Patti LuPone, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig came back to Broadway. Dancers filled stages, symphonies reverberated in concert halls and international theater companies returned to American stages.
The resumption of live performance after the long pandemic shutdown brought plenty to cheer about over the past year. But from regional theaters to Broadway, and from local orchestras to grand opera houses, performing arts organizations are reporting persistent drops in attendance.
Many presenters anticipate that the softer box office will extend into the upcoming season and perhaps beyond. And some fear that the virus is accelerating long-term trends that have troubled arts organizations for years, including softer ticket sales for many classical music events, the decline of the subscription model for selling tickets at many performing arts organizations, and the increasing tendency among consumers to purchase tickets at the last minute.
The concert industry, which attracts younger patrons than many other performing arts sectors, has been a real bright spot. Live Nation, the global concert giant, recently reported that it had sold 100 million tickets for the full year, more than in 2019.
But scattered hits and crowded concerts can distract from the reality that, for most classical and theatrical institutions and shows, attendance is down, ticket prices are depressed, productions are fewer, and memberships or subscriptions have fallen.
Broadway offers the most obvious (and stark) evidence of diminished attendance and its economic consequences. During the 2021-22 season, which started slow and late as the industry gradually reopened, there were 6,860 performances seen by 6.7 million people, grossing $845 million. By contrast, during the 2018-19 season, the last full season before the pandemic, there were 13,590 performances seen by 14.8 million people, grossing $1.8 billion.
Even far from Broadway, numbers are mostly down.
“I’d be a liar if I said I was happy,” said Brian Kelsey, managing director of Peninsula Players Theatre in Door County, Wisconsin. “I don’t know if people are out of the habit or unaware or if the clientele that had come is now more interested in outdoor beer gardens, I just know that we’re definitely seeing a downturn.”