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Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice? More like money, money, money

How Broadway is selling out for easy ‘dollah’ and shallow smiles
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

I like Beetlejuice — both the movie and the musical — but I do not like The Music Man.

So, what exactly is going on with Beetlejuice? In December it was announced that the Broadway show would be closing on June 6, 2020. While normally this would be news, it is not particularly noteworthy. Broadway shows close all the time, and successful shows are no exception. Shows like Hamilton, Wicked, and The Book of Mormon are rarities in that they are still currently running their original performances — albeit with entirely different casts. Phantom of the Opera and Chicago are also still running as they have entered into the upper strata of Broadway — these shows are in a league of their own.

The noteworthy aspect of Beetlejuice closing is that it was doing well — really well. So what happened?

Beetlejuice is a Broadway musical written by Scott Brown and Anthony King, based on the cult 1988 Tim Burton film of the same name. The musical has succeeded in replicating the weirdness and dark comedy that the classic Burton film so expertly portrayed. The musical premiered in Washington DC in 2018, before opening at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in April 2019.

In spite of eight Tony award nominations, the musical initially received poor reviews after it opened on Broadway, and underperformed during its opening months — April to June. It seemed that it was dead in the water. In May, the Winter Garden Theatre invoked the show’s stop clause and started looking for another show to replace it.

This clause in the contract between a musical, play, or anything operating in a theatre stipulates that if the theatre’s revenue from the show dips below a previously agreed upon level for two straight weeks, the theatre can evict the show and look for a replacement. In other words, a theatre can pull the plug on a show if it starts to tank.

To be fair to the Winter Garden Theatre, Beetlejuice was tanking, and while in my opinion they pulled it a little early — before the Tony Awards — the show has an elaborate set and was extremely expensive to get off the ground. It makes sense; it was not selling out, therefore it’s time to move on.

But something changed in the summer. After some notable performances at the Tony Awards and on Good Morning America, and reliable sub-Hamilton-ticket-level admission pricing, people started showing up to Beetlejuice. More people saw it and more people liked it.

In a New York Times interview with Mark Kaufman, the executive vice-president of Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, which owns the rights to the show, explained how Beetlejuice’s growth was “the textbook definition of word of mouth.”

I began to see more references to Beetlejuice on Twitter through memes and the online theatre community, and ticket sales backed up this increase in popularity. Beetlejuice set a Winter Garden Theatre record for ticket sales and broke the theatre’s seven-performance week record at the start of January with $1.4 million in revenue. It has maintained this streak since mid-July.

In the same interview, Kaufman also mentioned how the show has become popular and grown thanks to “first-time theatre-goers.” First-time theatre-goers like this show because it is accessible to a new audience; they enjoy it and all its ridiculousness. There is no previously bankable target demographic and that is the main reason why the booting of Beetlejuice upsets me.

It is difficult to see a show on Broadway. The main barriers to audience members are geography and cost.

So now we have an inexpensive show; tickets are available for only 59 USD. That makes it the perfect Broadway show because it is accessible, and this is helping to expand the theatre community — something I believe is inherently good and necessary. Lastly, but arguably most importantly, it’s a good show but is being replaced by a headline revival because it did not have a hot start.

It is being replaced by The Music Man with Hugh Jackman playing the eponymous role. As prefaced, I do not like The Music Man. This is its fourth revival on Broadway, and I would have a difficult time making an argument against it if it were a new show because it could potentially have the same impact as Beetlejuice, but that is not happening.

A show that has been done many times and does not cater to a new and diversifying Broadway audience is replacing a show that has done its best to grow its audience the old-fashioned way. Not by a financially safe bet with a Hollywood star, but through word-of-mouth and unique and hilarious entertainment. I can only hope that any and all pushback against these events will push theatres to consider more than just money when thinking about ending a show.

That is what is going on with Beetlejuice. Go see it if you can before June 6 in New York City, or on its national tour in the US, which will begin in 2021.