BY: SAMANTHA BURKE
Beetlejuice was breaking records when it announced its final performance at the Winter Garden Theatre. So… how did this happen?
When you look at last year’s numbers, Broadway is objectively booming. Every show open during the 2018-2019 season collectively grossed 1.8 billion dollars, and they saw almost 15 million audience members in attendance. According to The New York Times, both of those numbers broke industry records for the sixth year in a row. Based on The Broadway League’s data, this season to date isn’t far behind.
But for audience and production members alike, it’s felt like a surprisingly devastating year on Broadway. Shortly after the Tony Awards a slew of near-immediate closures were announced, with brand new and internet, fan and personal favorites (respectively) Be More Chill, The Prom and The Cher Show, amongst others, closing by mid-August.
In a way, these brand-new shows never got the chance to prove their worth. It’s difficult to accept when an original work of well-loved art is so short-lived, but Broadway is a business before anything else, and in business the bottom line matters. Internet memes, fan art, Tony nominations and even Tony wins, much as they should, don’t guarantee success. If seats are going empty and grosses fall short, theater owners (who get a cut of the upside when a show is doing well), aren’t incentivized to keep the show around. In fact, it’s the opposite: Theater owners are incentivized to toss an underperforming show so they can move in something new that gives them a fresh chance to collect on the upside.
This close to the new year, it seemed safe to say that we were, well… safe… from further theater-based disappointment for a while, but to much shock, it was announced on December 9th that Beetlejuice would be closing out its run at the Winter Garden Theatre on June 6th, 2020. It’s important to note, however, that the show didn’t announce it was having a final performance – it announced it was having a final performance at the Winter Garden Theatre, which implied its run might continue at a different Broadway theater. Eh… maybe?
While Beetlejuice got off to an admittedly rocky start with scathing reviews and tepid sales, post-Tony Awards its popularity soared, even in spite of its failure to take home a single honor. Fans of the show began dressing up, creating their own elaborate versions of the show’s costumes to wear to the theater. They hosted meetups with the community; the show integrated itself with fans on social media, and it found a foothold in the Gen-Z dominant video app TikTok, introducing a whole new generation to live theater. In fact, when producers profiled ticket-buyers, they found that over a third were first-timers to Broadway.
Beetlejuice broke a Winter Garden box office record when it grossed $1,589,838.90 over the week of Thanksgiving, and it grossed over a million dollars most weeks since July, according to the NYT. Seats were filled. Buzz was up. And then it got booted from its home.
It all falls down to a key part of a production’s contract with their theater, known as a stop-clause. The stop-clause allows the theater owner (in this case Shubert) to evict the production if it fails to meet a certain financial threshold, usually a minimum number of tickets sold or minimum weekly gross for two weeks in a row. It’s rarely invoked (I could only find two other definitive instances: Grease in 1997, to bring in Annie, and Side Show in 2014, to bring in Something Rotten!), but it’s a useful tool (or weapon, depending on your viewpoint) for theater owners to wield if there’s another production knocking at their door. The NYT reported that The Shubert Organization warned Beetlejuice that it had hit its stop clause just before the Tony Awards last June. Even though the show enjoyed an impressive rebound shortly thereafter, it was already too late – because the theater owner had its eyes set on another production.
Though it has yet to be formally announced, it’s all but confirmed that The Music Man will be moving into the Winter Garden next fall. The production has been selling tickets to an unnamed theater for months using a seating chart that insiders suspected matches the Winter Garden.
After receiving their eviction notice back in October, Beetlejuice’s producers and Warner Bros. Theater Ventures attempted a negotiation amongst the producers of The Music Man and To Kill A Mockingbird (both of which are led by producing powerhouse Scott Rudin) and the Shubert Organization, offering to cover the costs to move To Kill a Mockingbird from the Shubert Theater to another house, so The Music Man could move in in its place and Beetlejuice could stay right where it was. Unfortunately, they couldn’t come to an agreement.
— yung boo boo🕷️ (@quirky_aries) December 10, 2019
Hal Luftig, one of the show’s co-producers, told Broadway World that they’re also looking for a suitable new home for Beetlejuice, but they estimate it would cost another four million dollars given that Beetlejuice’s highly-technical set was retrofitted to the Winter Garden’s stage. That’s a lot of cash to come up with on relatively short notice.
For now, Beetlejuice isn’t saying that they’re closing. For now, they’re only vacating. The Broadway community at large has rallied around Beetlejuice, trending #savebeetlejuice on Twitter, launching a Change.org petition, and more.
— Beetlejuice on Broadway (@BeetlejuiceBway) December 10, 2019
Mark Kaufman, the executive VP at Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, told the NYT that he’d try to sustain the show’s momentum for the rest of their time at the Winter Garden, calling it foolish to give up. “You don’t work this hard to not power on,” he said. The show’s social media accounts have effectively transformed into a bullhorn to announce its continued success.