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Audiences pack Broadway theaters in 2005

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When the League of American Theatres and Producers announces Broadway grosses and paid attendence for 2005 this week, a lot of smiling faces are likely to light up Times Square.

For the weeks ending Jan. 2 through Dec. 18, total box office had already passed $809 million, according to league data analyzed by USA TODAY. That's up 8% over 2004 and the highest ever recorded, according to the league's Alan Cohen.

Theater seats were 81% filled -- the highest level since 1997 -- and average attendance and gross per show also rose, the newspaper's analysis found.

Producers are delighted, of course, though not surprised.

"A lot of this has to do with the Tony Awards," says David Stone, whose current shows include one of this year's big Tony winners, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and one of the previous year's, Wicked.

"All the (2005) nominees for best new musical are still running, and they're all hits. That hasn't happened in a long time," Stone says.

"Plus you have two shows from the season before, Avenue Q and Wicked, that are still hits this year, which is also kind of unprecedented. That's in addition to older hits and the new shows that are opening."

Scott Sanders, lead producer of one of those shows, The Color Purple, adds that newer productions are drawing a wider range of fans in terms of age, race and other factors.

"More diverse forms of entertainment are appealing to both traditional and non-traditional theatergoers," Sanders says.

"If you think of Broadway as a channel, and you have a variety of programs on that channel, you have a greater likelihood of attracting a broad audience."

Sheer star power also was a factor for this fall's hottest ticket.

"The lesson of The Odd Couple is that there are still genuine Broadway stars," says Bill Evans, publicist for the smash Neil Simon revival starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. "And it was an opportunity for those who might have missed (Lane and Broderick) in The Producers, which has also been great for Broadway."

Evans notes that such hits can be a boon to business overall.

"In this electronic age, there are many alternatives that are cheaper and easier. But if they come here and experience the excitement and potency of live theater, they're getting something they can't get anywhere else."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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