They may not like to come to the theater, but we sure do like to write about ’em.

Ahhhh, irony, thy name is young people.

At 9 out of 10 ad meetings I attend, the topic of getting more young people to the theater always comes up.  And despite many concentrated and intelligent efforts, we’re never as successful as we want to be in encouraging teens and twenty-somethings to put down their Angry Birds and get their butts in our buildings.

But what’s interesting to me is that even though we can’t get them to come in the quantities that we’d like, (both for the box office of today and the box office of tomorrow) we sure do like to make musicals where young folks are the focus of the story.

Think about it . . . or on second thought . . . don’t think about it . . . read about it.  Just look at this list of the last bunch of Tony Award winners for Best Musical:

Once
The Book of Mormon
Memphis
Billy Elliot
In the Heights
Spring Awakening
Avenue Q
Hairspray
Thoroughly Modern Millie

Young characters are at the core of each of those stories.

But don’t stop there . . .

What about A Chorus Line, Rent, and Les Misérables?

See what I’m talking about?  What is with our fascination with this age group?  Or what is it about this age group that makes for a fascinating (and successful, by the by) musical?

Is it the optimism of the beginning of adulthood?  Is it that the average theatergoer, who is 44, is probably longing be to 24 again?  Or is it just a fluke?

Well, news flash: it’s definitely not a fluke.  There’s some kind of trend here.  And I’ll be using it as one of my many filters in choosing material going forward.

 

(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)

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Comments
  • Abby Schreer says:

    When Kevin McCollum spoke at the CTI Conference this year, he said that all successful musicals are stories about “Finding your family”, which can happen in many different ways. I would say that a lucky person finds this family at a young age and this would explain the success of these musicals! (And, Kevin’s shows make up a nice chunk of those on the list!)

  • Romeo & Juliet….from the beginning of time we have been fascinated by stories about young people. Let’s face it, most of the interesting stuff happens to the under 40 crowd. Love, lust, marriage, drugs, war, babies, careers, STDs, gangs. There is a big difference, though, in making stories about young people and for young people.

  • Lori Ouellette says:

    Initiation stories have always been powerful and appealing and they almost always involve youth. And the key to getting teens and 20 somethings into theater is to start them as children.

  • Kathleen says:

    For sure the rememberings of a 40 something is what pulls in that age group, but I think a young person’s pocketbook has much to do with it as well. Withrents so high, college loan payments to repay and the cost of daily living… it’s hard for most to find. the extra cash for a ticket to a Broadway show

  • Our brain continues to develop until about age 25. We leave our home around 18 or so, with this prospect of the world that waits for us. The desire for foresight combined with the continuing development of our brains brings to us an ever-growing hope.

    Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, while objects at rest tend to stay at rest. While many people hold on to their hope until the day they leave their body, I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who feel said reaction feel such between the ages of 17 and 30. It starts, it grows, and people hold on to it.

    Some let it go.

    Hope calls a very powerful potential for an emotive song. How do we get more young people to relate their emotions to the characters and stories in theatre? Hopefully, by writing and producing more stories they can relate to.

    Today is a very specific day–I’d love to see more theatre about today.

  • Stories about young people are often optimistic and deal with people’s dreams and passions. And, sometimes these stories have happy endings. Other times, that person starts to realize that all of their dreams won’t come true. I think people like to see this moment when someone feels that they have the entire world at their fingertips, and to see what they do with it.

    On our first ever trip to New York in May, my husband and I (both 25) saw Once, Peter and the Starcatcher, Book of Mormon, Clybourne Park, Freud’s Last Session, The Caretaker at BAM, and caught the Neo-Futurists do TMLMTBGB. Our mean ticket price was $30, which is all we could afford. And we enjoyed each show that we saw.

    We generally like “edgy” shows and/or new work. In NYC, we didn’t want to see any revivals. Other people in our age group really love musicals, but I really enjoy non-traditional musicals or plays that incorporate music in a unique way.

    The hard thing is that there’s no magic formula to getting young people in to see your show. I think we struggle with that even more in small regional professional theatres. Different people like different things. There are young theatre goers out there; most are just cheap and picky (including myself).

  • Debbie Galante Block says:

    As a mom of two girls (one of them from Godspell cast 2032), I consistantly have conversations with their friends…boys in particular have an aversion to theater..they don’t think its manly…An American perception….So dumb.But, schools are somewhat to blame. Districts are so busy cutting programs, kids are not exposed to theater as they should be, so they don’t know any better. As a writer, I too, am always on a mission to educate!

