Are Broadway shows getting shorter? Look at these graphs!

If I made you place a bet on whether the headline of this blog was true, I’m sure most of you would say yes, Broadway shows are getting shorter.

You can kind of smell it, right?  It just feels like you’re hearing those magic words “90 minutes/no intermission” more often.  You’re getting home in time for your favorite 10 PM show, never mind the 11 PM News.

And yeah, spoiler alert, you’re right.

But how right?

Unfortunately, the running-time records don’t go back far enough to see real trends, so my capable Doctors of Data and I decided to examine the number of 2 Act shows, 1 Act shows and (!) 3+ Act shows (remember those?) over the last thirty years.

Ready to see the results?

Graph #1: The Percentage of ALL New Broadway Shows that are 1, 2 and 3+ Acts.

new shows graph

Pretty amazing, right?  There has been an increase of 20 percentage points in the number of one act shows on Broadway.  But what’s even more interesting to me is the trend line.  The decrease in the number of two acts and the increase in the number of one acts is consistent over the past three decades, as those lines get closer and closer together.

But this graph encompasses all shows on Broadway.  Let’s drill it down between Plays and Musicals to see which one is affecting the increase of the one-acters more.

Graph #2: The Percentage of New Broadway Musicals that are 1, 2 and 3+ Acts.

new musicals graph

And now the Plays.

Graph #3: The Percentage of New Broadway Plays that are 1, 2 and 3+ Acts.

new plays graph

You probably could have guessed this too . . . but I bet you wouldn’t have guessed how close the # of two-acters and the # of one-acters are.

So what happens in the next 30 years?  Do the two lines cross?  Well, the trends sure say they will.

Will the two act show go the way of the three act?  Does this help or hurt the theater?  Will more people come if shows are shorter?  Can Authors say less with less time?

My thoughts . . .

Yes, shows will continue to get shorter.  It’s part of a trend I awkwardly call the “YouTube-ization” of our society.   When YouTube burst on the scene, we started demanding our entertainment in shorter bursts.  Same with the written word. Articles became blogs became tweets, etc.

Will there be exceptions?  For sure.  But in general, to keep pace with what our audiences want (and also what their lives will allow), you can expect to no longer hear “90 minutes no intermission” . . . because that will be the norm.

Your thoughts?

 

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Comments
  • Kristi Ross-Clausen says:

    Losing intermission also means losing that revenue stream. I wonder what those numbers are.

    • Frank says:

      That “revenue” would most certainly be made up somewhere else. If the show is over earlier then more people would be willing to hang around a bit afterwards which could lead to more merch sales, more social media engagement, etc.

  • Becca says:

    That’s not a 20% increase in the number of one-act shows, it’s an increase of 20 percentage points. Since they started at 10% of all new Broadway shows, assuming the number of new shows to be relatively constant from year to year, that’s about a 200% (yup, two hundred, not a typo) increase in the number of one-acts!

    • Shane says:

      Thanks for keeping me from being the only one to keep Ken (and Dylan… but we’re supposed to be nice to her on her b’day) honest when it comes to math. 😉

      If you want to be really picky, the whole concept of talking about the lines converging and eventually crossing is unnecessary given they are analyzing percentage of new Broadway shows each year… as three act shows are not material you could draw exactly the same conclusions from a simple graph of one act shows (when they represent more than 50%, by definition two act shows represent less than 50%).

  • Sue Cohen says:

    I LOVE shows with no intermission. Even two hours–e.g A View from the Bridge– is fine with no “halftime” as my husband calls it. No mess of everyone getting up, down, waiting in line at the rest room and then back into seats. Admonitions including last minute emails that the show would start promptly (okay, it was four minutes late both times I saw it) with no late seating worked, too. I have quite a trek home to the ‘burbs from Broadway and much prefer shows that start at 7pm and have no intermission!

  • Frank says:

    I see this similar to the change from vinyl/tapes to CD/digital. The breaks are really pointless. If you never take an intermission then you never need to worry about having a great final number of act one that makes people want to come back.

    Tell your story as it should be told without the need to stick to common theater conventions (i.e. great opener, great closer of act one, 11 o’clock number, finale, etc.).

    I’d argue that most shows could easily cut 20 minutes and it would improve it overall. If you cut 20 minutes and a 15 minute intermission, then you can get people in and out saving them 35 minutes.

  • Rick says:

    Great info and comments. Thanks Ken!

  • Greg says:

    Probably the only business in which less really is more. Ticket prices are higher and the minutes of entertainment are lower. And everyone seems happy about it?!

  • Shane says:

    There are some shows I’ve seen on Broadway recently that I suspect went with the no intermission format because if they had an intermission there would have been a lot of empty seats for Act II.

    On a more serious note, while I generally agree that people have shorter attention spans than they used to, the real question is how long does your show need to be and how long does it feel. If you can tell your story in 90 minutes that’s great… but there have been 90 minute shows that have felt like the longest hour and a half of my life because I wanted to escape. If you need three hours but there is enough happening and I’m emotionally invested in what is happening, I won’t begrudge you a single minute.

    Satisfying some pre-conceived notion of preferred running time isn’t going to save a bad show… remembering that every scene and musical number should serve a purpose (advance the plot, strengthen emotional investment, preferably both) and cutting anything that doesn’t will make your show resonate with audiences so they won’t care if they have to pay a little more for parking or their babysitters.

