18 Apr 2014

Daniel Radcliffe lure Teens to Broadway

During the curtain call of a recent preview performance of "The Cripple of Inishmaan" on Broadway, star Daniel Radcliffe looked up and beamed his world-famous "Harry Potter" smile into the second balcony between each bow.

Was his mother up there? A girlfriend? Nope—the balcony was filled with young teenage fans who got to see the show for a mere $27 a ticket. Each time Mr. Radcliffe looked up, the whole balcony cheered, adding a burst of youthful excitement to a normally staid Broadway evening.

Director Michael Grandage, whose production company is one of the show's producers, has insisted that 10,000 tickets be offered at $27 throughout the 14-week limited run. The strategy is aimed at attracting a crowd that would normally be priced out of the show. The rest of the tickets to "Inishmaan" are going for between $62 and $142 apiece at the box office. There is no guarantee that the discounted seats—which are available on a first-come basis at the box office and online—will go to young people. But producers say younger buyers seem to snapping up the tickets for most performances.

Mr. Grandage says having those screaming teenagers in the balcony "changes the energy in the house" and gives the performers a thrill. Although more money could be made selling the tickets to the traditional middle-aged theatergoer, it's just not as much fun, he says.

What's more, the strategy is about more than fun, Mr. Grandage says. To save what he sees as an art form in peril, the director says it's imperative to get young people into theaters. "We will eventually be dead, and if there is no one to replace us, there won't be any theater," says the former head of London's Donmar Warehouse. The best marketing tool for theater is the show itself, he says, but it's so expensive that young people can never go.

Michael Grandage, the director of the new production of "The Cripple of Inishmaan" starring Daniel Radcliffe, has had success in London with a program that lures young people to theaters with cheap tickets. Will he try it on Broadway? WSJ's Stefanie Cohen discusses. Photo: "The Cripple of Inishmaan."
His own interest in theater began that way—he grew up in the remote area of Cornwall and got to see "Jason and the Argonauts" when the production "pitched a tent on the local green," he says. Later he got to see Ian McKellen in "Twelfth Night" when the Royal Shakespeare Company sent out a small-scale tour of the show to Mr. Grandage's local sports center.

"I wouldn't be here if those two things hadn't happened," he says.

After leaving the Donmar in 2012, Mr. Grandage formed his own production company with his former Donmar producer James Bierman. Together, they developed a model that allowed for lower-priced tickets. They produced five shows on London's West End over 15 months that offered 102,000 seats—25% of the available tickets—for 10 pounds ($17) each. Because they asked investors to put up money for all five shows across the entire season instead of a single show, they were able to create a "spread bet for our investors which offset some of the individual risk if any one of the shows failed to perform at the box office," says Mr. Bierman.

The model brought in profits, they say, (although they wouldn't disclose a figure,) and was also successful at bringing new faces to the theater. Out of 392,000 tickets sold to the five plays, 120,000 were to first-time theatergoers, according to Mr. Bierman, who says ticket bookers tracked how many sales went to first-time buyers.

The flip side of their mission, they admit, is that if they attract young people to the theater and they hate what they see, the theater has lost them for life. For that reason, the two have targeted top talent for their shows. In the last year, Jude Law starred in "Henry V" and Judi Dench headlined "Peter and Alice," about the meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves of "Alice in Wonderland" and Peter Llewelyn Davies of "Peter Pan." Mr. Radcliffe, who has starred in "Equus," and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" on Broadway, signed up for "Inishmaan," which is transferring to New York from a successful run on the West End.

The play, by Martin McDonagh, is a tragicomedy that follows the effects on a small Irish town in the 1930s when a film crew arrives to make a movie about their lives. The town turns upside-down when "Cripple Billy," Mr. Radcliffe's character, decides to try out for the movie.

"We have been able to recoup for our investors in the U.K.," says Mr. Grandage. "Were making less than we could, but we are still making money."

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