Are new plays and new musicals really on the downswing? Part I

I read a quote recently which lamented the fact that there weren’t as many new plays on Broadway anymore.

At first, my head started a-nodding in agreement.  It’s easy to jump on the ol’ “things aren’t so good” whine-wagon.  But then I wondered, “Is that really the case?”  I know it seems like that, and maybe it is, but before I just start joining the pessimists club, let’s take a look at the statistics shall we?  Maybe the picture ain’t as gloomy as we think?

So, my trusty intern Kate and I, went into the season archives of IBDB, and simply counted the number of new plays and new musicals over the last three decades to see if we could find some kind of trend line, good or gloomy.

Here’s a chart of the number of new plays on Broadway since the 1982-83 season through today:

new plays 2

Well?  What do you think?

Seems to me that the sweet spot of new plays is between 10 and 15 (average of the 30 years is 12.77), and actually there isn’t much of a swing in either direction, or a downward trend line.  Although we don’t jump over that 15 mark much, and we have sunk below the 10 line a few times, it seems to be that we’re sort of consistent.  (Note to self:  if ever I see a season where there is more than 15 new plays being produced – see if there’s another season when I can do my show.)

So in the modern theatrical era (what I call the 80s to now), we’re not doing drastically less new plays.

Now, let’s check out the same stats for new musicals:

new musicals

To quote an Xmas Carol, “Do you see what I see?”

After a downward trend in the first part of the decade, there’s actually a slight upward slant since 1997 (average of the entire three decades is 9 and since 1996, the average is almost 10 .  No coincidence that this is also when Broadway grosses started an upward trend as well.)

So, the picture ain’t so bad after all.  And that means, Pessimist club?  You’ve got one less member.

While sure, it’d be great if we could produce more new plays and more new musicals, we actually have a real estate issue (see this blog) and a audience development issue (our attendance has been relatively flat – see this blog).  But the good news is, we’re not producing less.

Tomorrow I’ll look at the trend for revivals.  More Graphs!  #GraphNerdAlert


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  • Krista Davies says:

    I think it would be interesting to see the re-coupment percentages on plays that were produced in years where less than 10 plays are produced or more than 14. As for musicals, it would be great to see the re-coupment rates for the years where less than 8 or more than 11 are produced. Perhaps you do have a better chance of re-coupment if less shows are produced. Seems logical. Good point Ken.

  • Rafe says:

    That`s exciting.

    It still seems a bit weird to me that the only place worth launching something in North America is New York.

  • Connor Coleman says:

    It’s amazing what data can show about the state of the world. However, this perception among theatre goers and non-theatre goers that there new works aren’t being produced is a problem that needs to be pursued. Even if the data shows something, if we can’t get people to feel it then the point is essentially moot. I’ll be very interested to see what the data on revivals shows. I have my suspicion, but I’ll wait to see if it’s confirmed.

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    The problem isn’t less play production, it’s less play recoupment.

    Outside a star revival i.e. Pacino/GLENGARRY, Chastain/HEIRESS, etc., when was the last non-star play to even recoup?

  • Tony Pino says:

    I think writers,producers,etc need to think out of the box and stop doing the traditional musicals, such as
    revivals re-revivals of Oklahoma!,King & I,etc it’s been played out over and over. We need fresh stories and fresh scores that you leave the theater and wanting more and singing a memorable tune to yourself. People we have to dig down deep and look at all the opportunities we let pass us by. Redo the great musical presented at paper Mill Theater years ago called Syanara from the movie to the stage. Another way to go is a Drama Musical such as doing a Susan Hayworth movie like Back Street, with A Song In my heart<I'll Cry Tomorrow! There are some great comedies out there also to turn and develop into musicals The Golden Girls,Friends,Al In The Family
    so you see there is a lot to be done and great scores that can be written also don't forget the OVERTURE that has been missing from a lot people like to hear that it is the preview the excitement of a Broadway Musical. Thanks for this time.-Tony

  • The recoup rates would be interesting, but there would then also have to be a subjective qualitative rating for each piece.

    I’d also be interested to see the same study for Off-Broadway, and how many of those productions moved to Broadway.

  • Charlie Fink says:

    I think if you defined down the definition of new musicals the graph might look quite different. Are shows like Once and Mary Poppins really new musicals?

  • Adam says:

    Maybe a stupid question, but have number of broadway theaters changed through the years? I.e., has the % of new shows compared to total shows changed…
    Also, is there a statistic of how long a new show compared to a revival runs.. It may seem like there are no new shows bc they don’t stick around. Can you run a statistic showing # of months in total for new shows vs revivals?
    Sorry for rambling..

  • Rich says:

    It’s interesting to note that among the top seven longest-running Broadway Shows two (Chicago & Oh! Calcutta!)were revivals. Though the revival numbers weren’t provided in this analysis it seems highly likely that new Broadway plays/musicals have on average exceeded the number of revivals over Ken’s time frame. As several posters have mentioned, unanswered is the question how many (& what percent) of new musicals & plays have actually recouped vs. revivals? Maybe we’ll see this in Round II.

  • Rex Garrett says:

    Ken, It looks to me like this spring is welcoming more plays that musicals. Is that because plays have a smaller payroll and lower development cost? Can you take a look at the ratio of musicals to plays over the same years and see how it has changed?

  • Henrik Hartvig Jorgensen says:

    As a citizen of a small country one needs to look to the major players of the business, Broadway being one of them. But you might also find valuable data outside Broadway figures, f. i. West End and/or other US citites as the data from Broadway alone however interesting seems inadequate in order to really interpret from. But it’s a beginning 🙂

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