Is Broadway Just for Tourists?

Out-of-towners are a growing part of the audience, and they’re demonstrating their clout

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The rudest Christmas present of the season had to be the one Katie Holmes got last week. The producers of the new Broadway play in which she co-stars, Dead Accounts, announced that the show would close on Jan. 6, two months earlier than planned, due to poor ticket sales. This wasn’t just a blow to a Hollywood star’s ego. It came as a surprise to many Broadway watchers, who assumed that the former Mrs. Tom Cruise would be the latest Hollywood star to draw big crowds into the theater.

The news came a couple of weeks after an interesting report from the Broadway League on the demographics of the audience. Tourists made up a record high 63.4% of all Broadway theatergoers for the 2011-12 season — up from 61.7% the previous season. International tourists constitute a hefty 18.4% of the total audience, also a record high.

The two pieces of news form a good perspective from which to view the state of Broadway theater at the start of the New Year.

The first thing to note is that times are good. Broadway attendance has held steady even through the depths of the recent recession. And though Katie Holmes’ play is one of several shows (along with the musical Chaplin and the revival of Evita), that have announced closings in January, when Broadway typically goes into the doldrums, the spring season is shaping up to be as busy as ever — with one much-anticipated London musical, Matilda, the Broadway premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s TV musical Cinderella, and several more shows circling the runway, looking for a theater to land in. One thing that has almost disappeared from the Broadway scene in recent years, at least during the peak fall and spring months, is dark theaters. Tourists are a big reason why.

(READ: Richard Zoglin’s review of Dead Accounts, starring Katie Holmes)

They are also, more and more, influencing what kinds of shows make it to Broadway. Musicals, mainly — especially revivals of old favorites, and songbook shows like Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys (two Broadway shows that seem to go on and on, thanks largely to the tourist trade), or the upcoming Motown, a tribute to Berry Gordy and his ’60s sound, opening in April.

Yet serious plays are also thriving, thanks largely to the Hollywood stars who are populating them. A big name in the cast makes a straight play much easier to market, especially to splurging out-of-towners, who want a theater event they can talk about to the folks back home. Al Pacino has helped make the new revival of Glengarry Glen Ross a hit, and Scarlett Johansson looks likely to do the same for a new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, opening Jan. 17. Coming in the spring: Tom Hanks, making his Broadway debut, as New York newspaper columnist Mike McAlary in Lucky Guy, a play by the late Nora Ephron. (Added attraction: among his co-stars is Peter Scolari, who appeared with Hanks in his first TV sitcom, Bosom Buddies.)

But Katie Holmes’ demise is proof that stars can’t sell a play all by themselves. Jessica Chastain, another hot movie talent, hasn’t done much to help this season’s middling revival of The Heiress. And it’s notable that the two biggest hit musicals of the past year — Newsies and Once — do not have a single big-name star between them. A more important contributor to their success, undoubtedly, was Broadway’s single best mass-audience marketing tool: the annual Tony Awards telecast.

(MORE: TIME’s Top 10 Plays and Musicals of 2012)

Yet that still leaves the biggest conundrum of the current season: the acclaimed revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? No show has drawn better reviews, or (judging by my own theatergoing friends) more consistently good word of mouth. Yet it has been a disappointment at the box office. The conventional wisdom is that it lacks stars — just a quartet of very good actors from Chicago, headed by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton. On the other hand, it’s a three-hour play, well known from the movie version and last revived on Broadway just seven years ago. For tourists or theatergoing locals, even Tom Hanks and Katie Holmes might not have been able to sell it.

Richard Zoglin, TIME’s theater critic and a former assistant managing editor, is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America