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A Long Look at Long-Runners

The longest-running play of all time closed in 1947, but the musicals keep on breaking records. Filichia examines the longevity of Broadway shows. logo

"Over 9,000 petals have now fallen off the Enchanted Rose," said the press release that trumpeted Disney's Beauty and the Beast's becoming Broadway's eighth longest-running show. That it has just eclipsed Grease brings a wry smile to my face. Not that I have an agenda about Grease being knocked down a peg on the long-run list; but, to theater enthusiasts of my generation, it seems like only yesterday that Grease vaulted into undisputed first place, toppling the first-place record that Fiddler on the Roof had held for almost eight years. Grease's achievement was eclipsed in only three years, when A Chorus Line passed it. And you-know-what passed that. (But did you notice that Les Miz recently passed A Chorus Line, too?)

By the way, when Harold Prince wrote his memoir Contradictions in the mid-'70s, Fiddler was still on top and Prince opined, "I don't think a show will run longer than Fiddler's 3,242 performances on Broadway." Little did he know that one of his own directorial efforts, The Phantom of the Opera, will undoubtedly run twice as long as his previous champion.

Why is it that shows run so much longer than they used to? After all, Life with Father, at 3,224 performances, held the long-run title for a full 25 years before Fiddler passed it by. Since Grease set the long-run mark in 1980 with 3,388 performances, seven other shows have bypassed it in just 22 years -- less time than Life with Father's entire reign at the top.

It's partly because of television advertising, but mostly because our population has dramatically expanded -- as well as the tourist population -- while our theaters have not. Oh, some theaters have added a few rows, but there are so many more people now who want to see a great big Broadway show.

And that is what they want to see. Let's take a look and see what the top ten list looked like for musicals -- and the top ten list for plays -- when Grease closed on April 13, 1980:

1. Grease (3,388)
2. Fiddler on the Roof (3,242)
3. Hello, Dolly! (2,844)
4. My Fair Lady (2,717)
5. Man of La Mancha (2,328)
6. Oklahoma! (2,212)
7. Pippin (1,944)
8. A Chorus Line (1,939 and counting)
9. South Pacific (1,925)
10. The Magic Show (1,920)

And the list for plays on that same date:

1. Life with Father (3,224)
2. Tobacco Road (3,182)
3. Abie's Irish Rose (2,327)
4. Harvey (1,775)
5. Born Yesterday (1,642)
6. Mary, Mary (1,572)
7. The Voice of the Turtle (1,557)
8. Barefoot in the Park (1,530)
9. Same Time, Next Year (1,453)
10. Arsensic and Old Lace (1,444)

Cats clawed its way to the
top of the list in 1997
Now let's take a look at the musicals list today:

1. Cats (7,485)
2. Les Misérables (6,362 and counting)
3. A Chorus Line (6,137)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (6,067 and counting)
5. Oh! Calcutta! (Revival) (5,959)
6. Miss Saigon (4,092)
7. 42nd Street (3,486)
8. Beauty and the Beast (3,397 and counting)
9. Grease (3,388)
10. Fiddler on the Roof (3,242)

Amazingly, only Grease and Fiddler have managed to stay in the top ten. Aside from A Chorus Line, which went higher, the other seven have been shunted below. And we all know that it's literally only a matter of time before Phantom passes A Chorus Line, and perhaps even Les Misérables. But while there's been tumultuous activity in the long-running musicals list, take a look at the current top ten tally of long-running plays:

1. Life with Father (3,224)
2. Tobacco Road (3,182)
3. Abie's Irish Rose (2,327)
4. Deathtrap (1,793)
5. Gemini (1,788)
6. Harvey (1,775)
7. Born Yesterday (1,642)
8. Mary, Mary (1,572)
9. The Voice of the Turtle (1,557)
10. Barefoot in the Park (1,530)

Not much of a difference, is there? While our first group of plays totaled 19,706 performance, the second rings in at 20,390 -- all of 684 performances more. But, in the same span, the 24,459 total performances of the first top ten musical group has more than doubled to the 49,615 performances of the second -- and will continue to grow by 24 performances a week as long as Les Miz, Phantom, and Beauty and the Beast continue on their merry ways.

But, since Deathtrap closed in 1982, the top ten play list has remained exactly the same, frozen in time -- as it just might always be. Can you picture a straight play now opening and running nearly four years? It's almost been a quarter-century since one has. After just 21 months, Proof sells 50%-65% of its seats, so it's unlikely to hang on for 21 more months to make the list. Metamorphoses, The Goat, and even The Graduate seem unlikely, and Private Lives and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife have already announced their closings.

And to think: The mentality used to be that plays would always run longer than musicals, because plays were less expensive to run. In those days, no one figured out the solution: Keep raising prices on tickets for musicals and you just might cover your costs. So, in the same period of time during which only two new plays cracked the top ten, seven new tuners made the list. Rent, now selling 75% of its tickets, needs to run just two more years to knock Fiddler off the list but, even if it doesn't, The Lion King certainly will. In fact, when I attended the opening of The Lion King, a thought hit me that never had before: "This show will still be running when I die." Hey, they all might, for who knows how much time I have left -- but even if I live to be 100, I wouldn't bet against The Lion Kings's still being at the New Amsterdam.

"We Can Do It!"
Will The Producers make the top ten?
Will The Producers crack the list? Last year at this time, Broadway would have answered with a resounding yes, but now it's a little less certain. Granted, selling 98%-99% of tickets is still terrific, but each and every one of the other current top ten long-running musicals were still at 100% after the 15-month span that The Producers amassed. As Sammy Davis said in his autobiography, Yes, I Can, an empty seat doesn't just mean an empty seat; it means that dozens or even hundreds of people weren't turned away. And they're simply not turning them away as readily as they once did at The Producers. People tend to see shows with laughs once, and shows with heart more than once. So maybe The Producers will make the top ten, but it may not advance too far up the list.

If the bloom is off the rose for The Producers, it's also off the rose at Beauty and the Beast -- but, there, the expression means that the show keeps going and going and going. The tuner is still grossing in the 90% range, so look for it to go at least as high as sixth place before all is said and sung.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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