Why Broadway shows are going to get shorter.

At an industry event the other day, a Broadway Producer peer of mine and I were chatting about all the shows filling the theaters these days and how she was going to work them all into her schedule.

“You know what my four favorite words are?” she asked.

“No.  What are your four favorite words?” I responded, setting her up for the spike.

“90 minutes.  No intermission.”

There’s no question that there has been a trend over the last ten years for shorter shows.  We haven’t done an infographic on it (yet), but I’d guarantee that the running time of both musicals and plays has slimmed down over the last decade.

And my Producer’s Perspective prediction is that they are going to get even shorter.

Here’s why.

This week, a study was released by Common Sense Media with a bunch of stats on teens and tweens and their use of digital technology.  The key finding of the report, as detailed in this CNN article was that “On any given day, teens in the US spend about nine hours using media (social media, movies, video games, music, etc.) for their enjoyment.”

That’s right.  Nine hours.  They spend more hours consuming information and entertainment through media than they do sleeping.  And yeah, nine hours is also longer than they spend in school.

Just how do they do it?


Half of the teens in the study say “they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ use social media or watch TV while doing their homework.”

They are consuming entertainment while they are doing other things, often important things.  They are inundated by so much information in so many places, from their TV to their laptop to the phone in their pocket, that they can’t focus on one thing for any serious length of time.  Add to that a little “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) and no teen is going to want to wait too long to respond to a text or an Instagram pic that their friends may have just posted.

I know, I know, this is awful, right?  It’s crazy how you and I are married to our phones, never mind the next generation, who were practically born with a phone in their hand.

It might be awful.  But it ain’t changing.

And it is certainly going to affect how entertainment is created in the future.

Because this ADD generation is our future audience.  And they can’t sit still for too long without consuming entertainment from various sources.  So the idea that an audience is going to sit through a three-hour play in twenty years is just cuckoo.  That’s why John Caird said in his podcast that he doubted The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby would even be produced in 2015.

But that’s not the primary reason the shows are going to get shorter.

It’s not just that this is the audience of the future.  It’s that these teens . . . that can check social media 100 times a day . . . they are the writers of the future.

They are going to write what they know.  They are going to write how they consume.  They are going to create shows that satisfy their own desires.

And those desires are going to be shows that are shorter, and that have information coming at you from all angles . . . from the stage . . . and maybe from that phone in your pocket too.


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  • ChrisM says:

    My thought is that older audience members won’t take kindly to “shorter” shows if 1) tickets prices remain at their current level and 2) the show “feels” like they’ve been shortchanged in order to reduce the running time. I thought that “First Date” (a one act musical) was too small for Broadway – I liked the show quite a lot but the nearly static set, small cast (4 or 5 members) and a single act made it feel like it would have been better served in a smaller off-Broadway house with a lower ticket price. However, “It Shoulda Been You” seemed to work fine as a one act musical – great set, lots of action and interaction among characters, a solid story with good (but maybe not memorable) music and a cast that seems perfectly suited for their roles. It’s going to be a tough sell if the product on the stage doesn’t provide a solid 90/95 minutes and people leave feeling they were cheated out of a second act because the younger audience couldn’t stand to be away from their phones any longer.

  • ChrisM says:

    And, by the way, an additional note – “older” audience members more frequently tend to be the full price ticket buyers. The lines for lottery tickets, TKTS and such are usually filled with younger theatre goers (nothing wrong with that) and productions cannot exist on lottery and discount ticket buyers alone (except maybe “Phantom” & “Chicago” which both recouped their investment years ago and have both been discounting for many years).

  • John Linscott says:

    Maybe shows will b e written that accommodate the ADDD audience by splitting the story into two performances allowing the audience to either return and enjoy the second “act” or be happy with whatever they have watched. This style of writing would take adjusting by the writers: Write Performance #1and Performance #2 would follow.Either Performance would not strictly depend on the other. The audience which is teased by Performance #1 would not fall into the ADD group.
    Maybe, it is only splitting a complete play into two acts with a long break between. I hope this change of playwriting does not become a reality.

    • Chris Marks says:

      Think “A Day In Hollywood, A Night In The Ukrane” (1980) or Romance/Romance” (1988) both consisting of two one act musicals … those leaving at intermission saw an entire show while those returning (for the second act) had the pleasure of yet another show for the single ticket price. However, both examples consisted of two stand alone musicals rather than a single story continual piece. It is possible that this might work with some shows but it would take some very talented and creative writing to satisfy those wishing to leave early yet still providing sufficient reason for the remainder of the audience to stay. While I understand the importance of growing your audience but I see a risk in losing the audience you already have with such a drastic change. And, by the way, “It Shoulda Been You” used the shorter performance length as part of their advertising and I’ve not seen any information concerning any impact that information (or show length) might have had on attendance.

