Another Openin', Another Show

Derek Miller
November 12, 2015

The New York Times recently reported an unusual circumstance surrounding the new Broadway show China Doll, written by David Mamet and starring Al Pacino. The show's official opening---delayed, the paper reported, by the need for further revisions and refinements---will take place on a Friday night. Friday openings, as the Times understatedly notes, are "unusual on Broadway." They are, in fact, more than usual; in the past 50 years, they are practically unheard of.

Much of what happens on Broadway happens out of habit, which can look an awful lot like superstition. Opening nights are no exception. So which opening night does Broadway superstition dictate? When China Doll walks down the red carpet later this month it will be the first show to do so on a Friday since Elf in November, 2012. A mere 2% of all shows to open on Broadway since the 1965-66 season opened on a Friday. Saturday has been equally unpopular, hosting a paltry 2% of openings. (The most recent Saturday premiere was another Mamet-Pacino venture, the revival of Glengarry Glen Ross from December, 2012. Maybe they have a thing for the weekend?)

Monday would seem a good night to open. Theaters are traditionally dark on Mondays; friends from across Broadway can join in the revelry. But Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday account for only about 14% each in the past half-century (though Monday edges out Tuesday and Wednesday by a few percentage points in the past decade). That's about the percentage you'd expect if every night received equal attention (100/7 ≈ 0.14). The second most-frequent opening night---at 18%---is Sunday, almost surely with evening premieres to capture the theater crowd on the way home from their matinee performances. In a sense, Sunday is the new Monday, giving everyone a day off to recover from their celebratory (or depressed) hangovers.

But the real winner, almost twice as popular as its nearest rival, is ... Thursday. Thursday? Thursday. Almost 35%---over a third---of all Broadway shows since 1965 have opened on a Thursday. Chicago, Cats, The Lion King, Les Misérables, Mamma Mia!, Wicked? Thursday. (Also long-forgotten shows such as Total Abandon and Hurry, Harry, in case you thought success correlated directly with the choice of opening night.) In the past five years, the superstition has grown even stronger: 44% of shows in the past five seasons premiered on Thursday. With another 20% bowing on Sunday, that leaves only a third of shows for the first three days of the week (and, as usual, nothing on Friday or Saturday). This behavior seems inevitable and eternal, simply the way things are done.

But habits on Broadway change, including the habitual opening night. For the fifty seasons from 1915 to 1964, the most popular opening night was actually Monday, with 33% of openings. Then Tuesday, with 21%, Wednesday with 17%, and on down through the rest of the week. A Sunday opening in the 1920s? Unheard of. Sunday was still a commonly observed day of rest, an observance memorialized occasionally now by laws that forbid liquor purchases but no longer by laws that close theaters as immoral threats to holy salvation. Sunday opening nights are but a fifty-year-old Broadway habit; before then, they were blasphemous.

The chart below, titled "% of Shows Opening on ...", provides line graphs for the percent of shows in the past hundred seasons to open on each day.
% of Broadway Shows Opening on ...
Sunday, the top, brown line, only became a popular opening night after 1965. Monday began its fall from grace around 1930, hitting its current level around 12% by 1945. Wednesday actually had a brief bump in popularity from about 1940 to 1960.

The same day had a later but even more marked boost in the US film industry from about 1965 to 1980, briefly defeating the ever-prominent Friday for top spot, as the next chart shows. (Data drawn from the Internet Movie Database.)
% of Movies Opening on ...
But Friday otherwise remains the clear winner in movie theaters, with Thursday midnight showings providing evidence of the force of the Friday habit. Friday and Saturday never gained much traction on Broadway, though. Thursday has been gaining steadily the entire century, as the below chart reveals.
% of Broadway Shows Opening on Thursday

The explanation for Broadway's recent obsession with Thursday---and disdain for Friday---remains somewhat vague, as do the origins of most superstitions. The Times, perhaps somewhat self-inflatingly, suggests that Thursday openings set shows up for reviews in popular news organizations. With a Friday opening, media organizations would "publish reviews online late Friday, and, for daily newspapers, in print on Saturday, when audiences are relatively low." In other words, "open on Thursday or we will bury your review in a newspaper no one will ever read!" But in the flexible new media landscape, where an online review can quickly circulate through aggregator sites and social media, unusual opening nights should not hinder the free advertising that comes with a good review. Certainly,'s readers will know instantly how China Doll fares, even if it were to open on (gasp!) Saturday. And reviewers take in the show during the entire week before opening, rarely writing reviews on a 24-hour deadline. Reviews, whenever they appear, can catch the eye of anyone interested in Broadway, regardless of what day it is.

Moreover, if openings really do need to be on a certain day to catch the attention of New York media, surely Off-Broadway theaters would follow the same pattern, right? But they don't. The chart below echoes that from above, but for Off-Broadway shows over a smaller timescale (since 1955). (The data here come courtesy of the Lucille Lortel Archives' Internet Off-Broadway Database.)
% of Off-Broadway Shows Opening on ...
Tuesday has actually been consistently popular Off-Broadway, with 23.5% of openings since 1955. Then come Thursday (20%), Wednesday (17%), and Sunday (14%). Friday (7%) and Saturday (5%) aren't quite as anathema Off-Broadway as on. And yet, Off-Broadway has come to look more like its for-profit cousin in recent years, though with a more even distribution. Since 2005, Thursday and Sunday hold the top spot around 22% each, followed by Tuesday at 17%. The premiere schedule is thus another facet of the theater industry in which the difference between Broadway and Off-Broadway has become increasingly unclear.

So what does all this mean for China Doll and its once-in-a-blue moon Friday opening? Probably not much. But that the Times and other news agencies found the Friday premiere worth mention itself indicates how powerful many Broadway habits remain. For many people in the business, superstition reigns. Thursday and Sunday aren't simply efficient opening nights, they please the theater gods! No matter how hard-headed the reason to open on a Friday, violating tradition can feel like a terrific risk. Because making theater is always a little bit magic. Brewing a potent potion requires just the right ingredients: a dash of Mamet here, a sprinkle of Pacino there, and maybe, just maybe, a bewitching Friday night in December. As long as it's not the 13th.

Click here for more charts about Broadway's opening night.

Derek Miller is an Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University, where he teaches theater history and dramatic literature. He is working on two books, one about nineteenth-century copyright law for theater and music, the other a data-driven history of Broadway and the theater industry. For more, visit