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Classical Music is Booming. Theater? Not So Much.

We look at what ails theater, still struggling to recover four years after the pandemic.

Image courtesy of Unsplash/Jan Antonin Kolar

The dark days of the pandemic are several years behind us now, but the performing arts world is discovering that the journey back to the pre-COVID-19 status quo (or at least a reasonably stable new normal) has differed dramatically by discipline. Attendance and revenue figures over the last couple of years show that some performing arts have fared better than others, both locally and nationally, and even the most robust rebound has come with surprises.

First, the good news. Music events of all kinds are finding audiences again, by and large.

At the national level, the trend is significant. “Music organizations have seen stronger sales post-pandemic relative to other performing arts organizations,” reports Jennifer Sowinski Nemeth, an analyst for JCA Arts Marketing, in a detailed 2023 report

At Pacific Symphony, president John Forsyte says that audience attendance for the 2023-24 season has been strong – partly influenced, perhaps, by longtime fans’ interest in the search for a new music director to replace Carl St.Clair (a succession of “guest” conductors is performing audition concerts this season and next). 

“Following the cancellation of the entire 2020-21 season due to the pandemic, we have seen a heartening return to live performances,” Forsyte said. “Each season has marked a significant step towards recovery, particularly in the area of single ticket sales, for which we project that the 2023-24 season will end 8% ahead of 2018-19.”

The Irvine Barclay Theatre, where programming leans heavily toward music, is faring well too. “We came out of COVID strong financially,” president Jerry Mandel told Culture OC just before he left his position at the end of 2023. “Our fundraising and ticket sales are way up. We have a solid donor base. We’re one of the most solid performing arts venues in Orange County from a financial standpoint.”

The Philharmonic Society of Orange County and Pacific Chorale both report similar recoveries, although season subscription sales, as with all performing arts organizations, remain a challenge. 

“We have, thankfully, had positive results for the last couple of seasons and have been building that audience base back up,” said Tommy Phillips, the Philharmonic Society’s president and artistic director. “The trend of dying (season) subscriptions had affected many (arts groups) even before the pandemic. We were really bucking that trend. Our subscriptions had been going up quite healthily.” That made recovery easier, Phillips said.

Forsyte sees shifting audience habits and the decline of season subscriptions as an opportunity to try new approaches. “We continue to see mixed results in our subscription packages, with purchase preferences changing over time. We continue to test and optimize new subscription models to take advantage of these trends.” 

Evidence shows that even in the early post-pandemic days, music recovered more quickly nationally than other performing arts disciplines, and the losses during COVID weren’t as severe. Nemeth’s JCA report lays out the contrasts starkly: “Across all performance types, organizations sold only 58% as many tickets in 2021-22 compared to 2018-19. Classical music, on the other hand, sold 73% as many tickets, and (non-classical) music … sold 71% as many tickets. What’s more, pops series in particular were bringing in almost the same amount of revenue per performance in 2021-22 as they were in 2018-19.”

Several theories have been offered to explain the surprising health of live music, and classical music in particular. One is the relative familiarity and safety of a musical concert, where audiences are already acquainted with much of the program.

Another theory concerns the wider demographic appeal of classical music. “Taking Another Listen,” a recent research study, investigated the race and ethnicity of classical music’s fan base. It found that people of all races and ethnicities listen to classical music at about the same frequency. And a quarter to a third of each ethnic group (Black, white, Indigenous, Latinx/Hispanic and Asian) listen to classical music at least once a week or more. 

A 2023 JCA survey also revealed a surprising demographic shift: 17% of millennials and 18% Generation Z respondents chose classical music as their favorite art form, compared to only 8% of Gen X respondents and 7% of baby boomers. Some classical music marketers credit more generous student ticketing programs, increased digital marketing, more engaging video content for social media platforms, segmented marketing with carefully crafted messaging, and employing a “storytelling” approach for the rise in interest among younger patrons.

A Long List of Canceled and Curtailed Seasons

Now the bad news: Theater continues to struggle. (So does much of the dance world, which we’ll leave for another analysis.)

It’s important to draw a distinction here between plays and musicals, and between commercial theater and nonprofit regional companies. In New York, some sources say Broadway is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels of revenue and attendance. A recent New York Times analysis paints a somewhat less rosy picture, showing that in the 2023-24 season Broadway theaters are still performing below their pre-pandemic heyday:

“Overall attendance is still down about 17%: 9.3 million seats have been filled in the current season as of March 3, down from 11.1 million at the same point in 2020. Box office grosses are down, too: Broadway shows have grossed $1.2 billion so far this season, 14% below the level in early March of 2020.”

Touring musicals are also struggling a bit nationally to attain the levels of attendance and revenue they enjoyed in 2018-19, when they made $1.633 billion. Orange County, though, is more bullish about musicals than ever. At Segerstrom Center for the Arts, recent Broadway shows such as “MJ the Musical” attracted very large audiences, according to Segerstrom spokesperson Carla Cruz. “Our Broadway sales have not only exceeded expectations but have consistently outperformed our budget projections,” Cruz said.