  • Armando says:

    As a young 20 something and the target of what Ken is talking about. To be brutally honest theater is competing with other entertainment, that is entertaining and way less expensive then a ticket to a broadway show. I am an avid theater goer and luckily I have a job an family that support my brother and I going to see shows. However for most people I know that are not involved in theater seeing a broadway show is something done seldomly at best and when they do it’s to a classical show like Phantom or something very mainstream like Book of Mormon or Spring Awakening. I loved the way that Ken tried to draw in my age group in Godspell with things like tweet seats and major social network advertising but unless you can make tickets cheaper or make a show a must see my age group will highly unlikely be able to afford or want to go to a show that is 150$ a ticket.

    Personally for me yes shows about young people seem to the heavy hitters on broadway today. But I’m actuality I would like to see shows more directed to young theater goers. Something that is comparable ticket or event wise as like the avengers or other major films of today. By appealing to young people the same way the film industry does I can see a larger portion of my age group attending shows.

    For example when I talk about broadway most people refer to Spiderman and Book of Mormon both very heavily advertised shows that draw on young people. I love broadway but for my fellow colleagues theater is off the entertainment landscape because of subject matter. I love Broadway and even though the subject matter is about young people sometimes it feels like an older persons perspective on a show versus something coming from someone my own age. This why I loved Godspell because it felt like it was written by a young person and spiritual matters. If a producer wants to draw in young people, maybe focus groups with young people will help. I also notice that many a theater goer is 30+ who have money and I notice many producers adhere to that group, most likely because they are the ones who have money.

    That is just my two cents though. I could be wrong.

  • Gil Varod says:

    Well, it’s not just about young people; a pretty large percentage of successful musicals are often about people falling in love, and it’s still more likely to see stories about young people being the ones in love. In your list, every one of them save Billy Elliot (and arguably Chorus Line?) has young people falling in love as a major story plot.

    I can’t find my copy of “Words with Music” to quote exactly, but in it Lehman Engel basically insists that a musical, no matter what it is, must have two young people falling in love. If I recall correctly he also insists that another couple must also fall in love as a B-story, and that there is no way to write a musical unless you follow this strict guideline.

    I think I remember Howard Kissel’s commentary after that section being a very funny, a “Well, clearly things have changed.” But in a way, I think they haven’t so much.

  • Darren says:

    Not to get picky, but in “A Chorus Line” Cassie and Zack are older. Other than that, your point is great.

  • Jessie says:

    In my opinion, the main reason young people don’t go to the theater is that the prices are just too high. I’m a 21-year-old college student and theater junkie, but unless I do student rush or my mom goes with me (and thus buys tickets), the tickets are too expensive. I know tons of people my age who LOVE the theater, but can’t really afford to go to Broadway shows. Most young people can’t afford the high prices of Broadway even if they do have a job because they probably don’t get paid much. If you want young people to see shows, offer more student rush tickets, offer a student discount, or lower the price of the last couple of rows. ($59 may be low for Broadway, but that’s more than most students can afford to pay.)

  • Douglas Hicton says:

    I’m sure I’m re-re-re-re-repeating myself, but the best way to get bums in seats is by not charging so goddamn much for the seats. This is ESPECIALLY true for young people who might not actually have a trust fund. As long as Broadway ticket prices are ten times those of first-run movies, people will opt for the movies.

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    The reason young people don’t go to the theatre is the same reason most other people don’t: ticket prices. We will never have a healthy theatre culture again until people can see a play for the same price as a movie.

    One of the main reasons musicals tend to be about young characters is because they are damned hard to perform; and young performers have the stamina to handle it! There is also the fact that good theatre takes a character on a journey. And for most people middle-aged and over, the journey is basically over.

