HERE LIES LOVE Tries Hard, But Still Fails To Find Its Broadway Audience

This week's Industry Trends column looks at the fate of Here Lies Love.

By: Nov. 13, 2023
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HERE LIES LOVE Tries Hard, But Still Fails To Find Its Broadway Audience

This week we learned the last Broadway performance of Here Lies Love would take place on November 26. To some, it seemed rather shocking that a show that took so long to get here would run for so short a time. Others had been looking at the grosses for months wondering when the announcement would come. But I think even most folks in the second group were a little sad when the news broke. Those of us who believe in theatrical innovation were rooting for it.

The journey of musicals to Broadway is rarely super simple, but some paths are more complicated than others. Here Lies Love hit the Public in 2013. It was a big hit, leading to rumors of a transfer. But many wondered if Broadway was right for the immersive show; there was a search of ballrooms, warehouses, abandoned theaters, and parking lots. (The last may sound comical, but remember that isn’t far from what Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 did at the time—a temporary structure put up where there was no structure.) Then it simply went back to the Public for a longer run, before London and Seattle. When Seattle was announced, a lot was made of how the show would be reconfigured for a proscenium house. That gave people the impression it was going to be a more traditional staging, but the 2017 Here Lies Love engagement there still had the dance floor. And so obviously does the one here.

Having a dance floor in a Broadway house is an expensive proposition. Producers, not theater owners, typically pay to reconfigure the theater and put it back the way they found it when their show leaves. Theater fans know how much work was done on the Broadway—set designer David Korins essentially hosted online infomercials about it. That work did not come cheap; the show was reportedly capitalized at $22 million. Additionally, Here Lies Love had an onstage cast of 18, 12 musicians (some of which were actors doubling as musicians), and paid audience wranglers, meaning its weekly running cost was high. Traditional theater audience members were never going to be enough because many simply were not going to attend an immersive disco musical; Here Lies Love needed to attract new audience members.

I’ve heard many reasons from theater insiders on why it failed to catch on. Many question why it didn’t come sooner, pre-pandemic, where it might have capitalized on a “you can’t get into Hamilton, but you can get into this other show that also isn’t your grandmother’s musical” energy. That also would have meant Ben Brantley would have been the Times critic who reviewed it. Jesse Green did not champion the show, but Brantley had long been in its corner. “Ben would have made it an event,” one person said to me. (I question the validity of this stance, given the dwindling power of critics, but I am reporting what I heard.) Others believed that the absence of Ruthie Ann Miles adversely impacted the mounting. Then some complained it was the confusing seating chart that did it in. Indeed, I didn’t know where to tell people to sit, even after I saw it. (I asked the press agent for info on whether standing or seating sold better and which seating did best, but I was not provided with it.) I heard people who hadn’t seen the show were confused about what it was—in other words, the messaging was unclear. And, of course, people blamed the ticket prices. I don’t disagree with any of this. Every strike against a show adds up and these were strikes.

But the failure of Here Lies Love also represents something more fundamental: our failure as an industry to target the right audiences. Here Lies Love got plenty of press. And it tried some new initiatives. A childcare matinee! That’s right, on Saturday, September 23 people who attended the 3:30pm performance could obtain free childcare while they enjoyed the show. Was it successful? The press agent wouldn’t tell me, but I suspect it was not wildly successful. That was supposed to be the first of four such performances and the other three were never announced. It is a little hard to judge from the public gross, which is weekly, but for the week ending September 24, Here Lies Love grossed less than it had the prior week. Now, that week was a tough week for Broadway generally, and it’s possible the matinee was still a bright spot, but, again, all signs point to it not being a gigantic success. The producers also tried post-show DJ performances! I loved this idea as well, but nothing in what the box office was doing in a particular week showed they were having much of an impact. Yes, there were weeks that were up, but the increases were never out of proportion with the industry. (A so-called “Democracy in Action” ticket initiative was also aimed at bringing new audiences in—it involved collecting donations to subsidize tickets for certain groups. I cannot gauge the success of it at all, but I welcome anything that brings theater to new groups of people, so I applaud the effort.) 

However, despite all the press and initiatives, I asked 10 fairly entertainment-savvy New Yorkers under 35 about the show in recent weeks and only two had heard of it. One saw the posters but wasn’t quite sure what it was. One thought it was a karaoke musical, whatever that would be. (I always said arguing the karaoke angle in the press would be confusing, so this was a personal validation for me, but a sad one.) That means no one got to the seating chart or the ticket price. Now some will still argue: “If only it came in 2015 with Ruthie and a Ben rave and… and…” Because maybe if all those things worked out perfectly, then word would have spread to these 10 folks. There are shows that bring in new audiences! It can be done! But in terms of starless productions, the shows that achieve that feat are few and far between.

This show needed younger members and I don’t believe it fully reached that audience. This is in part because of social media failures. Social media influencers that focus on theater aren’t really selling tickets generally (I’ve done research on this—more on that in a future column) and they aren’t even coming up on the feeds of non-theater fans. People need to hear about a show first before we can jump to blaming the ticket prices of a specific show. If social media is to work for the benefit of shows, theater people need to be better about getting the right kind of attention online. That to me is a fundamental problem that isn’t specific to Here Lies Love, but the quick closing of Here Lies Love really draws attention to it.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t yet, go see Here Lies Love before it closes on November 26. Director Alex Timbers and team did a marvelous job of realizing their vision on Broadway. Two of those 10 people under 35 have gone since I spoke to them about it and they both loved it. (Many older people love it too.)

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