“You’re Gonna Be Popular!”

Measuring success on Broadway and the changing landscape of live theatre
— a data exploration project.

“You’re Gonna Be Popular!” — a quote from the musical Wicked. Wicked is the fifth longest-running Broadway musical and never won a Tony Award for Best Musical (source: wickedthemusical.com)

West Side Story, Grease, Chicago, Miss Saigon, Mamma Mia!, Wicked. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of Broadway musicals, you’ve probably heard of at least one of the musicals I mentioned above. These shows have one thing in common: none of them won a Tony Award for Best Musical. Despite the lack of the “Best Musical” stamp of approval, however, these shows remain popular, loved, and are either still on Broadway or were adapted for the big screen (or both!).

The essence of theatre is live, physical performance, which in turn, has often barred certain groups of the world’s population from experiencing the art of theatre itself. For example, the belief that “theatre demands to be viewed live” means that people who live outside of New York rarely get the chance to see a Broadway musical. In addition, sky-high ticket prices mean that watching a live performance of a musical— in addition to traveling to New York — is a luxury very few can afford. However, all this changed with the rise of the internet and online video.

As a kid who grew up in Indonesia loving theatre, my long-distance relationship with Broadway is fueled by Youtube videos and random Google searches online— the internet made this long-distance relationship somewhat bearable. Meanwhile, how much the shows grossed, how many performances were done, what the critics said, and how many awards they won rarely affected how much I loved and cherished these shows. I experienced Broadway through the internet and thrived off of what the community was buzzing about rather than what the high and mighty critics were saying. There was a difference between being a hit show and being a beloved show.

There has always been a dispute regarding what determines the success of a Broadway season — is it determined by the critics, or is it determined by people like me, who may not have seen the shows itself, but continue to love them from afar? Is success measured by awards or grosses, or has the internet changed what it means to be successful?

In order to answer these questions, let us first collect data that might indicate whether or not a show is a critical and/or commercial hit. Using R, import.io, Web Scraper, and good ‘ole copy and paste, I collected information regarding the longest-running Broadway shows and awards they won, grosses, number of seats sold, as well as collected professional reviews from Wikipedia and BroadwayWorld. I used the syuzhet R package in order to get the sentiments of every professional review for every show and quantify the general atmosphere of the review.

Next, let us look at data that might indicate whether or not a Broadway season is loved, especially on the internet. Using the tuber R package, Youtube API, and the gtrendsR package, I collected information from Playbill.com’s Youtube channel regarding views, comments, and likes for every video in every Broadway season between 2009 and 2016, as well as Google search trends during those seasons.

A typical Broadway season lasts from May until April of the following year. For simplicity’s sake, I will label a season by the year it began. For example, the 2015/2016 season consists of shows that opened between May 1, 2015 and April 30, 2016, and is labeled the 2015 season. This is Playbill.com’s playlist of videos featuring shows from the 2015 season.

With these datasets joined together, let us try to answer the following questions:

  1. How much do awards matter?

The Tony Awards, held at the end of every season around June, recognizes excellence in Broadway Theatre and is considered the most prestigious award a Broadway show can win. When nominations are released, nominated shows usually experience a boost in ticket sales. When shows win Best Musical or Best Play, they sales skyrocket even further. However, how long do these effects last? Do Tony awards lead to longevity on Broadway?

We can see that Best Musical winners tend to enjoy some longevity on Broadway

To answer this question, I looked at every single winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical since the 1950s as well as how many performances each show did on Broadway as of April 2020. From the chart above, we can definitely see some stand-out performers, such as Phantom of the Opera (1987 season winner), The Lion King (1997 season winner), and Cats (1982 season winner). However, most shows end up doing about 750 to 900 performances, which is equivalent to approximately 2 years on Broadway. This is pretty impressive, considering that the 1200 shows that have performed on Broadway have a median of approximately 100 performances, or equivalent to about 3 months.

Next, I looked at approximately 120 of the longest-running shows on Broadway of all time to see if these shows won Best Musical during their Tony season. All these shows have performed at least 1,000 shows.

Approximately 46% of Broadway’s longest-running musicals were Best Musical winners

Less than half of these long-running shows won Best Musical.

So, do awards matter? They do, but they don’t. Winning an award can help boost sales and fuel the public’s curiosity, but as shows approach the 1,000-performances mark after more than two years on Broadway, awards lose their magic. Beyond 1,000 performances, longevity becomes a reflection of how much a show is loved and sought by the people, not how many prestigious awards it won.