  • Fran says:

    As a mom of a young actress and six other kids, I can offer some interesting perspectives from the mouthes of babes. First, my daughter is 13 and her two best friends are boys one is 14 and one is 15. They all love to go to the theater, but socio-economic conditions alas apply. In Seattle, they have a pretty cool deal and we have used it to fund our kids theatre addiction. As parents we buy the tickets to the shows we and the kids want to see for the parents only. Then if the kids want to go, they get the privilege of getting a “student” ticket which is $20 or $30 depending on the show, run of the house seats (maybe they will sit together, maybe not, but the have all been tought they can meet at intermission and its ok to sit by yourself)that are only available 30 minutes before the show. The box office insists the kids bring a “student ID card” to make sure they are in school and this is available to the K-20 crowd. This way there are no empty seats and the kids get to enrich their lives with this fantastic medium. Oh and the tickets must be paid with cash – so there are no credit card fees. I can’t tell you how many people watch these young kids with their $20 bill and student ID in their hand waiting in the “Student” queue. And this is for all shows not just family shows. Interestingly, the only people who can trump the kids are the Active Duty Military – which we all support as deserving enough to trump kids and young adults.

    Another item that pulls in the youth audience is using younger actors (and I know how complicated this is) but don’t have a show about 13 and 14 year olds with 20 year olds – the kids aren’t interested. When I took my gaggle to “Legally Blonde” (the national tour) they all thought the cast was too old and that it wasn’t believeable. The same for High School Musical.

    Last, as you well know, nothing pulls in the kids like a star – other than a young star. Daniel Radcliffe in “How to Succeed” was a brilliant casting move. He was good enough to prove to a group of young theater kids that he knew how to sing and dance and act, but he was young and still important to them. The same with Hunter Parrish. We live in Seattle and my 13 year old actress has seen “Godspell” and “How to Succeed” and is hoping to catch “Harvey” (notice the pattern – revivals with a big, talented relatable star). She saw Corben Bleu as well, but he is starting to get a little old for the young crowd. She was still impressed with Corben but the guys were impressed with Hunter. And you will be pleased to know that for the right show – parents will shell out. My husband paid $135 a piece for Godspell tickets so that the little actress could sit up front and see everyone, and be first in line at the Stage Door for pictures and autographs.

    Which brings me to my last marketing suggestion of this e-mail. When you have young, hot or up and coming stars, you need to have them work the audience a bit. Give the ticketholders with kids that want an autograph or picture a ticket and have a queue at the stage door and make sure that the ticket holders get a signed playbill and/or picture. Keep to your demographic – word will get out and soon more kids and young adults will be clamoring to see the show and get a coveted queue ticket. Part of the actors responsibility could be to do meet and greets after select shows. Offer local High Schools and Colleges the opportunity to come in and talk to the cast, or better yet have a program where during rehearsal HS and College kids can come and watch rehearsals – again that student ID will be more valuable. Next to Normal (from our hometown – Issaquah) really worked social media, but at the end of the day, doing things for the audience demo is the most important marketing task. And when you do the “13” revival – make sure Kendra is cute, cute, cute, and that the kids are kids, and that the geeks are really geeky – not a good looking suave guy playing a geek – and then take the show to the audience. A marketing plan for tweens, teens, and the college poor, will help fill the empty seats, but you need DINKs, parents, and the working and retired rich as your anchor tenants. Those tweens, teens, and college kids will someday be the working rich and will keep perpetuating the market.

    And remember this – who doesn’t like cute kids who are talented, dogs that are trained, dancers who can dance, singers who can sing, and actors who can act all wrapped in a good story?

  • David McKibbin says:

    As a high school student, I think its bull that theatre kids my age don’t get to see theatre on a frequent basis. There are so many reasons that younger people tend to see less theatre, in my opinion. One of them is the fact that there are so many young people densely populated in our suburbs. With there only being of one or two regional or community theatres per section of a metro area (like the spread-out South Florida), it is almost impossible to schlep to a theatre that is most likely a 20 to 45 minute distance from your home. Additionally, not all theatres in select regions offer student discounts (and I WISH THEY DID). The Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and the Broward Center in Ft. Lauderdale both had the 1st national tour of La Cage aux Folles in their Broadway touring seasons. While Kravis had no student discount (and a very limited marketing strategy for young people), the Broward Center is more than an hour away from Kravis. You would be paying more gas money, so you the cost of a night at the theatre would practically be the same for a high school or college student. It is much easier to see theatre in New York because there are more theatres within a 1-mile radius than there are in Palm Beach County combined. Additionally, these theatres ALL offer student discounts (especially the NP theatres)and any other discount that they can take advantage of for public relations purposes.

  • Darren says:

    Here’s another thought: Broadway has been trying to attract the next generation of theater goers for decades. If the average theater goer is 44 (which seems young actually) doesn’t that suggest that something was done right twenty years ago to attract them? It’s just that they can’t afford to go often until their 40s.

