There’s nothing like New York City’s Broadway for a theatre lover. Tourists and locals are spoilt for choice each day, with dozens of glitzy musicals and star-studded plays to be found bathed under the blinding lights of Times Square.

But even 40 theatres in the Broadway district alone aren’t enough. The New York Times reports great shows aren’t being seen because there simply isn’t room to accommodate them. Finding a theatre has become an “increasingly competitive sport”.

For starters, 15 or so are routinely locked up with long-running shows like “The Phantom of the Opera,” which has kept the Majestic Theater off the market for 22 years. For the remaining theaters the edge goes to shows that have the makings of a smash hit because of their pedigree, their stars or their originality, like “Billy Elliot: The Musical” and “A Steady Rain,” which starred Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. Those productions were both hotly pursued by Philip J. Smith, chairman of the Shubert Organization, Broadway’s biggest theater owner, who said in a recent interview that he shuffled around other shows to secure prime theaters for “Billy” and “Steady Rain” because he sensed they would be huge moneymakers — as proved true.

In a twist, some theaters have to go vacant for long stretches while they wait for these presumed blockbusters to come in. The Hilton Theater has been empty since January 2009 waiting for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the much-delayed musical that is now expected late this year. The Neil Simon Theater has been dark since this past January, when “Ragtime” closed earlier than hoped due to poor ticket sales; that theater is now waiting for “Love Never Dies,” the sequel to “Phantom” that has been delayed until the spring of 2011.

A result, according to theater producers as well as owners, is an uphill climb for plays like “Orphans” and some musicals seeking an open Broadway stage — which, in turn, determines the shows and actors that audiences have a chance to see.

“I’ve never seen it more competitive, or the supply-and-demand imbalance more stark,” said Mr. Smith, whose Shubert group owns 17 theaters. “For the next Broadway season, which begins after Labor Day 2010, we don’t have a single theater available. Not one. Everything is committed, and several theaters already have one or two backup shows if a commitment falls through.”

The problem is those great old theatres haven’t been joined by new houses. As the Times notes, 31 Broadway theatres were built in the early 1900s, but only five were built since 1930 and 1990 — and another five either built or reopened since.

And they’re packing them in. Box office revenues topped US$1 billion for the first time last year. Broadway is big business.

The article has some great background on the decisions that go into selecting the right theatre — from the intimacy of the performance to the demands of the stars. It’s a selection process Australian producers only dream of.

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