2. Do reviews matter?

When a show first opens on Broadway, critics fill the seats and by the next morning, the reviews come flooding it. Reviews are usually rounded up together and a report card is generated, which acts as a good, summarized overview of what the opening night crowed thought of the show. But, do these reviews have any longer-term impact on a show’s so-called success? How do review sentiments affect how much shows end up grossing?

I collected scraped BroadwayWorld for reviews on many shows that opened in the past decade in order to generate sentiments for these reviews. I then mapped the reviews to how much the shows grossed as of April 2020.

The scatterplot of gross earnings (on the log scale) against review sentiments seems a little dispersed

At first glance, it seems that maybe reviews might have some small effect on a show’s gross earnings. The trendline seems to suggest a positive correlation. After running a linear regression model through R, however, we find the following:

Summary of our linear regression model (log gross vs review sentiment)

The review sentiment of a show seems to have some statistically significant effect on the show’s gross earnings (on the log scale), but it is not even close to being the only predictor of a show’s gross earnings. According to the Adjusted R-squared value of 0.087, reviews seem to only be able to explain 8.7% of a show’s gross earnings.

Perhaps, reviews might be able to predict something more. Do they maybe affect how long shows end up running on Broadway? Let us once again look at the data.

The scatterplot for the number of performances against the review sentiment of different shows, color-coded by whether or not they won Best Musical, seem to lack any sort of pattern

From the graph above, the answer seems to be a resounding no. Even considering Best Musical winners, there still seems to be no clear pattern. We do have to keep in mind that the reviews gathered do not come close to encompassing Broadway’s 1200 shows so far. In addition, many of the shows represented on the graph above are still open and will continue to perform for another 1–3 years at the very least. It might be too early for us to look at the data, but at the moment, it seems that no clear pattern is visible.

I would like to point out, however, that the graph shows some interesting outliers. We would expect good reviews to lead to longevity, but looking at the chart above, the 3 longest-running shows within our review sentiment database garnered reviews sentiments with scores lower than 50. These shows are infamous for being either bad (for example, Cats with a review sentiment of 22.55, more than 7,400 performances, and a Tony Award for Best Musical in the 1982 season) and/or controversial (such as Miss Saigon with a review sentiment of 11.7 and more than 4,000 performances).

The data shows that, perhaps, a bad review isn’t the end of the world.

3. Does the internet matter?

The internet has definitely shaped and changed the way I consume theatre. Instead of spending $100 on tickets to go see a show, I spend $0 on Youtube watching whatever performances are available, listening to whatever cast recordings are trending, and save my $100 for one show that I desperately want to see live. What about the rest of the world? Let us look at some Google searches and Youtube analytics.

2015 marks a turning point for Broadway on Youtube

While Google searches for “Broadway” and “Musical” have remained more or less the same over the years, Youtube views have skyrocketed.

Engagement on Youtube have also gone up

I believe that the future of live theatre is, ironically, online video. It may not be possible to upload a full performance of Hamilton onto Youtube without legal or financial repercussions, however, online video can and have been used as a means to engage with groups who are traditionally unable to participate with the culture of live theatre. For example, Hamilton (whose opening in 2015 coincides with the skyrocketing Youtube engagement we see above) released weekly videos where they do free, live performances in front of their theatre in New York. These videos were released throughout 2016 and often go viral as they give the world a little taste of what the hit show has to offer. Today, amidst the Pandemic, live theatre has moved to online video. Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Love Never Dies were recently streamed on Youtube for free. The cast of Dear Evan Hansen play and stream video games with other professional theatre folks every week. Stephen Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday with a streamed performance of his songs done by theatre legends.

Live theatre is special for its physicality and immersion, but that does not bar theatre from transcending physical boundaries through the means of online video.

This data exploration project could definitely be improved if cleaner, more robust databases were available. However, at the end of the day, I believed that I learned an important lesson: the Tony Awards, professional critic reviews, record-breaking milestones, and online video continue to fuel, celebrate, and push forward the Broadway community. It is important to keep in mind that art is more than the sum of its parts and as much as we love data, there are just some things that cannot be captured by numbers.

And with that, I’d like to leave a short message: let us strive for a theatre arts that is more accessible and more diverse.

“There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere sitting there, living for Tony performances singin’ and flippin’ along with the Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkys, Matildas and Mormonses.

So we might reassure that kid
and do something to spur that kid
Cause I promise you all of us up here tonight
We were that kid
and now we’re bigger!”

(Tony Awards, 2013)