Comscore

Newbie question: why do plays have such short runs?

ZoeM
Swing
joined:12/26/13
I hope you'll forgive what may seem like a basic question!

Looking at the grosses every week, it seems like musicals often run indefinitely despite mediocre ticket sales, while plays stick to limited runs even when they're doing well. (I'm thinking of shows like Twelfth Night/Richard III, The Glass Menagerie, A Raisin in the Sun, Of Mice and Men.) Why do shows like this not run longer? In the case of some super-limited engagements, do they even have any hope of recouping at all?

I know theatre space must be an issue—if they booked for a fixed time period, it just isn't possible to extend indefinitely when another show is scheduled to come in—but that doesn't explain why they plan for such short runs to begin with. What obvious thing am I missing here? Are plays considered more dependent on particular actors than musicals are?

Thanks in advance for any help, and I apologize again for my newbie ignorance!
haterobics Profile Photo
haterobics
Broadway Legend
joined:3/29/14
Well, for the shows you picked, they all have Hollywood stars in them in many cases, so they don't sign on for long contracts. If Denzel can make millions shooting a movie in a few weeks, there is no benefit for him to be doing the same performance on Broadway for 12 months.

As for Twelfth/Richard, I'm not sure, but I know it was always a limited run. Stephen Fry already had commitments booked for after the run, so much so that even when they extended, he had to miss the final weekend. Often with UK cast transplants, there are sometimes work visa issues where they are only allowed to be here for a specific amount of time, I believe.
ZoeM
Swing
joined:12/26/13
Thanks for the insights! I hadn't even thought about visa issues.

Is there a reason plays can't just cycle through different famous actors/performers, like musicals seem to? I'm thinking of After Midnight and Cinderella in particular.
jnb9872 Profile Photo
jnb9872
Broadway Legend
joined:11/24/08
The star-wattage needed to attract a famous name for a play is usually a higher bar to surpass than it is for a musical, where the show itself more easily becomes an attraction. Plays have recast with newer famous names, RACE and GOD OF CARNAGE are two that come to mind immediately, but they are rarer since most plays seem content to play their intended run, remain a must-see for a limited time, and maximize their potential gross over a shorter time; an extended run costs more and is never a guarantee. A legit-hit play that can run more than a year is even rarer, and require extraordinary circumstances like the universal through-the-roof acclaim AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY received, the technical marvel of a WAR HORSE that can motor along without star power or the easily-enjoyable threadbare production values of a 39 STEPS.
Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good anymore…I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.
EricMontreal22 Profile Photo
EricMontreal22
Broadway Legend
joined:10/31/11
There also is less incentive for them to run long. Musicals nearly always need to run longer to recoup due to the higher cost. It seems to be something that has always existed, more or less. While, after Oklahoma! musical runs became longer and longer (back in previous decades a show was often seen as a big hit if it just ran a solid season,) the same didn't really happen to plays. There were exceptions--Tobacco Road ran ten years or more in the 30s. Life With Father did the same at the end of the decade. Long run plays (the 1000+ performance ones) mostly tend to be comedies and "crowd pleasers"--Barefoot in the Park, Harvey, Cactus Flower, Plaza Suite... Some more serious (more) recent plays have managed pretty long runs--August Osage County, Proof, Children of a Lesser God.

But even in the Golden Age of drama on Broadway (which I'll roughly place between Glass Menagerie in 1945 and 1965) these plays caused tons of national excitement in a way they rarely do now, but still didn't run quite like the equivalent musicals. Streetcar got to 850 or so and was Williams' longest run, for example whereas 850 is still even quite often seen as a disappointing run for a major musical (although this may have all become bloated in hte 80s when there wee such massive long runs with musicals.)
EricMontreal22 Profile Photo
EricMontreal22
Broadway Legend
joined:10/31/11
Twelth/Richard are also productions that ran in repertory in the UK, didn't they? So they only planned to bring it over for the equivalent season in New York. (I could be wrong, but I know that's been true before with certain UK transfers from their rep companies like the National and RSC, although those do sometimes extend in London and in New York.)
ZoeM
Swing
joined:12/26/13
Thank you all for the information! I really appreciate it.

