War with Iraq latest blow to Broadway

Saturday, March 22, 2003

— First the bitter winter weather. Then the four-day musicians strike. Now the war with Iraq.

A battered Broadway's spring season officially begins March 27 with the arrival of "Urban Cowboy," a musical based on the John Travolta-Debra Winger movie. And it could also be the start of even more uncertainty for Broadway theater if the war continues into April and beyond.

Business last week, the first full week of performances following the musicians walkout, was better than expected but not overwhelming. The season's biggest hit, "Hairspray," recovered its sold-out status, and "The Lion King" and "The Producers" continued to demonstrate box-office muscle, although they are not as strong as they once were.

Most in the industry expect some immediate negative impact, just as there was during the 1991 Gulf War. Already, a revival of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which had been struggling at the box office, will fold April 6, after a short, two-month run and a loss of $2.5 million.

"There was a significant dip (in business) in 1991," George Wachtel, head of Audience Research & Analysis, an entertainment research company, said Thursday. "It was felt, but the upside was that, immediately after the war was over ... business rebounded."

Now that war has started, no one is quite sure how things will play out.

Besides "Urban Cowboy," consider the plight of such new plays as "The Play What I Wrote," "Life x 3" and "Joe Egg," all debuting within the next several weeks. The opening is a critical time for any show in terms of raising public awareness.

"They are in a vulnerable spot in that they won't get the media attention they would have gotten had there not been this war," said Nancy Coyne, head of Serino Coyne, a theater advertising agency.

But Wachtel isn't so sure.

"It is more likely to be the well-informed, regular theatergoer who sees a new show early on in the run," he said. "It isn't the casual tourist or the international traveler. So it may not be that the shows that are opening fresh get hit the hardest."

More likely to suffer are long-running musicals like "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Rent."

"It's those shows that depend on the out-of-town audience, the tourism audience, the people who buy not on knowledge but on perceived reputation," Wachtel said. "Those theatergoers are the ones more likely to not make a trip."

It's too early to tell if those advance and groups sales will evaporate.

"We've had complete cancellations, we've had postponements and we've had people coming regardless," said Veri Krassner, theater marketing manager for RMP Travel, which handles group sales to shows.

Some high school groups are merely postponing, changing from late March to late May. But one-day trips from areas within a 200-mile radius of New York remain strong.

Adding to the sense of wartime, police are more visible in the Times Square area, the heart of the theater district, and there are foot patrols on side streets. Security has been increased in theaters, too. The Shubert Organization, Broadway's biggest landlord, has its own private security force.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Broadway rebounded, helped by a resurgence of theatergoers from the city and suburban New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

"This core audience not only came out, but they came out more frequently than ever before," said Coyne. "That's what I hope happens again."