Broadway Theater's History Plays Set All-Time Box Office Record

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

The Broadway theater set a new all time annual record of more than $1 billion in ticket sales over the last fiscal year, according to statistics released yesterday by the Broadway League. History plays accounted for about $600 million of that total.

The New York stage also set a record for attendance, with over 12 million people going to shows, a nearly 6 percent jump from last year.   

History plays were the foundation of the record surge in ticket prices.  As an example, thirteen of the top twenty grossing shows in New York last week were history plays, including new ones such as War Horse, The Book of Mormon and Anything Goes as well as plays about the past that have been on the boards for a few seasons, such as Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys, and Chicago.

The leading history show last week, Spiderman, a play about the comic book character, in previews for months and set to open on June 14, earned $1.32 million in ticket sales and was third only to Wicked and The Lion King overall.  The Book of Mormon earned $1.16 million and Jersey Boys $1 million. Mary Poppins, Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot, and War Horse all earned over $900,000 last week.  Other top earning history plays last week were Anything Goes, Sister Act, Memphis, Catch Me If You Can and Chicago.


Why is the Broadway theater so successful despite a debilitating recession, and why are history plays such a large part of that success?

  1. The theater is doing well because producers have been offering numerous discount ticket packages that have made it easier for middle-class people to see shows.  They have joined hands with ticket discount clubs and ticket brokerage houses to sell more tickets at lower prices. Group sales are also booming.

  2. Although the theater has not produced a huge number of critically praised plays this year, it did well with many and made money with plays with movie stars, such as Robin Williams, Manny Patinkin, Geoffrey Rush and the endless stream of women stars who sing and dance their way through Chicago.

  3. Stories about the past have always done well on Broadway, way back into the middle of the nineteenth century.  Now, though, thanks to all the television history channels, more Americans are interested in history wherever they can find it.  People who are worried about the present and the future, as Americans are today, always turn to the past in an attempt to re-discover the greatness of their country’s history

  4. History offers solid storylines and marvelous characters.  The fiction stories that playwrights make up can never come close to the real stories of a nation’s past.

  5. In trouble economic times, people want escapism.  They want to leave their world of high prices, high unemployment and a troubled housing market and get some relief for a few hours.  Theater provides that, as does the film industry and television.

  6. Americans are realizing that history plays are not just about Abraham Lincoln and the Great Depression, but about peoples’ lives over many generations.

  7. Will it end? Not at all. The Fringe Festival, in New York throughout the month of August, has twenty history plays on its schedule.  The Midtown International Theater Festival, a fringe like organization, has a dozen history dramas on its roster.  Regional theaters throughout the nation will feature history plays throughout the summer and fall.

You did not think there could possibly be more history plays?  On June 9, in Manhattan, there is a reading for a new musical about Bonnie and Clyde, based on the Warren Beatty movie about the lovable bank robbers and murderers.

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