  • Dara Ely says:

    I agree with Chris that people may equate length of production – literal amount of entertainment – with the value of money and time spent (travel, parking too).

    I would also hate to see writers feeling compelled to shorten their pieces to accommodate an audience that can’t pay attention. It’s one thing to be economical with words but at the end of the day a play/musical needs to be as long as it requires to tell the story. Just as much as I can’t stand musical numbers that seem superfluous in order to give a character a song, etc, I’d hate to see scenes or songs that are vital cut to make something one act.

  • Sue Cohen says:

    Just think, no long restroom lines at intermission. Even better, no one having a chance to turn their phone back on and forgetting to turn it back off resulting in post-intermission ringtones. I’m all for it.
    The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular is about 90 minutes long and has no intermission and it hasn’t seemed to hurt them much.

  • Right now, the theater audience is, in general, “older.” Can we assume that? They are the
    experienced, theater-loving audience, and they are able to pay for their tickets? Can we also
    assume that the new trend in theater remodeling is to make more restrooms for women than for men, to avoid the horrible discrepancy in equitable service? Why do I bring up restrooms? The older audience may need a bathroom break after Act I. As a female audience member, I have spent the last 15 minutes or more, the FINAL 15 minutes of plays, the pay-off minutes, the dividend minutes, thinking more about a restroom than about what’s happening on the stage. That’s when the play runs for 90 minutes without an Intermission, OR when the play is supposed to run 90 minutes, but really runs for 110! (It’s happened.) Additionally, AS A PLAYWRIGHT, I don’t want to lose the audience’s attention near the end of each performance, when I am about to pull off my final effect! I want them thinking about what’s happening on the stage and nothing else. So I want them to have gone to the restroom after Act I! Even in rehearsals of my full-length plays, I always insist on a short break, for the sake of the actors, so they will be comfortable, even though they’ve been drinking from their water bottles throughout Act I. I want their full concentration in Act II, not the efforts of actors who are slightly uncomfortable.

  • Who will write the shows of the future? I think it will be the people who still have attention
    spans. It takes a lot of concentrated effort to create a play. Is this a naive assumption on my part?
    The plays will be written by the geeks and dinosaurs, throw-backs to an earlier time when
    concentration was not habitually fragmented. And, yes, I would like my wheel chair turned away
    from the sun, thank you. I’ll feel the warmth on my back.

  • Michael C says:

    How about dropping intermission? Tighten the show to 110 or 120 minutes and forget about the bathroom break. Approximately half the audience doesn’t leave the during intermission anyway. Certainly going into the theater with a clearly posted “No Intermission” sign would allow most attending an opportunity to use the restroom prior to being seated, purchase their drinks, grab a final smoke and buy a souvenir program or t-shirt. In at 8 out around 10 or so. Most movies run in the 2 hour range (without intermission) and Broadway shows playing casinos in Las Vegas are frequently trimmed to the 2 hour limit without doing much damage to the material or production overall.

  • David says:

    We used to go to NY for shows twice a year before Broadway outpriced itself. We just now buy the $20/$15 ‘Balcony Club’ seats for ‘Broadway in Chicago’ series and get great National tours right after the Tonys or tryouts like On Your Feet, Gotta Dance, Big Fish, Producers, Spongebob, Last Ship, Kinky Boots, Addams Family, Pirate Queen (we got flops too), etc.

    Short shows may work for Las Vegas that are comp’d with an audience that is eager to leave the show to gamble but in the long run it will not work nor trend well in New York or for National Tours. The “Broadway in ….” and other “Broadway…” series have changed the dynamic and center of commercially viable theatre nationally. The ‘Balcony Club’ memberships are a testament to that. I wouldn’t bet on short expensive shows unless they go back to the $1/min show formula as it does now; I doubt producers will settle for $90 top dollar shows with all the overhead and Union wages.

  • Matt says:

    No. Hamilton is 3 hours and it’s blissful. Just make the products better. And what would you do without the intermission concessions revenues? People like 90 minute shows ONLY because 90% of the shows they see disappoint them, and they want to get out. Would you sell more tickets advertising a 90 minute show? No way.

    Set a trend of greatness. Be better. Be the fountainhead. Spring Awakening revival = great. Packed with stars wearing earpieces? Nope. 90 minutes? Nope. Same director we’ve seen stage every other show in NYC this year? Nope. Make the art great and the people will follow.

    • THIS. We here a lot of INDUSTRY people say they love 90 minute shows, just because they have to see so damn much. For those people who experience the theater 2-4 times a year, it’s completely different.

