Arts - Autumn 2017

The Price Isn’t Right

Premium ticket costs mean that Broadway shows are increasingly the province of tourists with deep pockets

By Wendy Smith | September 5, 2017
(Bob Jiang/Flickr)
(Bob Jiang/Flickr)

I’m a native New Yorker and frequent theatergoer, which means I pay full price for Broadway shows as seldom as possible. But last January, after obsessively listening to the soundtrack for months, I broke down and decided to buy tickets for Hamilton. Although I knew they wouldn’t be cheap, we have a family tradition of splurging on orchestra seats for a Broadway musical to celebrate my son’s birthday. I also knew that in the mega-selling case of Hamilton, getting tickets for a show anytime soon was unlikely. Still, we were willing to wait—and pay full price.

When I walked into the box office of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, a man who had clearly been posted to forestall clueless folks like me asked, “Are you picking up tickets?”

“No,” I replied cheerily, “buying.”

“It’s sold out through August,” he said. “There are some tickets beginning in September, from $449.”

Those are premium tickets for the best seats in the house, set aside by the producers of hit shows for anyone willing to pay top dollar for a hot ticket. Hamilton, at the time, had the highest premium prices on Broadway: up to $849 apiece for the most desirable dates.

“How about the regular tickets for $179 and $199?” I inquired.

“A new batch will go on sale online in a few weeks.”

“Are you telling me that the only tickets I can buy here at the box office are premium tickets?”

He didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. I stomped out onto West 46th Street and took the subway home to Brooklyn, berating myself all the way for my naïveté. A few lucky friends of mine had managed to get tickets online, but popular Broadway shows have fallen victim to a plague that has afflicted rock concerts and sports events for years: software programs known as bots, which are used by ticket brokers to grab as many tickets as possible the moment an online sale begins—more than 1,000 tickets in a single minute in at least one instance. The brokers resell these tickets for a profit, which is perfectly legal. The ticket bots themselves are not; they turn online ticket buying into what the New York State Attorney General’s Office bluntly calls “a fixed game,” in which individual consumers appear to have access to tickets but are essentially shut out. It’s too soon to say whether Ticketmaster’s fledgling Verified Fan system, which restricts each user to two tickets per performance, can stymie the bots, but it won’t do anything to change the economics that gave birth to them. In the past two years, the attorney general’s office has collected millions of dollars in penalties from more than a dozen ticket brokers. Compared with the money that brokers can make, however, the fines are insignificant. When composer-lyricist-librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda gave his final performance in Hamilton’s title role on July 9, 2016, resale tickets were going for as much as $20,000 apiece.

If some people are willing to pay those kinds of prices, Broadway producers contend, then the money should go to the shows’ creators and investors rather than to the middlemen. That’s their justification for premium tickets, which have been unpopular with the average theatergoer ever since they were introduced in 2001 (appropriately enough, for a hugely successful musical called The Producers, with premium seats going for $480). This rationale would be more persuasive if premium tickets had eliminated the secondary market, but resale platforms such as StubHub and Vivid Seats are booming. Premium tickets simply add to the total number of seats that are not actually available for what is allegedly the standard price. And that number is growing. At first, shows set aside roughly a dozen prime seats per performance to be sold at premium prices; by 2006, the biggest hits were holding back 100 or more seats. Today, Hamilton reserves 200 center orchestra seats—roughly 15 percent of house capacity—at premium prices. After the brokers and their bots finish grabbing tickets online, there aren’t a lot of seats at “regular” prices left.

I don’t want to pick on Hamilton, which also sets aside 46 tickets at each performance to be sold (via a same-day lottery) for $10. Its producers are not uniquely rapacious; on the contrary, as The New York Times reported more than a decade ago, “the premium-pricing model has been considered a necessary development by the industry, finally [bringing] theater into line with the business models of sports teams and pop musicians.” That’s correct, but hardly good news. By embracing “dynamic pricing,” the generic name for adjusting ticket prices to meet demand, Broadway producers are participating in a disheartening trend that applies to hotel rooms, airline tickets, and seats for sporting events.

“It really is simple market capitalism: supply and demand,” New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel told me. “Unlike movies, which play many theaters across the country, there are a limited number of seats on any given night to the hottest shows. New York has become a tourist attraction for people from all over the world, and as long as you have rich people from South America and Asia coming here who want to see a hit Broadway show on short notice, producers will be able to raise those premium prices to $800 or $1,000. It’s unfortunate, because it’s one more aspect of New York City that’s become for the one percent.”

The situation is less drastic outside New York, but theaters in many other cities now have premium seats, VIP boxes, or even private lounges from which the happy few can view performances while taking advantage of an open bar and free hors d’oeuvres. My husband, who works on the construction and renovation of theaters across America, tells me that providing something extra for well-heeled patrons is often a consideration when seating areas are being designed. Again, the trend follows sports, where virtually all stadiums and arenas accommodate club-level seating.

This past season’s receipts show Broadway finances bearing an alarming resemblance to those of the film industry: a few big-budget, high-profile hits make lots and lots of money while everything else struggles to earn even a modest profit. A New York Times article published in May noted that half of Broadway’s box-office revenues went to 10 of the 81 productions mounted in 2016–17. Granted, the artistic level of these big hits is still considerably higher than the average superhero movie: Hamilton and this year’s Tony Award–winner for Best Musical, Dear Evan Hansen, are excitingly innovative works, and star vehicles such as the revival of Hello, Dolly with Bette Midler are a venerable Broadway tradition (though the $998 it costs to view the Divine Miss M from the front row of the Shubert Theatre is not). Nonetheless, the rise of “jukebox musicals” like Beautiful (Carole King) and Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons), not to mention the seemingly endless parade of Disney remakes (The Lion King, Aladdin, Cinderella, etc.)—precisely what tourists want to see and are willing to pay top dollar for—suggests that Broadway producers may be following in the footsteps of the movie studios that craft action-heavy, dialogue-light films for an overseas market of non-English speakers. Straight plays rarely appear on Broadway anymore, and when they do, they struggle. Of this year’s Tony nominees for Best Play, Sweat and Indecent closed prematurely, and A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Oslo (the winner) were presented as limited runs by producers well aware of the limited economic prospects for serious drama on Broadway.

I saw all four plays, but not at full price. Theater professionals point out correctly, albeit defensively, that discounted Broadway tickets are often available for people willing to stand in line at the TKTS booths, which sell same-day tickets at half price, or monitor online for last-minute offerings from brokers stuck with unsold premium tickets the day of the performance. This simply underscores Broadway’s membership in the new Gilded Age economic order, in which everything is priced for whatever the market will bear on any given day.

As a consequence, New York City residents, the mainstay audience for drama, are increasingly irrelevant to the financial calculations of Broadway producers. So we find ourselves drawn away by the more substantive fare offered at nonprofit theaters off Broadway and in Brooklyn, where ticket prices are lower and premium seats are nonexistent. Sure, we like musicals too, and we understand that Broadway has always been expensive, but we also know that it was not always as relatively expensive as it is now. The $12 orchestra ticket my parents gave me for my 13th birthday in 1969 would now cost about $80 if Broadway had simply kept up with inflation, not the $150 or $200 that is now standard. Premium ticket prices add insult to injury.

I still haven’t seen Hamilton. How ironic that this brilliant musical about one of our Founding Fathers, a show that asks probing questions about the content and structure of democracy, should have helped transform Broadway into a luxury item. New York theater will always have an audience beyond tourists and the well-to-do, but I fear that premium tickets are hastening the day when they are the only people you will see in a Broadway house.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus