets more dicey, audiences are bound to be disappointed if they aren’t getting what they pay for, right?

Right?

The truth is, I didn’t know if I was right.

So I decided to find out.

I called up my friend, Joseph Craig, formerly of Nielsen, and now out on his own at ERM (Entertainment Research and Marketing).  Audience research is what Joseph does, day and night, for movies, theater, video games, and more. I call him Dr. Stats.  He’s not allowed to talk about the clients that he’s represented for obvious reasons, but I happen to know a bunch of the producers that use him.  Let me tell you, some of the shows that he has worked on are so big, you’d wonder why they’d even need research (answer – there is always something to learn).

I told Joseph my concerns and commissioned his company to do a study.

Below is what I believe is the first ever published study on The Effects of Absenteeism On The Broadway Audience.

For the study, ERM did mostly live interviews as well as some internet surveys with “regular theatergoers” both in and out of the tri-state.

I would say that I’m proud to present this survey, but the truth is I’m not.

Why?  Well, because, unfortunately, I was right.  It is having an effect.

Here is the Executive Summary from the study, which begins with some general and very useful information on how these “regulars” choose shows to see, and ends with something scary.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Overall Response

  • In general, respondents are consumers of live entertainment who picked up the habit by “being taken to the theater by a spouse, date or parent”.  All try to see the “newest and most buzzed about shows” as early as possible in the run. However, a very high 86% still try to catch up on shows they missed and see them generally within the first two years of the run.
  • As far as preferences go, the majority (63%) prefer to see musicals followed by 23% who have no preference over plays or musicals while 14% consider themselves devoted exclusively to plays.
  • Interestingly, 67% of those surveyed keep a “list” of shows they haven’t seen and actively look for deals on tickets to these shows.
  • It is important to note that almost all of those surveyed are willing to pay full price for shows they really want to see.
  • A very high 78% of respondents had seen at least one performance of a show that featured an understudy substituting for a regularly scheduled performer usually in a leading role.  Most feel they “heard” the most common reason for an absent performer was an illness or injury that sidelined the usual cast member.  Almost all (91%) believe that a missing performer is out for legitimate reasons.
  • The newest shows tied with the shows that have been running for over 5 years as the shows with the most missing performers (non-star driven).
  • With a few notable exceptions, most feel that stars are more apt to appear on a regular basis in their leading roles.
  • The majority of theatergoers (51%) feel the problem has gotten worse over the last 5 years.  Most (66%) feel that “younger” or the “less experienced” Broadway performers are more apt to “call in sick” than those with a “career” in the theater.
  • When they saw the replacement notice in the Playbill, most (76%) were worried about how it would effect their overall enjoyment of “an expensive evening out” and openly shared with their companion(s) a level of concern about the performance.  Among those who brought guests, about a  fifth of those surveyed felt like they had to apologize or promise their companion another theater experience if this was “not up to snuff”.
  • About a quarter was excited to see what another performer could do when given a chance and was “pleased and happy” with the performance, or “it felt like they were always a part of the production”, and ultimately came away with good things to say about the show and never gave it another thought. Also on a positive note, some felt like they were given an opportunity to see “the future of Broadway performers” when a particularly talented performer “knocked it out of the ballpark”.
  • Having said that, the majority (73%) came away frustrated by their experience. They generally felt like they were given a performer who was “under rehearsed” or “struggled to keep up”, or “lacked chemistry” with other performers, or “would never usually be cast in this role”.  Consequently, it had an effect on the overall show. Most felt “cheated” or felt in the case of long runs that “the Producers don’t care about what is going on with their shows”.
  • Generally, this lead to negative word of mouth on the show. Most quotes stated that they would tell their “inner circle” that “it was not worth full price” or “you should see another show instead” or even in some cases lament how “Broadway producers just care about getting my money and forget about how all this affects my overall enjoyment of a show”.
  • An alarming trend we noticed is consumers are starting to be more cautious and aware of shows that have a reputation for absenteeism among leading performers.  The fallout is a more conscientious consumer who is becoming more careful with how much money is being “set aside” for attending a Broadway show.

 

There you have it.  In blog and white.  Empirical evidence that absenteeism is damaging the future of Broadway.

And why wouldn’t it?

That slip of paper in a Playbill says you’re not getting the Director’s original vision.

Imagine if you went to a famous steak restaurant and they said the beef was coming from a different butcher this week?

Imagine if you went to Six Flags, and Kingda Ka or any of the big roller coasters weren’t running?

You’d be disappointed, right?  You’d think twice about going back, wouldn’t you?

Without a doubt, we have a problem.

I’m not saying the problem is with undisciplined actors, or too-difficult choreography, or anything, actually. This isn’t about pointing fingers.

This is about trying to find a solution.  Actors Equity and the Producers (especially since we’re the ones being blamed) should come together and find out exactly what the issues are.  Is it getting worse?  Is part of the problem how we inform our audiences about absences?  Do we not have enough understudy rehearsals?

We need to find out the answers.  Now that we know how our audience feels, we’ve got to find a way to educate them and change their perception, before they change their habits.

Because no Principal ever calls out of a movie or a video game.

Comments
  • Ed says:

    What was the sample size for the survey?

  • Nick Cavarra says:

    This is a difficult challenge to solve. But producers have the unique ability to try and anticipate absenteeism. How? By doing their research on the stars they are trusting their shows with. As a producer, I have fallen into the trap of wanting a particular name actor because that name actor was available even though their reputation for missing shows was almost legendary. Ultimately, that actor was true to form and missed some key performances. I certainly do not blame that actor, I blame myself for not listening to the producers that had been burned before and warned me. I will say this though, I will never hire that actor again, and if anyone calls to ask about that actor, I will warn them accordingly… and they will probably hire them anyway…

  • Mike Davis says:

    I can vouch for this. I have yet to see a Broadway show without an understudy filling in for an absent performer. And every time, the friends and family I’m with end up apologizing to me because we have yet to see a show without an understudy. They always tell me “it just wasn’t the same”.

  • Thom says:

    I think it’s a generational thing. I know some old-time Broadway types who never missed a performance. In talking to friends who were in shows in the late 50s and 60s, it was extremely rare to miss a show. You just didn’t do it. And for a star to miss a show, well, you had to fall down a flight of stairs or something.
    But stars felt an obligation to tour in those days, too.
    Work ethics have changed. I’m not sure why.

  • LB says:

    Then again, there are fans, and I know this is the minority, who will go out of their way to see a particular understudy if they hear he/she is going on.
    Also, I don’t think it’s completely a generational thing. Take someone like Daniel Radcliffe who never missed a performance, even when he was sick. I guess it was a limited run, but I was very impressed with his work ethic.

  • Scott says:

    Were these samplings taken at both your Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, or a focus group in room somewhere? And were the majority of the questions geared toward “above the title” names being absent or anyone in the cast? West Side Story doesn’t exactly have tourist-friendly names compared to, say, a recent Mamet play with its missing star. As with politics and polls, there is probably some wiggle room for interpretation.

  • The majority of these were taken as exit interviews at a variety of Broadway shows.

  • Ray says:

    I discussed this issue in my blog in August, soon after Riedel wrote the piece. My position is in defense of the actors, and truth be told, I was a little emotional when writing it because I know how the cast has been derided by Arthur Laurents and Joey McKneely from Day One. Furthermore, I think Riedel enjoys stirring the negative Kool Aid far more than he enjoys theatre. But, if you’d like to take a look at it, I think it adds a another ingredient to the argument. I agree that the theatre community needs to find a way to change the audience’s perspective. Because absenteeism happens. And when an audience member buys a ticket, he needs to know that he’ll get his money’s worth whether the “original” cast member is in the show, or not.
    Obviously, you can’t argue with the stats (and the results are mostly what I thought they’d be, unfortunately). But, there are many ways to look at this. And in doing so, perhaps we can find a way to educate and enlighten the paying audience. Just thought I’d throw it out there.
    Here’s the link:
    http://rdejohn.blogspot.com/2009/08/show-must-go-on-even-if-you-suck.html

  • Jane says:

    I have seen three shows on Broadway in my life, all of them had understudies on for the performance I attended. I have attended thirty plays/musicals in Australia this year: two had alternates on at the performance I attended, and every other show had full cast, including one when I was told after the fact one of the leads was very ill – you would’ve never known from her brilliant performance. It would be interesting to compare figures from, say the West End, Melbourne, or even other US cities.

  • This is am important issue, I’m glad you looked at it and I think you’ve got it right. It’s key. Understudies at the least make ticket buyers nervous and, in important roles, alienate them. Good work! Yvonne

  • Richard says:

    Part of the issue is ignorance of the audience, I think. My experience is that nearly all of the time, the understudy “gets” the role in a way that the star doesn’t. The understudy may find a way to make the character relate better to the other characters, or may not simply be putting forth a version of their own energy, etc. When you pay to see a star, you’re usually excited and agog over seeing the star. When you see an understudy who happens to be good (and they usually are), you get to see the play.

  • Paige says:

    I am a frequent, regular audience member and though I think that statistics are a really great resource, I think the ones in question might have misrepresented the case a bit. As a theatre goer I’ll sometimes go to a show hoping to see the star and get disappointed upon finding the slip in my Playbill but most of the time I get EXCITED. My reaction is such because I’m one of many who actually think understudies give a better performance! They have more to prove and more excitement because they don’t get to perform the role as often.
    It also goes back to a blog you had a while back about how people love when something goes wrong during the show – so they can say they were there, it’s the same thing. I have friends who flaunt having seen Shoshana Bean as Idina Menzel’s understudy in Wicked like it’s a medal. They do it because it’s cool to have seen her play Elphaba before she was actually cast in the role – like a novelty item.
    I think producers could possibly deal with this whole issue by better casting the understudies and ensuring they’ll do just as good a job, if not better, then the performer they’re covering. That way when people see the notice in their playbill they can appreciate it and be excited; for those who do still get aggravated the performance should then woo them and they’ll walk out raving about the excellent talent and promise in the understudy. Then a few months or years later when that understudy replaces the lead they’ll be ecstatic that they can say they saw them first – everyone loves to see something before it becomes the norm.
    This link might help further your research on this end of the issue:
    http://broadwayunderstudies.com
    It’s a whole website dedicated to informing audiences when understudies are going on so they can plan to see the understudy, they also have a facebook group. Hope this helps!
    And I’m sorry if this was long, I just really thought the other side of this issue needed to be represented.

  • Tom Atkins says:

    Why not agree a realistic performance scheudle with said star, following health checks, and then price performances the star is appearing at higher rates and bring the prices for other performances lower. You kind of pay more for a guaranteed appearance of a “star”. That does offer up an issue with billing (i.e. people should get what they see on the poster) and how you publicise that without damaging a show, but mutual, scientific and realistic agreement seems one way to get stars and producers singing from the same hymn sheet and enable everyone to commit properly.

  • Ted says:

    But then what happens when people pay the higher price to see the star and they get the flu or something?

  • Michael says:

    Obviously this was a great blog due to the many respondents – thanks for this Ken !!
    It so happens a friend is in and wants tickets to “a good show; what do you recommend Michael?” So, the theory of word of mouth is proven here (I have sent many to Altar Boyz by the way).
    This friend also doesnt mind paying the $120 plus per ticket ! Imagine that…..and they dont care if it has a major star or not…just that it’s a good show. So I wonder about those star driven vehicles, and if that truly DOES make a difference or not? If the show is written and performed well, it can certainly make its money back and then some. You are the marketing wizard, and I bet that has a lot to do with non-star driven shows too !
    On another note: I have seen some amazing understudies after being disappointed that the “star” wasn’t there – and was grateful that the SHOW itself, as well as the understudy) was very good (e.g. On the Town, Gypsy (the Peters one), Ragtime in DC). I got introduced to some amazing ‘new’ talent (though they have been around for 20 years!) and I now look to see what other shows they are in just because I enjoyed their performances so much. The well prepared understudy can really make (maybe break) a performance.
    Thanks again for some invigorating stats !

  • Caroline says:

    I think a lot depends on how the show is marketed. A potentially embarrassing story: I watched every single episode of “Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods” (and I don’t take it back). I had already seen the show with Laura Bell Bundy, but after my roommate and I got sucked into the reality show black hole, we loved Bailey and once she won, I bought us tickets to see the show a second time, which I never do.
    When we got to the show, not only did we get an understudy, we got the second understudy. Even though Autumn had won second place and was supposedly the first understudy, she was for some reason singing in the background chorus. My roommate and I were furious and left at intermission because, no, we hadn’t gotten our money’s worth. I was so mad I followed up with the press company and ended up getting house seats for another night.
    My personal feeling is that if you’re marketing around a star, you’d better deliver that star. And if you’re going to such lengths for publicity that you create an entire MTV show to find an actress for the lead role, then that actress should be there, or at least the second runner-up. And if they’re not going to be, you need to find another marketing tactic.

  • Ed says:

    Okay- my 2 cents on this: I was disappointed by the understudies in the lead roles of “In the Heights” and, a while back, “A View from the Bridge” (but I still remember being pissed off at Anthony La Paglia about it).
    And if anyone missed John Lloyd Young in “Jersey Boys” or Kerry Butler in “Xanadu” then they were cheated as those 2 were so fantastic in their lead roles I doubt how an understudy could nail those parts as well.
    So, yes, it happens and (sorry, commenter Michael) but I think it usually sucks when it happens, though I’ll concede there are exceptions.
    Not sure how the stars’ contracts are generally written- are they obligated to appear in 7 of the 8 shows/week or is it completely subject to individual negotiations?
    I have heard some suggest it is similar to seeing the Yankees. Derek Jeter may get the day off- but you don’t get your money back. I don’t think it’s quite the same thing, though, but there is an overlap in that argument.

  • chuck says:

    I’ve been burned way to often bringing friends or family from out of town to a show only to have a lead they were excited to see missing from the show. The disappointment might be easier to deal with if they were not spending $120 for a ticket.

  • Veronica says:

    As an Usher at the Hilton Theatre during the run of Young Frankenstein I learned a lot about this subject. I once had a women walk up to me waving the notice that Roger Bart was out that day screaming to me that the paper in her hand was a problem. Then she demanded to know why he wasn’t going to be on stage. Almost every time there was an understudy on people would ask me “So is Sutton Foster’s Understudy any good?”
    Audience members are very sensitive to what they paid for. For many going to the theatre is a special event with family and friends and when you plan something and things don’t go exact way you planned them it’s in our nature to get disappointed. Therefore I think the main perception that needs to be changed is at the point of sales. In my opinion – in an ideal world the audiences would be built around the show concepts themselves and not paying to see the stars. I can’t tell you how I dreaded the days when Megan Mullally was unexpectedly out.
    I think audience members need to be more informed about policies and procedures (i.e. The actor’s name above the Title gold rule), within reason because I found once I explained to an audience member certain things that they were much more content and willing to accept the situation. An uninformed audience is one most likely to get fed up and tell their distant cousins about it. That’s why I love that telecharge.com will sometimes let you know if a big name star will on Vacation before you purchase the tickets and now we have http://www.broadwayunderstudies.com (there is also a West End version).

  • Matt says:

    Having been a stage manager on Broadway for over a dozen years, I’ve seen the issues of absenteeism first hand and felt compelled to offer a couple of thoughts in reply.
    1. I’ve often felt that by having understudies rehearse mainly (almost exclusively) with other understudies can only taken them so far in preparation for a role that will be performed with a completely different cast. Rarely, in my experience, do covers get significant time with the regular leads to fully prepare them to integrate into the playing company.
    2. Most understudies are very talented and capable, yet audience perception is that they are “not as good” just because they are an understudy; therefore, a negative perception of the actor exists before they even take the stage.
    3. This perception is fueled by that little slip of paper. Not only is it an exceptional waste of time, energy, money and resources (my #1 not-green issue on B’way), but it is a disservice to the actor who has to now win over a hostile audience.
    4. I would love to see some options from both AEA and the League in future negotiations to reduce the economic, environmental and emotional problems caused by inserts.
    This is something that needs to be addressed.

  • Ken,
    As in Internet Professional who deals with a lot of data analysis, I really appreciate the fact that you are backing up your observations with data.
    Internet Services don’t deal with absenteeism, but they do deal with “up time”. We all expect a website to be up 24/7, but in truth, they often go down due to maintenance or server errors. Services often claim 99.9% up time, but in truth, that’s not always the reality.
    Perhaps there is a metric shows could advertise to consumers – the understudy metric with some sort of industry standard, less than 0.5% chance. So then consumers are very aware of the actual chances when they are buying a ticket and steer away from shows that don’t meet the industry standard.

  • JD says:

    I know this is an old blog (I saw your link to it in a recent post), but I can definitely say that seeing an understudy lessens the experience for me. Last summer I saw Kristin’s understudy in 20th Century and found the show to be really quite awful and uninteresting. I know Kristin missed a ton of shows in her run, which is why I likely won’t purchase tickets to see her on Broadway ever again (unless it’s opening night when I know she’ll be there).
    I also was devastated to see Leslie Odom Jr’s understudy in Hamilton last month. The guy was simply awful as Burr, and clearly unrehearsed. Not at all worth $175. I was looking forward to seeing that show for 6 months. And the experience was utterly ruined by an untalented understudy (which is ridiculous in a show like Hamilton).

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