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What is the History of Summer Shows on Broadway?

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: Jun. 19, 2024
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Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This time, the reader question was: There are several new Broadway productions coming this summer. What is the history of shows opening between June and August?

What is the History of Summer Shows on Broadway?  Image
Scene from Oh, Mary!

This summer season, between June 1 and August 31, four new shows are gracing Broadway. One of these is Home, a revival of the Samm-Art Williams play about a man from North Carolina who weighs city life versus country life, which has already opened. Two off-Broadway transfers follow in July: Oh, Mary!, the much buzzed-about, hilarious hit led by Cole Escola and Job, an intense two hander about work and mental health. In August, Sutton Foster leads the second-ever Broadway revival of Once Upon a Mattress to the main steam, following its joyous City Center Encores! run.

The summer months used to mean that Broadway slowed down considerably. Not only would few new productions open and existing productions end their runs before summer, but ongoing productions would actually take summer hiatuses due to the heat. This was before air conditioning came to Broadway. Most theaters had air cooling systems, often in the form of massive blocks of ice with fans blowing over them, just underneath open vents that wafted this cold air into the orchestra section. (In some of our Broadway theaters, you can still today glimpse these vents if you know where to look!)

Increasingly modern air conditioning was installed in Broadway theaters, largely in the 1950s. At this point, movie theaters in New York had boasted air conditioning for quite some time. The perception was that theatre audiences were higher class and thus abandoned the city for the country for the summer anyway, meaning that the theatre need not provide advanced cooling for audiences during the hotter months because they wouldn’t attend even if installed.

Advanced air conditioning technology in Broadway theaters coincided with exponential growth in the tourism industry. The length of Broadway runs was affected by advances in transportation and growth in the popularity of a New York City vacation. During the post-World War II economic boom America experienced, Broadway audiences grew from largely New Yorkers, to include more significant amounts of patrons from all over America and eventually all over the world. Summer was a time when visitors frequented the city and many of them responded to the call to come see a Broadway show. Suddenly a play or a musical was a cool option for a hot month, especially for those spending their vacation in Times Square.

Both tradition and a perception that the Tony Awards button the season and then successful new shows can’t happen again until after Labor Day have meant that summer is still a drier time for new Broadway productions. But logistics, from theater vacancies to creative timelines, have been pushing a decent amount of shows to summer. While air conditioning and increased tourism did push new productions to summer, Broadway didn’t start seeing a decent amount of hit musicals opening in the summer until the early 1980s, when shows like 42nd Street and La Cage Aux Folles each made a splash, opening in August of their respective seasons.

An increased number of non-profit theatre companies on Broadway has also impacted the summer season. Since companies like Roundabout, Second Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Lincoln Center all own and operate their own Broadway houses, mostly consisting of internally programmed limited runs that cover the full year, it follows that they would sometimes have new productions opening during the summer, like for instance Home, currently at Roundabout’s Todd Haimes Theatre.

What is the History of Summer Shows on Broadway?  Image
Scene from Back to the Future

Of course, the summer of 2024 has barely begun so it’s possible (if not probable) that we may have some last minute additions to this summer’s Broadway slate. Last summer, during the same June-August time frame, a bustling Broadway saw eight new productions open, including the still-running musical adaptation of Back to the Future, the starry farce The Cottage, and the groundbreaking all-Filipino cast immersive Here Lies Love. The summer prior, 2022, was Broadway’s first full summer coming out of the pandemic and included two productions, Into the Woods and The Kite Runner. Its worth noting that both this summers Once Upon a Mattress and 2022s Into the Woods were Broadway transfers of shows from City Center Encores! In these cases, necessary logistics, including star schedules and when the original City Center runs happened led to summer openings.

Looking back at the 2010s, an average of 3.4 shows opened each summer of the decade. A significant number of these were limited concert engagements (Harry Connick Jr, Barry Manilow), tours making a stop on Broadway at a time that was logistically possible (Hair, Fela!), or not-for-profit productions (Prince of Broadway, Straight White Men). But many did not fall into one of these categories. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark opened during the summer of 2011, after a very long preview period, and went on to play over 1,000 performances. In 2015, Hamilton lit up Broadway during the summer, becoming a phenomenon of our time. Another of Broadway’s current best sellers is Moulin Rouge, which opened during the summer of 2019. On the flip side, short runs were realized by summer openers like Soul Doctor (2013), Holler If Ya Hear Me (2014), and Amazing Grace (2015). While there is a prevailing sentiment that opening during the summer can hurt one’s chances of becoming a hit, giving a show a long road before award season, it has been proven time and again that it can go either way.

The 2000s had a similar track record, with only slightly fewer shows per summer: an average of 3.1. While limited concert engagements were not new to the 2010s—many had been programmed by the theatre owners during the 1990s in particular, to fill empty slots in their seasons—there were none during the summers of the 2000s. However there were big hit musicals (Hairspray, Avenue Q), not-for-profit engagements (The Frogs, Old Acquaintance), and a similar variety otherwise to the productions seen in the 2010s.

Theater availability is always a significant factor. Shows often close shortly after the spring award season, either because they are not recognized or because they complete planned runs. This leads to open Broadway houses, ripe for new summer productions.