It’s Audra or the Highway

Audra McDonald, one of Broadway’s biggest stars, is currently leading the new Broadway musical Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It opened a couple of months ago with an all-star theatrical cast, a series of great reviews and box office takings which would make many other non-Hamilton shows jealous. Yet, it has announced that it is closing on July 24. Why?

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Every week, Broadway releases a series of grosses for each show. You can check out the ticket sales, average ticket price, total box office receipts and several other data driven areas for each shows. There comes a time in every show’s life where it needs to consider closing and it is often quite clear to see when its time is coming to an end. Box office revenue drops to 30-40% of the potential box office revenue. House capacities start to have more empty chairs than full ones. Mathematically, the equation of continuing these shows starts to highlight significant losses in the show’s future.

Shuffle Along appears to be in quite the opposite boat. Attendance at this ten-time Tony Award-nominated show is close to 100% while the box office grosses are often just shy of $1 million each week sitting around 85-90% of potential income. This is a great position to be in if your show is running on Broadway.

But then Audra McDonald announced that she is leaving.

This six-time Tony Award-winner (and record holder) announced that she has been fortunate enough to fall pregnant with her second child and will be departing the show on July 24. And you guessed it, this casting change has caused such a dramatic change in demand for the show that ticket sales after her departure apparently appear so apocalyptic that the show cannot survive.

Star casting is a dirty word when it comes to theatre. It often refers to when a celebrity from film, television or another iteration of celebrity culture is chosen to head up a new show or revival in order to sell tickets. Well, it appears that this celebrity can also be within the theatre community. Casting a Broadway celebrity is just as important as casting a non-theatre star and can have exactly the same effect on a show.

Despite a number of other well-known theatre stars in the cast, including Billy Porter who recently won a Tony Award for his acclaimed run as Lola in Kinky Boots, Audra McDonald’s personal brand was the drawcard to come and see the show. (And rightly so as this woman is one of the most gifted performers in the theatre!).

But her departure still shows the necessity of star casting no matter where that star comes from.

As with every rule, there are of course some exceptions. In this case, there are two. Firstly, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical is a great stamp of approval for any tourist visiting New York (and remember, tourists make up a significant part of ticket purchasers). It is a great reason to see a show even if you don’t know anything about the material, performers or music. Fun Home and A Gentleman’s Guide are great examples of this as both shows are based on left-of-centre material and decided to avoid the star casting route but would have seriously struggled had they not taken home the Best Musical Tony Award.

The other option . . . if the star isn’t your leading lady or man. Technically this is still a form of star casting, but they aren’t ever going anywhere. So what do I mean? Broadway hits such as Book of Mormon, Hamilton and Aladdin have a different kind of star. Their stars are either the writers as is the case in Book of Mormon, the starry style of music as in Hamilton or the brand behind the production as in the case of Aladdin.

Be careful when you dismiss star casting. Shuffle Along without Audra had neither of these options, which shows no matter where a star comes from, they still form a crucial component of each audience member’s decision to purchase a ticket!

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