How long does it normally take for a play to recoup? I was having trouble imagining any but the most successful actually making a profit in a limited 12-week run, so maybe that's part of the cause of my confusion. Do they generally need to earn a similar percentage of their gross potential in a given week (compared to musicals), in order to break even, or do their much lower costs more than make up for their lower revenue?
Ed_Mottershead
Broadway Legend
joined:10/20/05
Here's a snarky remark, but the majority of high-spending out-of-towner theatregoers want to have fun and don't want to think.
BroadwayEd
Gothampc
Broadway Legend
joined:5/20/03
I think musicals universally are just more well received in this time we're living in. People have shorter attention spans these days and musicals keep the pace moving along.
If anyone ever tells you that you put too much Parmesan cheese on your pasta, stop talking to them. You don't need that kind of negativity in your life.
haterobics Profile Photo
haterobics
Broadway Legend
joined:3/29/14
Foreign tourists also prefer musicals, since they can follow the basics easier without needing to get the nuance of the language.
AEA AGMA SM Profile Photo
AEA AGMA SM
Broadway Legend
joined:8/13/09
Plays do have an easier time recouping due to smaller running costs. Even a large cast play, say ten, will have much lower weekly operating costs than a mid size musical with its large cast, significantly larger crew, and musicians. And the producers of these limited runs will go in with a budget that shows potential for recoupment in whatever their allotted run is. They will need to show investors that there is a chance, otherwise nobody would put in money, obviously. So they will say we're going into this theatre with a certain amount of seats and here is out potential weekly gross. They will then show the percentage of that gross they would need to reach to meet their estimated weekly costs, and then the percentage they would need to get over that each week to actually reach recoupment. So it may be they need to reach 40% potential for operating costs and 70% to recoup. That's why you'll find producers courting big stars for limited runs, because they will be hoping to bank on their names to reach whatever their golden numbers are, and of course it's easier to get a star with huge box office appeal to agree to appear for twelve weeks versus a year.

As for the audience, i would say most are drawn to musicals when they come to NYC over plays because it is easier to see a high quality production of a new script at regional companies than it is to see the newest musicals outside of NY or a tour. Look at how many regional productions of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike there have already been this season, not to mention the number if companies who have it as part of their seasons next year.
Did you know that every day Mexican gays cross our borders and unplug our brain-dead ladies?
South Fl Marc Profile Photo
South Fl Marc
Broadway Legend
joined:6/23/04
"Here's a snarky remark, but the majority of high-spending out-of-towner theatregoers want to have fun and don't want to think."

Snarky but true.
Now living in DC. I really have to change my name on the board.
Elfuhbuh Profile Photo
Elfuhbuh
Featured Actor
joined:3/23/14
As a person who lives outside of New York, I can vouch for the "tourists mainly want to see musicals" argument. When people from other places think Broadway, they generally think "Broadway Musical," so naturally that is the sort of thing they will want to see when visiting.
EricMontreal22 Profile Photo
EricMontreal22
Broadway Legend
joined:10/31/11
And musicals court that. Ever since the early days (OK at least the 20s) musicals would usually have multiple elaborate sets, etc, whereas a play much more often than not has one basic set, etc, etc. Add to that, that theatre geek kids like myself grow up listening to all of these cast albums--often of the classic shows being revived as well--sure you can track down movie versions of the big classic plays, or read them, but even in the day and age where a musical song rarely, if ever, gets played on the radio, those cast albums can add a lot of life to a show (not to mention Tony performances of songs, infrequent but occasional performances on talk shows, etc.) I think it was a valid point brought up that theatre fans can often see solid productions of recent plays regionally (another reason plays don't tour as often anymore).

But there's probably something to the fact that the long running shows tend to be ones that you don't have to think much about--as people said (yes, even the megamusicals) which shows why things like Neil Simon's lighter comedies also rank highly.