    • Kit says:

      You might want to go check the weekly Gross reports. Spring Awakening is doing terrible business overall. And Hamilton is the exception, not the rule. Sure… you can clamor for better productions, but the simple fact is that 4 out of 5 shows fail to recoup due to high production costs mostly. Producers will continue to find new ways to get the most for their investment. If that means “trimming the fat” as they say (i.e. smaller casts, smaller sets, less overhead investment), then so be it.

      To me is the issue is not with Broadway itself…it’s with every other city in America accepting themselves as the minor leagues. If Broadway is too expensive to be viable anymore, then surely some other metro areas could support a vibrant (and less expensive) theater scene.

      • David says:

        That other metro area that supports a vibrant (and less expensive) theater scene is Chicago.

      • I’m not really following where the viability of Broadway comes into this conversation…but Broadway is doing quite well, and Hamilton is not an “exception”. There were 7 million+ grossing shows last week. 14 over $800K. The health of Broadway is good for theater in all of those “other” cities.

  • Dan Radakovich says:

    Your friend’s remarks remind me of those who said Saddam Hussein would outlast us because “Americans have too short an attention span”…ignoring the fact that the country was founded on a 230 year long war against the aboriginal inhabitants. The most successful shows are still revivals of guess what? Longer plays. The dearth of successful modern plays is largely due to the absurdities of the current base system looking for these 90-110 minute plays in part because they can translate into an hour’s tv programming more simply.
    But they make worse plays. In venues away from Broadway the intermission is a key element in producing revenue for the production covering many costs. [And not incidentally a time for those ADD types to catch up on their tweets, emails, facebook walls, etc.] Theater-going is a social occasion as well as an entertainment venue, and that is one reason live theater will never be wholly replaced by stored media. But to call this generation an ADD one is misconstruing it. Gamers regularly spend 20+ hours following a storyline or just doing shoot-’em-ups with barely a stop for food and drink let alone contact. Which Harry Potter book is under 300 pages? Uh, zero. Which Star Wars movie under 2 hours?[none of 7]. And musicals? Lessee Phantom as a movie was 142 mins with stuff cut out. Any Lord of the Rings flick [or any Peter Jackson film?]. Les Miz? (le gufaw le guffaw) No way. It is not a credible argument. I am not saying a full version uncut of Hamlet would be a lengthy run [unless piss boys were hired again] but short plays are usually formidable drags on the market. Oeiole coming to town want a full night out at the theater, not an hour and a half hiccup.

  • I’ve just read your last post Mr. Davenport. Think about 90 minutes show without intermission. I own a theater in my hometown and something like that would be something harmfull for my economy since I sell popcorn and chicharrones during the intermission. BUT makes me remember how much I hate the la lack of good food I find in Broadway theaters; see I often get there starving since my mexican dinner time is 8 o’clock, and sometimes I preffer to spend time shopping since I’m scared of not having enough time once the show ends… What I think is that theaters must start thinking about creating an experience on the mie cafeterías, something about chatting, sending tweets and posting on Facebook while you take a good taco ir a nice Sandwich…

    We millenials live to experience experiences!! Thank you for reading

  • Tom Hartman says:

    I am writing this after arriving home from a four-character, intermission-less straight play — MY MANANA COMES — that was one of the most deeply moving nights I’ve spent in an audience in 40 years of play-going. Last month, I saw The Goodman Theatre’s revival of “the Pulitzer Prize Winning Broadway HIt” DISGRACED, which left me cold. Both plays were well written and had tight plots. However, the four characters in “Manana” were more fully realized than those in “Disgraced”. Both plays had insightful observations on the nature of personal relationships, the shifts in relationships when in a normative group, and the impact of societal mores on both the individuals and their relationships. DISGRACED was heady – throwing out enough ideas to make me recall Franz Josef’s line to Mozart in “AMADEUS”: “But Herr Mozart, so many notes, how can one hear them all”. “Manana” reached its power through delving more deeply into a fewer set of ideas.

    I spent $30 dollars for MANANA and $60 for DISGRACED. I got every penny and more back from MANANA and felt gypped by DISGRACED. And it comes down to the quality of the play. The acting, sets, lighting and sound for each were of comparable skill. It was the script that made the difference. I walked out of MANANA with tears in my eyes and had to get away from the crowd and then burst into sobs. I felt for those people. I didn’t feel anything for the people portrayed in DISGRACED and, at several times, felt I was being manipulated into having a feeling evoked. I am going to go on Facebook and rave about MANANA. I was kind to the Goodman and didn’t say anything about DISGRACED.

  • Debbie Saville says:

    As usual, I like to steer my messages off the beat and path. I want to step away from the logistics of this message and speak from the heart.

