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The risks and rewards of two-part plays on Broadway

Two-part plays have held sway over producers for decades, promising accolades and speaking to a higher calling of bringing the production to the masses.  And yet, when these shows come to Broadway, producers often find that the commercial landscape is working against them.

The Broadway cast of 'The Inheritance.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Two-part plays have held sway over producers for decades, promising accolades and speaking to a higher calling of bringing the production to the masses.

And yet, when these shows come to Broadway, producers often find that the commercial landscape is working against them. The plays are not only competing with other shows, but also fighting against waning consumer attention, tight tourist schedules and high prices for not just one, but two tickets.

The current two-parters on Broadway, “The Inheritance” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” are no exception.

Ever since the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” a nearly nine-hour event, electrified Broadway in 1981, the temptation to duplicate that success has proved intermittently irresistible. “The Kentucky Cycle” tried it in 1993, “The Coast of Utopia,” which was a trilogy, in 2006, and “Wolf Hall” in 2015. More recently, the starry revival of “Angels in America,” won acclaim in 2018 and now, in its wake are “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and “The Inheritance.”

While these efforts have often been endorsed by a fistful of Tony Awards and favorable reviews, commercial success has been far more elusive. In fact, apart from “Nicholas Nickleby,” none of the shows have recouped during their commercial runs. (A 1986 revival of “Nickleby” was a bust while “Coast of Utopia” was produced by the non-profit Lincoln Center Theater.) The jury is still out on “Harry Potter,” and “The Inheritance,” but both are struggling at the box-office. The former is at full capacity, but its recent grosses are down by 50% from last year due to a reduction in ticket prices; the latter’s grosses are hovering at only half of their potential.

And yet, producers continue to bring these shows to Broadway, in the hope that their own passion for the project will also catch on with theatergoers.

“There is still that idealistic, put-the-blinkers-on attitude that you want to produce something not just for your bio, but which can be written on the resume of your soul,” said veteran Broadway producer Manny Azenberg.

One of the factors working against these shows is the calculation ticket buyers are making before purchasing, said Victoria Cairl, a marketing strategist currently working on “A Christmas Carol” and “Jagged Little Pill.”

“I’m your target market: a woman in her 40s, with three kids, an adequate income, and I live in the suburbs,” Cairl said. “That means two nights of baby-sitting, two nights of the train, and if we’re talking about ‘Harry Potter,’ at least three or four tickets not just two.”

Combatting that mindset takes a user-friendly ticket buying experience and a marketing strategy that positions these shows as must-see events.

“You have to sell it as an epic that is beyond the normal theater-going experience. The fun of attending these events is the camaraderie, the sense of community that you can’t get anywhere else,” Cairl said.

When Elizabeth McCann produced “Nicholas Nickleby” — which she cites as a highlight of her long career in the theater — the show frequently received rapturous, standing ovations. She and her marketing team capitalized on that fervor, eventually turning a profit on the production.

“People were applauding not only the monumental creative effort but also themselves for having reaped the fruits of it,” McCann said. “Nancy Coyne [the advertising executive] came up with the phrase for it, ‘The experience is priceless.’ And it was.”

“Nicholas Nickleby” was a rare financial success for two-part plays and was aided by a top ticket price of $100, a record at the time. The production was sold as one play, so tickets could not be bought separately.

Advance sales for the British import had been anemic. “But once the reviews came out, people were selling their dog to get a ticket. There were so many ways to push the show and there were a lot of side promotions as well.”

She added that the production had two other things in its favor: “Charles Dickens and a happy ending.”

“The Inheritance” is based on E. M. Forster’s “Howards End” and chronicles the lives of gay men living in New York today. But it can feel more haunting and bittersweet, than victorious.

Yet, the producers of “The Inheritance” had reason to be bullish about its prospects.  The production came to New York from London with rave reviews and Olivier and Evening Standard awards for Best New Play. Its Broadway reviews, however, were not as exclamatory.

And, as word on the street suggests, the first part of “The Inheritance,” can be a fully satisfying experience, leading some to forgo seeing the second part. In fact, in recent marketing, the show has positioned the two parts of the production as “The Inheritance” and “The Inheritance Part 2.”

“Harry Potter” leaves a great deal hanging in the balance at the end of the first part. And it seemingly came with a built-in audience from the popular film and print franchise. Yet, the price tag of the tickets, particularly for families, may be holding sales back, as well as the increasing challenges of shortened attention spans and escalating costs. (Producers from both shows declined to comment for this piece.)

As Jeffrey Richards, who was the lead producer on the six-hour “Wolf Hall,” can attest, sometimes there are unforeseen headwinds on Broadway, even for well-known brands. His two-part play opened at the Winter Garden Theatre with a $6 million advance, which was driven by the popularity of the Hilary Mantel books. The stumbling block came when PBS decided to push up the broadcast of its miniseries based on the same material.

“You could sit in your armchair, watch Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance, and not spend $300 for an acclaimed series,” Richards said. “And we suffered accordingly at the box-office. Still, we returned a little under 50% to the investors.”

Given the challenges and sobering track record, one might imagine that the two-part play is doomed. But then that doesn’t take into consideration just how enticing the notion of producing a destined-to-be-classic can be. Besides, there’s always the chance of defying the odds, no matter how daunting.

“It would have to satisfy me both artistically and commercially,” Richards said of the prospect of taking on another two-part play. “But it’s risky business no matter what you do.”