  • Ted K. says:

    Long before YouTube shortened the “average” attention span, MTV did it first. Choppy editing, faster pace and total destruction of dramatic patience in audiences. If Broadway wants to cater to that, perhaps more “double features” like “Sunday in the Park with George” (but much shorter) could develop to give the people shucking out all that money a little more for their money, at least time-wise.

  • Dan Radakovich says:

    Now, I acknowledge the validity of the data in its presentation but disagree entirely with its value of prediction and predict a return to the 3 act structure. The prevalence of the one or two act play is resultant from the influence of the academic world and the play contest structures encouraging the short play, but the trend in Broadway is to adapt more of other literary properties such as novels and films to live theater. These have either no act or three act structures, and if no act [essentially a one-act] they will normally be broken up into a three act form. Secondly, the audience is greying, and their bladders are weakening :). Venues that allow for revenue sharing of concessions will recognize the massive increase in these sales by added breaks and perhaps an ending stirrup cup and snack. Plays or acts over an hour with no breaks will fall by the wayside via natural attrition.

  • Janet Miller says:

    I want to produce/direct Nicholas Nickleby, so that only goes to show you where I am at.

  • Ed Katz says:

    I am curious as to your thoughts, Ken, if the trend to “intermission-less” shows has been raising ticket prices.
    I know some theaters charge more rent if there is no intermission, because they lose out on added concession sales.
    And, because higher rental costs will get passed on to the ticket buyers, does this trend mean higher ticket prices (beyond normal inflation raises)?

  • Kate Danley says:

    Last night, I attended The Robber Bridegroom at The Roundabout Theatre. It was, truly, one of the best shows that I’ve ever seen in NYC. The direction was genius (I’m not speaking in hyperbole), the acting was phenomenal (there was a gal playing this witch character and a guy playing this lunkhead who deserve all the Tonys), and yet, we all sat in our seat at the curtain call. I was thinking about why that happened. It was an hour and a half long with no intermission and I realized that what we were being taught, as an audience, was to stay seated. The show was also a torrent of comedic genius. But by the end, I was a little mentally overwhelmed by too much awesome to get to my feet. I understand the financial reasons for removing an intermission. A half-hour shorter means a half-hour worth of salaries that don’t need to be paid. That can add up and probably looks on paper like a great way to cut costs. But I just wonder if by adding an intermission last night, it would have given us the little break we, the audience, needed to be able to process everything, to chat about it in the lobby, and to come back to the second act enlivened. The little break would have also reminded us that it is okay to get out of our seat and I wonder if the only thing needed was an intermission to give this show the ovation it so rightfully deserved.

  • Bobby says:

    But with the cost of tickets soaring people will not be thinking they are getting their money’s worth since the productions are shorter. They will probably be wanting to see lower tickets at the box office.

  • John Sparks says:

    Length alone is not a trustworthy criteria. If the show sustains your interest for 4+ hours (the way Einstein on the Beach did for me) then it is not too long. If your mind wanders during the show, if you flip through your program to see how many more songs before the end, if you check your watch frequently, the show is too long to matter how many acts it has. I think it’s true that the general audience’s attention span is shorter today that it used to be, but I’m not sure YouTube is the reason, and certainly it is not the sole reason. Life is more complicated, there are more distractions, and certainly TV has played a role. This means the onus is on the writers and producers to find characters and topics that interest us – and stories that can be told in the allotted amount of time whether that’s 90 minutes or 180 minutes.

  • Susan says:

    In the preface to his play MISS JULIE (1888), renowned Swedish playwright August Strindberg wrote, “As for the technical aspects of the composition, I have experimented with eliminating act divisions. The reason is that I believe our dwindling capacity for accepting illusion is possibly further disturbed by intermissions, during which the spectator has time to reflect and thereby escape the suggestive influence of the author-hypnotist. My play will probably run an hour and a half, and since people can listen to a lecture, sermon, or conference discussion for just as long or longer, I imagine that a ninety minute theatre piece will not be too tiring….My hope for the future is to so educate audiences that they can sit through a one-act play that lasts an entire evening. But this will require experimentation.” : )

  • Marilyn says:

    I don’t care about the presence or absence of an intermission, but I do care about one-act plays that masquerade as full length ones. I saw a play last year that ran less than 75 minutes. In past years, it would have been part of a double bill. Since my trip to Manhattan takes almost two hours each way, I start to wonder if it is worth the time and effort, much less the ticket price.

  • Iris says:

    I feel like those numbers should be normalized somehow to account for the ratio of new shows vs revivals. Yea, maybe more of the new shows are are shorter, but there are plenty of long revivals playing all the time (e.g. right now King And I and Fiddler with over 3 hours).
    And another thought that comes to mind… are shorter shows more successful? The two 1-act musicals from last season (It Shoulda Been You, The Visit, am I forgetting something else?) were both short lived. All the musicals bringing in the big bucks at the BO and winning the Tony’s were 2-acts, and there isn’t a single long-running 1-act musical around.

    • Frank says:

      I think you’ll find that the long running shows are generally spectacle driven, while one-act shows tend to be more drama driven.

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