In the realm of nonmusical theater, and at the nonprofit regional companies where it dominates most seasons, the story is much more grim. The pandemic closed regional theaters for up to 18 months in some cases, and their return has been beset with problems throughout the country.

In the Bay Area, California Shakespeare Theater canceled its season. So did the Mark Taper Forum, one of the most venerable nonprofit theaters in Los Angeles. Chicago’s well-respected Lookingglass Theatre suspended its programming for half a season. The Williamstown Theatre Festival had no fully staged productions at its Western Massachusetts home last season. A New York Times survey found that more than 70 top-tier regional theaters expected to produce 20 percent fewer plays in 2023-24 than they did in the last full season before the pandemic.

Locally, Laguna Playhouse and the Chance Theater are offering about the same number of productions now as they did before the pandemic. But South Coast Repertory has scaled back dramatically from its pre-COVID seasons. There are eight productions on its schedule this year if you include its annual holiday show, “A Christmas Carol.” In the 2018-19 season, there were 13. 

(One hopeful note: Most major theaters have announced fuller summer 2024 and 2024-25 seasons, banking on revised marketing and new programming approaches to improve their fortunes. South Coast Rep’s recently announced 2024-25 season has nine fully staged productions.)

Smaller theaters are struggling, too – not only with programming, but with their very existence. About one-third of Orange County’s 30 theater companies do not have a space to perform. Five years ago, of the county’s 27 producers, only two lacked spaces. And six established theaters have closed their doors since 2019, five permanently.

The disappearance of stages is also playing out across the country.  Major theaters in Seattle, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Maryland have announced they are closing. Half a dozen companies have disappeared in Chicago, one of the country’s most important places for innovative theater. “We’re seeing two to three organizations closing a month right now,” Greg Reiner, the director of theater and musical theater at the National Endowment for the Arts, told the New York Times.

‘We Need to Ask for Help’

So why is nonmusical theater faring so much worse than musicals and classical music? Several theories have been suggested.

Certainly, programming choices have something to do with the downturn. Many nonprofit theater companies pride themselves on presenting topical, consciousness-raising plays that deal with hot-button issues, which could possibly turn off a greater share of their potential audience in politically hyper-polarized times. “Some theaters have forgotten what audiences want — they want to laugh and to be joyful and to cry, but sometimes we push them too far,” said Timothy J. Evans, executive director of Northlight Theater in Skokie, Illinois, in a New York Times interview.

Arts Orange County president Richard Stein and other local arts observers pointed out our sudden dependence on home entertainment during the COVID lockdown as a possible culprit. “So much good content was available to people at home during the pandemic,” Stein said. “It was a big discovery for many people.” In a small-screen era marked by higher standards of writing, acting, production and directing, and infinitely more content to choose from among the exploding universe of streaming services, straight theater no longer held the same fascination for some, he suggested.

Others agreed. “When you think of all the popular, excellent drama on television, that is potentially sating public interest in drama,” said Alan Brown of WolfBrown, an arts research and planning consultancy for nonprofits. “So the real question is, if you define yourself as being about buying tickets and sitting down and shutting up and watching live drama – it’s just not mapping to the ideal experience of what younger people want to do in their precious entertainment time.”

Perhaps theater will find a way back to popularity by again offering an experience that can’t be duplicated at home – whether that takes the form of real-time effects and spectacle or something more intimate and emotionally affecting. 

In the meantime, there’s no shortage of agonized self-analysis going on. American Theatre magazine and many other major publications in the theater world have devoted an ocean of ink to debate the painful topic. The questions are elemental: Is the nonprofit theater system in need of a thorough overhaul? Is it time for a wholesale reassessment of the aims, structure, aesthetics and thematic philosophy of the regional theater universe? 

Many say that reckoning is long overdue. “I think the business model is severely broken, and it hasn’t changed much in the last 75 years,” said Michael Bobbitt, former artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in Boston, in the American Theatre magazine analysis. “There are many strained business models out there, but theaters might be the most strained of many arts organizations.”

Stein thinks the answer lies in smartly engaging audiences and reminding them what theater is uniquely equipped to do.

“Spoken-word theater is not a passive experience, but one that requires attendees to engage actively with it, and in doing so to employ their own imaginations. The more that (theater companies) program plays to those strengths and focus their marketing on how spoken-word theater is different and unique, the (better) chance they have to wean theatergoers away from their streaming devices.”

Long-term solutions remain elusive, and theaters need to look outside themselves for the answers, Bobbitt said.

“We need to get together as a sector and hash this out, but we need to hash it out with other people – economists and futurists and entrepreneurs and people that really think about building businesses that are sustainable, who spend all their time working on this kind of stuff. We haven’t figured it out in our sector. We’ve been tweaking and tweaking and tweaking but having the same result. Now we’re seeing theaters closing. We need to ask for help.”


John Forsyte, Jerry Mandel and Richard Stein, quoted in this story, are members of the advisory board for Culture OC.


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