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This is Capitalism: Up Close, Inspired, Explained

Jan 9, 2023

I’m Patricia O’Connell for This is Capitalism. Today I’m talking with Brian Lipton, who is the Chief Theater Critic for and the former editor-in-chief and currently a contributing editor to He is going to take us behind the scenes at Broadway and give us a little bit of a look at what’s going on with Broadway, the return to Broadway for both actors and theatergoers.

Key Takeaways:


[:29] Patricia O’Connell introduces Brian Lipton, a theater critic for and contributing editor to, and welcomes him to This is Capitalism.

[1:01] What does the closing of Phantom mean after 35 years? Is it just time? It has made its money back so many times that its lead producer, Cameron Mackintosh, could run it as long as he wanted to. With its closing notice, its grosses have soared to their highest in years. Winter is not the tourist season, and COVID-19 is still a factor.

[3:01] All Broadway shows are capitalized, which is really the amount of money it takes to put the show on from start to finish: rehearsals, scenery, rent, and things up until day one. For a large musical now, $15 to $25 million is not an unusual capitalization. You have to make that money back during the run to get a profit.

[3:38] Then you have the weekly running costs. The set’s already done, but you still have to pay rent, actors, and union people every week, and make that money back. For a musical like Phantom, that’s estimated to be in the $750,000 to $1 million range because Phantom is a very elaborate show to make every week just to break even.

[4:17] If you’re doing a limited run, it’s often built in that you need to be running at pure capacity. Into the Woods is still at the St. James, but it was originally scheduled for an eight-week run, and the only way that could’ve made money at eight weeks is if, for eight weeks it ran 100 percent. It did come close to that, but it’s no longer coming close.

[4:45] The longer the run goes on, sometimes the less you have to make that 100 percent. But you can’t do badly; you have to still pack a fair amount of the house at full-price tickets if you’re going to meet your running costs. And the minute you don’t do that, you run the risk of being in the red.

[5:05] Discounting tickets is a major factor. If you’re selling 1,000 seats at $60 or $70, you’re making $700,000 a week instead of $2 million a week. The Music Man doesn’t discount, so it is taking in over $3 million every week. That will help it to be profitable by the time it closes. If they discounted by 50 percent, they wouldn’t have a chance.

[5:51] The Music Man had the option of running after Hugh Jackman decided to leave. And he is staying a few weeks past his contract. This has been done before when you have a star who is so powerful. Maybe the wisest business move, even if you could still make money it’s an expensive show with a large cast is to take the money and go.

[6:23] Hugh Jackman is one of those rare people who is a true movie star and a true theater star even though he has only been on Broadway three or four times, most notably, of course, in The Boy from Oz, his big Broadway debut. But he has created a huge following. Some people go back to see him four to six times.

[7:04] There are shows that have always done stunt casting. You’ll see, for example, Pamela Anderson doing Chicago. She was quite good. But more to the point, she brought in business. She had the highest grosses for Chicago in many months, if not years. And that was a perfect example of the right way to do stunt casting.

[8:08] A lot of Broadway will be dominated, especially straight plays maybe more than musicals, by star casting, whether it’s stunt casting or not. In a lot of cases, they’re going to look for that star power to motivate the box office.

[8:27] Now conversely, the musical, Some Like It Hot, stars Christian Borle, Adrianna Hicks, and J. Harrison Ghee, who, their talents notwithstanding, are not known stars. They are banking on the property and the careers of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, who wrote the score. They have Tonys for Hairspray and they’re very well known.

[9:00] Brian doesn’t think we’re going to see a lot of truly original work on Broadway for a while. Everything will be based on a movie or a book or is a revival of a famous play. Theater that comes from scratch is few and far between.

[9:21] This ’22 to ’23 will be the first “normal” Broadway theater season that we’ve had in several years now. I mean the 2019 to 2020 season got cut short, of course, because of Covid. What we’re seeing now is a lot of flux.

[9:42] This is a very unusual year in that a number of shows opened in December, including one, The Collaboration. It’s an imagined conversation between Andy Warhol and Jean-Paul Basquiat. It’s also being filmed simultaneously and it’s coming in for a limited run. By the end of 2022, Broadway will be surprisingly full.

[10:12] But January will bring the closing of Beetlejuice, after eight months. A Strange Loop, which won the Tony in 2022, for Best Musical, is closing on January fifteenth, which will make it, depending on how you count things, either the shortest or the third-shortest running Best Musical ever. There are also some limited runs now.