  • Lynn says:

    Even working in the theatre didn’t get my recently visiting family to pay out the same amount to go to one show as the entire hotel bill for the 6 of them. I was able to get discounts at TDF but my one Aunt was so disgusted with the ticket prices they wouldn’t go.

    I explained the actual financial issues of the theatre and also the prices versus that of sports or concert events….but none of it could get them past the fact that nearly the whole orchestra was hundreds of dollars.

    In 1975 I was 14 and my dad and I came to NYC to fan my theatre flame with $1000 for the whole week…hotel, food and theatre. We saw 7 shows (Pippin, Raisin, A Chorus Line, The Ritz, The Wiz etc) ranging from $15 orchestra seats to $5 standing room. I DO understand the financial issues of the theatre but unless we bring theatre into young people’s lives affordably…or with family packs, or with student and child discounts of a great quantity it won’t allow families to attend.

    The last point I’d like to make is that TDF booth, for all it brings is one of the reasons people dress like they just took a run in Central Park (as you pointed out in a previous blog). It also eliminated the multi-tiered pricing in theatres making TDF equivalent to the second prices in all areas of the theatre….which also means producers do not have advance knowledge as they used to because people who cannot afford tickets end up buying them the same day. When I worked on Aspects of Love there was tickets in the spring but it closed in February…it might have sold more tickets at TDF but one doesn’t know and you can’t run on speculation.

    Also….no limit to how important it is to have tickets available free to school children. Going to theatre while at an early age sows the seeds of theatre going as a teen and adult.

  • Debbie Saville says:

    Enthusiasm, creativity and passion can spark at any age. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up into looking at the physical age of someone. Isn’t it really about the individual and their ability to go within themselves to find their true passions in life? I have always been expressing my creative side. As early as 1st grade, I wrote my first play. In 5th grade, I created my first character role, one that I still use today. In high school, I went into music. As a young adult, I did community/regional theatre well into my late 20’s and early 30’s. I stopped doing theatre for 12 years and spent that time raising my 2 sons, another very important role. I went back into the theatre as they grew older and I grew once again into a director, producer and now published author. At the age of 53, I’m far from being done with my journey as I now work on my second book and I am also creating a stage show. So let the passion of the individual regardless of age be the guide towards captivating audiences. See past the analytical, the sterotypes of age and embrace all who have a creative heart.

  • Eric Vest says:

    If writers specifically follow the formula “finding your family” literally…it is a sure-fire way to develop a more than likely sure-fire flop. In an ideal world, anyone’s “family” are those people they “love” the most. Cynics like to argue and say that “love” is old-fashioned….However, I would argue it’s just “who/what” we all love that has changed…particularly in the case of many producers who are investing only in shows they think will “return a big profit”…..and, many of these newer shows are relying on presumed “bankable” movie titles, or presumed “bankable” stars, or spectacle.

    In the case of “ONCE” for instance….and “BOOK OF MORMON” and many of the past winning BEST MUSICALS……the thing that is gained by the time the last lines or spoken are sung, is the LOVE of a thing/person that was being sought after.

    If a writer is good at what they do, and an actor infuses those lines with life and a believable desire and need….most audiences (who still have faith in the human spirit) will fall under the spell of the story….whether the characters return to their literal or figurative family “grouping” or not…Of course, an awareness of what’s going on in the real world also helps also to aide in the Universality of the subject matter….

    At least, that’s my twenty-five cents worth. I can only hope someone out here who hasn’t let the sky-scraper cast shadows and artificial lights of the city DIM that inner light every human-being IS born with….called “hope.”

  • Kim says:

    Angry Birds: The Musical. Just sayin’. 🙂

  • Luke says:

    I think it’s less that kids don’t like musicals as it is that kids don’t have the resources to buy Broadway tickets. I live in the suburbs in the south east, and can only dream of going to Broadway, but I have a “gang” of theater geeks who have listened to practically every soundtrack to come out in the last 20 years! We LOVE shows like 13 which cater to our lives both because we can relate to their characters, and their songs are more likely to be in our range (’cause everyone loves to sing Broadway tunes). From what I’ve seen, many of Broadway’s biggest supporters are kids who got hooked when their Highschool first did Les Miz, or Beauty and the Beast. And even though they can’t pay for airfare and tickets to a New York show (YET), this passion is real and I imagine when they get older you’ll see that childhood investment pay off.

