December 3, 2018
Arts Biz

As 'Hamilton' opens in Hartford, The Bushnell sees a financial boost

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
The acclaimed Broadway hit “Hamilton” debuts in Hartford Dec. 11. The musical is providing a financial boost to The Bushnell, which has seen an increase in subscribers and donors.
Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Bushnell CEO and President David Fay said we are experiencing a renaissance in the product being created on Broadway that is more relevant to modern audiences.
Frank Rizzo

When "Hamilton" completes its Hartford tour on Dec. 30, it is expected to gross as much as $12 million, with the lions share going to the production company.

So, what will The Bushnell Performing Arts Center get out of the Broadway musical's three-week run, as ticket prices soar online into the four-figures?

Plenty, says David Fay, president and CEO of the theater, which includes the 2,800-seat Mortensen Hall where "Hamilton" will be playing before approximately 24,000 patrons during each week of the show's holiday season stay.

For one, Fay reports a 50 percent increase in subscribers — customers who buy ticket packages in advance for an entire Broadway series and who also get first dibs on seats.

The theater currently has 9,250 subscribers, up from about 6,000 several years ago. The boost is significant, especially given that The Bushnell, like many theaters across the country, has dealt with a declining subscription base for the past decade.

The Bushnell has also added 525 new individual donors and 1,000 others increased their giving, boosting the theater's annual fundraising from $1.75 million in the 2016-17 season to more than $2 million for the period ending June 30.

"We figured the majority of the bump is over," says Fay, "but we are currently running $150,000 ahead of last year at this time."

Fay acknowledges the increased support may have had to do with fans deciding the best way to get a "Hamilton" ticket was to become a donor and/or subscriber. The Bushnell reserves several thousand tickets for new donors, while at least 50 percent of "Hamilton" seats were made available for single-ticket sales.

Fay says the box-office deal for "Hamilton" is better than those from other blockbuster shows in years past. At the end of the day, "Hamilton" and other 2018-19 season shows will help the theater achieve at least a projected $1.3 million operating surplus, Fay said, up significantly from recent years.

That also pleases Jeffrey Seller, lead producer of "Hamilton," who points to the residual help in subscribers, donors and goodwill the show is providing to arts centers across the country.

Seller is about to launch the fifth production of the musical in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with creator-star Lin-Manuel Miranda returning to the show before it moves on without him for a series run in San Francisco. This is in addition to its Broadway, London and two touring productions. Talks are underway for Europe, Asia and Australia productions, too.

Seller declines to share revenue figures relating to how much "Hamilton Inc." has grossed since it opened in 2015. But a conservative estimate is that all productions will have collectively exceeded $1 billion in revenue by next year. (The Broadway production alone has grossed nearly half-a-billion dollars so far.)

Hot commodity

"Hamilton" tickets have been a hot commodity in Hartford. When about 30,000 seats went on sale in September, tickets sold out within hours as thousands of fans waited in long lines. Box-office prices ranged from $68.50 to $500.

Tickets are still available on third-party reseller websites, but fans will have to pay dearly for them. For example, the cheapest available opening night ticket on VividSeats.com as of Nov. 28 was $378. The most expensive ticket for an orchestra seat was nearly $1,000.

As for the huge prices that many "Hamilton" tickets command via ticket resellers, Seller says his organization has tried to lessen that impact. But he admits, it is a challenge.

"There will always be prostitutes and there will always be scalpers and nothing is going to make these two things go away," he said in an interview. "What we have tried to do is get as many tickets at the regular price into the hands of our customers as possible. Where we know tickets are going to be re-sold, we then create our own market for it, raising those prices ourselves so at least those dollars go back to the artists who created the show."

Around 1,000 patrons will be seeing "Hamilton" for $10 during its three-week run in Hartford through a daily online lottery system. Several thousand students from Hartford's Title One schools will also see a special performance of the show.

Encore?

As The Bushnell enjoys its "Hamilton" bump, the big question is what happens next season when the musical isn't on the schedule.

Early indicators where the musical has played in other cities show that there have been fair-to-excellent subscription renewal rates.

Fay said he is playing it moderately cautious and is anticipating the subscriber base will drop to around 8,000, but that is still up by several thousand from earlier seasons.

Another positive sign, Fay said, is that while subscriber numbers are up, so too are single-ticket sales.

"We budgeted with the belief that at least 50 percent of the increase in subscriptions would cannibalize an equal amount of single tickets — and that is not happening," he said. "The level of single-ticket sales actually increased."

Even a star-less chestnut like "Fiddler on the Roof," far exceeded its projections by a quarter-million dollars, grossing $1.14 million for its single week run last month, he said.

"I've always said there's no better advertising for a show than a pair of tickets in someone else's pocket weeks in advance of the show, which then prompts their friends and relatives to go, too," Fay says.

But the boost in business is not just about "Hamilton."

More shows are touring from Broadway that appeal to a younger and broader audience, Fay says, pointing to musicals like "Kinky Boots," "Dear Evan Hanson," "Beautiful," and "Come From Away." "Frozen" and "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" are expected to bring in a new generation of theatergoers, too.

"What we are experiencing is a renaissance in the product that is being created on Broadway that is far more relevant to modern audiences than we've experienced in the last two decades," Fay said.

Frank Rizzo is a contributing Hartford Business Journal columnist.

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