Bums off seats

There’s no business like show business. Sometimes it’s barely a business at all.

There’s no business like show business. Sometimes it’s barely a business at all

Jason Smith


Stardust may fall between the boards of Broadway and West End theatres, but it travels poorly. This year, Broadway box office annual takings are expected to top US$1 billion for the first time. New Zealand, however, follows a different script: a sprinkling of international touring shows, a dusting of regional professional productions and a powder-coat of aspirational amateur theatre. The world’s most popular live entertainment genre is a happy but poor cousin in New Zealand’s performing arts.

Casting about these parts, musical theatre audiences prefer escapism to reflections of local culture. Gritty, courageous local creations like Once Were Warriors: The Musical in 2006 are rare and run short. At the other end of the scale, The Phantom of the Opera, with its faux opulence, pastisches of grand opera and falling chandeliers, dazzled 230,000 people in Auckland for most of 1991—a theatrical record. The latest trends from offshore include reality TV casting competitions that thrust unknowns into the limelight (and first-time theatregoers into the West End and Broadway).

Smaller productions where cast and orchestra swap roles are a push-back against the Disneyfication of the form with its astronomical costs—large Broadway musicals cost at least US$15 million just to open. Strictly for brave entrepreneurs, commercial risk profiles for musical shows in New Zealand are finely tuned. A five-week season of a first class touring musical costs between NZ$3.5 million and $6.5 million to deliver. Relatively small increases in New Zealand ticket prices increasingly appear out of step.

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Sources: The Broadway League, Society of London Theatres, The Edge, Statistics NZ

Safe theatre bets like Phantom (beware the stage sequel in London 2010) and My Fair Lady play into the affections and wallets of the expected audience in the demographic charts below. Proving the old girl’s still bloomin’ loverly, the perennial Lady has never been off the professional stage since 1957, and a second musical film version with Keira Knightley is in pre-production. Yet with credit crunching her blossom, My Fair Lady withered at the Auckland box office in early 2009, defying all trends. Theatre queens snipe from the wings, backers lose their shirts, performers live on the edge. Behind the razzmatazz, this is a cruel creative industry.

Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington. There’s still no business like show business, no matter how close to home the stardust may fall.

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