[10:43] Phantom closes in February. But spring is usually the more prominent season than fall. Again, better weather, maybe more tourists, and closer to Tony time. Almost all of the big musical houses, The Winter Garden, the Marquis, and the St. James, are vacant for the spring. Brian wonders if the producers are hedging their bets.

[11:20] Back to the Future, for example, is the kind of show that would probably have to take a million to a million-and-a-half every week just to be in break-even territory.

[11:31] There is a symbiotic relationship between the New York City economy and Broadway. In the last full theater season, 2018 to 2019, Broadway ticket sales were $1.8 billion. That is more than the ten major league sporting teams in the New York City area, which is staggering, because what’s more popular, sports or Broadway?

[12:05] Can Broadway rely on locals? This fall, Broadway is doing surprisingly well without a huge tourist influx. There is a very strong local audience New York City and the tri-state area, that will come to Broadway for something they want to see. The tourists augment locals in any season and are most important in spring and summer.

[12:53] If we looked at a forecast and said that nobody is coming in the summer of 2023, that may be why spring producers are hedging their bet. You’re never going to be able to run big, expensive shows without the tourist base. You can run Laura Linney for 16 weeks, and it’s probably not a big deal because that’s not what the tourists flock to.

[13:37] When the tourists come, they want to see musicals. Broadway has some very long-running musicals like Hamilton, that’s still bringing in insane amounts of money, Lion King, that’s doing super well, and Wicked, that’s still close to $2 million a week. They’re there for the tourists.

[14:01] A lot of tourists only come to New York once in their life and the one time they’re coming they want to see Hamilton, The Lion King, and Wicked the big, long-running shows. They don’t necessarily want to see the hot, new show. Book of Mormon is running still on tourists. Chicago has run this long because tourists go see it.

[14:33] What show will be the next “Phantom”? Chicago and Lion King, which opened in 1997, have run for 25 years. Will they run another ten? Lion King might. Its enduring popularity is because it is child-driven while pleasing to adults. There are always children being born. So Disney may have a chance to break the Broadway record.

[15:27] Nobody would’ve bet on Chicago running 25 years. Chicago has the advantage of having made its money back so many times that its producers, led by Barry and Fran Weissler, if they want to just do this for the sake of doing it, they can run it.

[15:34] Chicago is a very minimalist show; its running costs are very small, probably half a million or less. And so all you need to do is break that every week, give or take, and you can keep running. So those two have the chance to be the new Phantom.

[15:55] We’ve seen recent revivals of the King & I, Carousel, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady; and South Pacific. How many of the great classic musicals are there left to recycle? The Sound of Music hasn’t had a major Broadway production in around 25 years. So Brian won’t be shocked if that comes down the pike.

[16:35] We may be getting revivals featuring people of color or other non-traditional castings. There’s a buzz for the first real revival ever of Kiss of the Spider Woman, which provides roles for three Latinx performers. Chita Rivera originated it but she was the only Latinx lead of the original threesome – we could easily have a revival of that.

[17:14] All of the Lomans in Death of a Salesman, the five family members, are Black. The rest of the characters, who were always white, have remained white, which gives the play another dimension because we see interracial relationships and how that plays into the text.

[17:40] There may be a way to breathe new life into “old shows” or revivals and bring new life to them in an interesting spin. Death of a Salesman is color-conscious casting. You know the Lomans are Black even though they have not changed the text. In the more popular color-blind casting, you’re not supposed to think about their color at all.

[18:16] There are producers that are in this for the glory and they’ll produce things so they can get their Tony award. And there is the larger group of producers who treat theater as show business, not show art. They want to make money. If a particular type of play is not making money, you’re not getting more of it. That’s how this works.

[18:45] If Brian could produce any show he wanted, with any star, in the world of show business, he would produce Audra McDonald in anything she wanted to do: Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd. Audra McDonald and Stephen Sondheim are probably Brian’s dream combination.

[19:39] Patricia thanks Brian Lipton for joining us today on This is Capitalism and asks him to give our regards to Broadway!


Mentioned in This Episode:

This is Capitalism

Brian Scott Lipton

Phantom of the Opera

The Music Man

The Boy from Oz


Into the Woods

Some Like it Hot

The Collaboration


Back to the Future The Musical


The Lion King


Beetlejuice the Musical

A Strange Loop the Musical

The King & I



My Fair Lady

South Pacific