  • Mary Gannon says:

    I see a lot of theater and American writers are just in love with youth. Their are enough ageist comments above to furnish the basis of this. But, for example if you see something like Irish theater ie. Cripple of Inishman or The Seafarer or the New Electric Ballroom, you have funny, electrifying and multi dimensional characters of all ages. And the actors are stupendous, it’s funny and lively to see all ages interact.
    American narrative has a ghetto mentality, ie I can only hang with the same age group, same tier college, same socio economics and it kills the richness of the human experience. I don’t know if you’re ever going to get the ticket prices down in theater but you’d better sure have a superior product when you’re asking people for 50-170 dollars for the evening.

  • Jared W says:

    I think one of the reasons that musicals focus on young people is because the younger you are, the more important everything seems. The love you feel isn’t just love, it is the Greatest Love Ever. Any troubles you encounter are the Worst Problems Ever. Such oversized emotions lend themselves to song. And as a young person, you haven’t fully figured out who you are yet, which provides a ready-made character arc for the protagonists to follow.

    As for the issue of getting more young people into the theatre, I know you producers don’t like to here this, but part of the answer is to lower ticket prices. I’m 27, and I absolutely love theatre. I make it a priority in my life to go see shows, but it is expensive and I never have as much money as I have time and interest. The simple fact of the matter is that middle-aged and older theatre-goers have more disposable income, as they generally have higher paying jobs and are better at managing money. They can afford a $100 theatre ticket; most of my friends can’t.

    I’m not saying you should universally lower ticket prices. As someone who studied theatre in college, I know how expensive it can be, and you have to cover your costs. There will always be a subset of people willing and able to pay $250+ a seat for premium tickets, and you should continue to take their money. But go into the house for any Broadway show and look at the back. Every show I have ever attended (and I attend a lot), the last two or three rows are packed, because those are the least expensive seats. Then there’s generally several rows of completely empty seats because they are on average $30 more expensive than those last two rows. I am convinced that if more of those seats were the lower ticket price (say, around $50-$60), they would be sold at face value.

    The demand is there. The turnout for lotteries and rush tickets, which have a younger crowd than the actual theatre audience, proves it. It’s because when you’re just starting out and struggling to pay the bills, you can’t afford to spend $100+ on a ticket. And you don’t want to spend $60, which is a lot of money to you and probably a week’s worth of food, to sit in the very back. But if that same $60 could get you halfway down the mezzanine, I bet more young people would scrimp and save to be able to afford those tickets. None of my friends actually enjoy heading down to Times Square to play the lottery each day, or getting up at the crack of dawn to wait in rush lines. But its all we can afford.

    I promise you, if producers would increase the number of $50-$60 tickets per performance, they could probably sell them. At face value. And for $50, we might even be able to swing a ticket for a non-theatre going friend as a gift or special night out. And that non-theatre going friend may actually enjoy themselves, and spend their own money on the next $50 ticket for the next show. And audiences would grow.

    I feel very passionately about this. I can promise you that I would be the first in line to buy $60 seats that don’t put me in the back of the house or in partial view seats. It’s not that much more than a rush ticket at this point, and is something I would be willing to make sacrifices to afford. I think if you are serious about getting younger theatre-goers into the theatre, producers need to consider this change. Like I said, don’t lower all the ticket prices. Keep your premium seats, leave the orchestra tickets at $130 a pop. Same with the front of the mezzanine. But if you would conver the back half of the mezzanine from the $90-$100 seats into $60 ones, I bet they would sell. And I bet the people who buy them would be younger than the current audience makeup, especially at youth-skewing shows like the ones you list above.

  • Brenda Chapman says:

    I’m a High School drama teacher, and there’s SOO much irony in your observation. We as a society are so schizophrenic. We pander to “youth” but then don’t like the results.

    My kids are constantly being told their festival selections are not age-appropriate!!! WHAT? We AIM edgy material at them — specifically to entice and titillate. Yet then they’re not supposed to use the language or perform the appropriate physical actions in their OWN performances?

    Have any of these judges SEEN Springs Awakening? Are those thoughts and feelings ok for actors but not for real-life people?

    The “fluff” we got when one of my students performed “Dance 10, Looks 3” was amazing. High school students don’t say “tits” or “ass”? How ’bout the “F” word?

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Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

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