Theatergoers who have seen “Hamilton” on tour or just missed the phenomenon in their city often have one pressing question: When is it coming back?
“For the rest of our lives,” quips Gina Vernaci, president and chief operating officer of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. “ ‘Hamilton’ will come back for the rest of our lives.”
Road presenters certainly hope so. After the show launched in 2015, sweeping up an unprecedented array of awards, becoming the hottest ticket on Broadway and generating buzz that transcended theater’s usual boundaries, it was a cinch that the hip-hop biography of one of America’s Founding Fathers would be a star event on tour, too. The data is in, and “Hamilton” looks like the center of a box-office surge that’s reaching highs on the road, just as it is on Broadway.
The 2018-19 touring season that just ended set records in box office ($1.6 billion) and attendance (18.5 million). “Hamilton” had a clear hand: There are now four productions beyond New York, up from three the previous season. The total number of “Hamilton” weeks on the road sprang from 121 to 177, according to Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League.
Two of those productions are “sit-down” versions: one anchored in Chicago (slated to end in January after three years) and the other in San Francisco (selling into January, with no closing date announced). Two more are barnstorming the country, with one alighting at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre from June 25 to July 21.
Because of intense ticket demand, presenters everywhere have been taking to “teasing” the blockbuster attraction the season before it shows up. The best way to get a crack at next year’s subscription season with “Hamilton,” the pitch goes, is to already be at the head of the line as a renewing subscriber.
“It opens a big door for people to experience Broadway shows they wouldn’t have seen before,” says Ron Legler, president of the Hippodrome’s umbrella organization, the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.
And after “Hamilton,” are those new subscribers retained?
“Not at 100 percent, but at higher levels than pre-‘Hamilton’ years,” says Lauren Reid, chief operating officer of Broadway Across America, which books shows into 45 markets nationwide.
At the Hippodrome, subscriptions went from 10,500 in the “teaser” year to a sold-out 14,250 during the 2018-19 season, which is winding up with “Hamilton.” Next year’s subscription figure is already at 12,000. And in Cleveland, Vernaci says her post-“Hamilton” season is even ahead of her actual “Hamilton” year.
“I think everyone I know who’s looked at the numbers has been relieved that the drop-off hasn’t been as significant as we thought it would be,” says Orin Wolf, a producer and president of Networks, the tour producers based in Columbia, Md. “The retention has been comforting.”
Some of the new patrons expecting to pay top dollar for “Hamilton” are surprised at what their $400 or $700 subscription actually buys. Legler and Vernaci both say they’ve had calls asking, “What are all these tickets to other shows?” Yet the new audiences are actually going to see the rest of the offerings, just as audiences are attending in record numbers across Broadway.
As to whether the “Hamilton” tide lifts all boats, Wolf offers his production of “The Band’s Visit” as an example. (The tour is launching now, arriving at the Kennedy Center on July 9.) The show won the Tony Award last year for best musical, but its success in New York was modest (it’s now closed) and it’s based on a little-seen 2007 Israeli film. But Wolf believes the road will be more welcoming for his project than it would have been five years ago.
“More markets have more economic muscle to book a show like this,” he says. “They have the coverage of their heavy subscription base, even in parts of the country where brand recognition is practically nonexistent.”
The escalating box-office figures, driven in part by rising ticket prices, feeds an industry mantra of a “golden age” — a term that comes up repeatedly in conversations about commercial theater’s economic boom. There are flip sides to this: The first is how much longer the longest-running hits occupy the hard-to-get theaters on Broadway, where such shows as “The Lion King,” “Chicago,” “Wicked” and “Phantom of the Opera” begin to seem as permanent as Central Park. That monument-for-the-ages aura is often imitated on the road, where the war horses in the Hippodrome’s upcoming season alone include “Phantom,” “Cats,” “Miss Saigon” and “Wicked.”
To gain a toehold in the high-risk producing environment, a preponderance of new material skews to familiar movie titles (last season’s “Pretty Woman,” “Tootsie,” “King Kong”) and jukebox projects (the upcoming Bob Dylan musical “Girl from the North Country” and “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical”).
Reid counters that casting a wide net is key to driving the broad success that she says has helped Broadway Across America surpass the National Basketball Association in subscriptions.
“We have to have those brand names and that familiar music to interest some theatergoers,” she says. “But there are always new titles that surprise and delight. ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is selling out. ‘Come From Away’ is delighting audiences. It just seems like what ‘Hamilton’ did was spur interest in the art form.”
The Broadway League says that more than 2 million Broadway attendees last season were younger than 18 and that 25 percent were younger than 25, lured in part by Disney products and “Book of Mormon,” “The Prom,” “Be More Chill,” “Mean Girls” and more that appeal to young audiences. “That’s not what people expect to hear,” St. Martin says of the youthful trend. “It’s because we’re offering something for everyone.”
Reid’s data from the road also finds that in this “Hamilton” era, audiences are getting younger, with attendees ages 18 to 44 growing 130 percent. The average age of subscribers has fallen by four years.
Another counterargument to the commercial frenzy incited by “Hamilton” is that it’s clearly not the only show people are seeing in large numbers.
“There is no plan clever enough to sell tickets to shows people don’t want to see,” Vernaci says. The general surge in sales, verging on pandemonium the days “Hamilton” tickets become available, has compelled the industry (which has not always been braced) to upgrade systems to cope with demand. Vernaci views that as progress. “I said to the staff, ‘You don’t want to claim to be a genius the year “Hamilton” is in town.’ But training has an impact. And Broadway producers are producing good work. We are absolutely in the middle of a golden age.”
Legler notes that in New York, people who can’t get into “Hamilton” often look for the next couple of titles with buzz — “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away” in recent seasons, and lately, the newly Tony-crowned “Hadestown.” The widening appetite filters to choices available out of town; in Washington, offerings have increased recently at the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre.
Steve Traxler, co-founder of Jam Theatricals, which books the National and other theaters across the country, points to “great word-of-mouth productions selling very well” such as “Mean Girls” (which, like this season’s “Beetlejuice,” had its pre-Broadway tryout at the National). He also nods to the recent season’s entries appealing to different audiences: the hip, myth-based “Hadestown,” the musical comedy “Tootsie” and the jukebox “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”
Waiting to speak with Traxler on the phone, one couldn’t help but laugh at the inevitable hold music — a swoony tune with jaunty, strutting lyrics and harmonies bubbling like poured champagne. It’s “Helpless,” from the omnipresent “Hamilton.”
Hamilton June 25-July 21 at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre. france-merrickpac.com.