    Many years ago I read book titled “AHA” and my favorite quote was:

    “When we enter kindergarten we are given a box of 64-colorful crayons. When we leave high school, we have a single blue or black ballpoint pen in our pocket”.

    I have always said I was more impressed with my son’s artwork than their ability to say the alphabet or count to 100 at an extremely early age .Today as young adults, they are well educated, however they both have that “creative spark” inside that will give them an edge as they advance in their lives and careers as they navigate today’s “media” society.

    We need to get back to our children embracing their own unique imagination. If information and entertainment through media consumes their early-development years, society will be limited.

    When I was growing up, my room became my imaginary theatre stage. I created shows in their from my earliest memories. I wrote a play in the second grade and in fourth grade, I did my first comedic commercial for a school project. During the middle school years, I created “in-between” comedy acts for school variety shows. There were always opportunities presented to use our imagination in our everyday life.

    What did this ” imaginative playtime at home and in school” bring to me? A parallel life where today I hold a very responsible corporate position and the freedom of a creative mind, where I have 30+ years in theatre and as I did as a child, I have written/directed and recently produced my first original musical.

    If we want to capture the attention of an adult mind in a world consumed by media, we need to nurture the mind of the child, allowing them the gift of time to go within and create endless possibilities with their imagination.

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” ~ Albert Einstein

  • Lyndsay Austin says:

    My sage husband pointed out that no intermission means no concession sales for theater. They have to make up the money some way…charging higher rent which might translate to higher ticket prices.

    • Bob Canning says:

      I’m no sage, Lyndsay, but that was EXACTLY my thought too.

      Also, as a theatregoer, I also feel a bit cheated. Remember the first time (before Starbuck’s, of course) a one-pound can of coffee became 15 ounces FOR THE SAME PRICE, or a 5-pound bag of sugar/flour became a 4-pound bag FOR THE SAME PRICE, and a nickel candy bar went from XX-ounces to 10 cents, then down to X ounces for $1.00 or more? I feel the same about theatre. Prices go UP, play lengths go down.

      While sometimes O’Neill, Shaw and Shakespeare plays do go 3-acts, I always found 2-act plays just right (call me Papa Bear), but the 90-minute play/no intermission is a bit selfish, I think, on the producers’ part. I don’t appreciate “leave the audience wanting more” in this case. Not at current — and future — ticket prices!

  • Jay Z says:

    Disagree with you on this one Ken. Yes, there will be more shorter shows … for shorter runs, off-broadway, and colleges. Try an infographic of the most successful, longest running shows on Broadway — they will all run much more than 90 minutes. Blockbuster musicals require blockbuster length, with an intermission to get the audience chattering about how amazing it is, and with a level of artistry and pageantry to justify the high ticket price. Short musicals like American Idiot end up adding post-show songs to try to make them more satisfying. Doesn’t work. The only reason the audience’s attention wavers during a long show is because is a bad, boring show. Not the case for successful long shows.

  • Lets do 90 second versions of Bdwy shows and cut tkt prices too.

  • I’ve never understood the love for the 90 minute, no intermission thing. I love a good cliffhanger and an act break. I feel like one act plays usually only explore one idea, instead of becoming an unforgettable experience that takes you on a journey and leaves you satisfied. I also feel a little ripped off spending $120 for 90 minutes. I think shows may get shorter – but we’re also seeing a heck of a lot of multi-hour or even multi-day theatrical experience shows all over the country, that are doing sell-out business. In the end (as someone with actual ADHD), it’s not about how long your show is, it’s about how well you hold their attention over that time. There are 80 minute shows that will bore you to tears, and 4 hour long masterpieces that keep you on the edge of your seat the whole time. I could literally feel my heart beat through most of the Goodman’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. There’s lots of evidence from the Hollywood that this is certainly not the case. The highest grossing films of all time are all long. Just look at the Harry Potter films to see what young people will sit through. Many over 2.5 hours.

  • Stacy says:

    I suppose the Broadway shows of the future will have texting lingo and emojis as well…

    I mean, look at this. LOOK AT THIS. This is a real picture of a thing that actually exists: http://the-digital-reader.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/yolo-juliet.jpg

    Just kill me now.

  • Janet Miller says:

    The show I most want to do with my Good People Theater Company is Nicholas Nickleby….

  • Joe Marino says:

    Over the last three years, I’ve been reading plays for fun- plays from the late 1800’s through works written this year. One thing that comes to mind while reading this post is that most plays from the early theater into the 1960’s is the Three-act play (and sometimes musical). That idea fell out of fashion and the now-standard two-act play and musical are the norm. Does anyone know the reason for that change? Was it financial? Were critics and pundits lambasting the invention and widespread ownership of the newfangled televisions that were eroding the attention spans of today’s youth?
    I’d love to hear insight and responses.

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