Theatre yesterday and today



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Today marks the day when in 1973 The Theater Development Fund opened the TKTS booth at Broadway and 47th street. This familiar site (revamped, redesigned and reopened in 2008) is now a New York City institution. It has provided theatregoers from the tri-state area, as well as from cities in countries around the world, discounted prices to most shows that haven't sold out before their curtain times between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. on any given night.

The TKTS booth back in the old days

Now more than ever it is a life-saver to anyone in deep need of a discount for the ever-rising costs of a Broadway show. But isn't the booth itself one of the reasons that ticket prices began their upward spiral in the first place? I may not be able to provide ironclad proof of this, but let's look at some of the statistics over the years anyway.

In the 1960s before the implementation of the booth, the only way to get discounts to a Broadway show was with a twofer. What was a twofer? It was a coupon offered by producers with a show on the wane that enabled anyone to directly purchase from the box office a ticket for roughly half the price. Two for the price of one—a twofer.

Stephen Sondheim, a wise authority on all-things theatre, easily recalled the role such discounts played in extending the lives of plays and musicals. In a 1978 talk to the Dramatists Guild of America, he said, "You may all be surprised to learn that West Side Story was not a smash hit. It ran for a year and nine months on Broadway before it went on the road, then came back for six months on twofers. In fact, the last six months of its run were on twofers."

In 1973, the year the booth opened, the top ticket price for a musical was $15. It had been rising incrementally for some time, but not by a lot. It was a dollar here and a dollar there. Five years earlier, the top price on a Saturday night to see Cabaret (still with its original cast) was $12. But in 1978, five years after the booth opened, the barrier had been broken wide with the $25 top price for The Act, which starred Liza Minnelli, then at the height of her fame.

The jump from 1968 to 1973 was 25%. The jump from 1973 to 1978 was 66%. Do the math. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that even with the outrage over this increase (and there was outrage), that the show's producers raised it thinking that unsold seats at the booth that would go for around $15 got them very close to the old price anyway. Then with the horse out of the barn, the other shows that season got in on "the act." Even Ain't Misbehavin', the season's Tony Award winner for Best Musical (The Act wasn't nominated) had raised its top price to $19.50. This tiny musical had dazzle, but little razzle. With no sets and barely any costume changes for its cast of five, the show's entire budget couldn't touch the cost of Liza Minnelli's wardrobe.

Ticket prices continued to soar upward. In 1981, three years after The Act, the 49-performance visit of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Nicholas Nickleby had no trouble selling out with a top price of $100 for orchestra seats. Audiences felt somewhat justified in paying it since it was eight and one-half hours long, two plays really. With orchestra seats at that time having risen to $40, it could be said that Nickleby was practically its own twofer.

$40 begat $50, then $50 begat $60 and so forth. I don't need to remind anybody that the top price for Hamilton is now going for $175 a ticket (if you can get one). This was something no one could ever have predicted forty years ago. The geshrai that went up when Miss Saigon flew in from London in 1990 charging $100 seats ("See what Nicholas Nickleby did?) fell on deaf ears. People paid it and most left happily satisfied.

After all, you can't mess with success. Miss Saigon ran for over ten years.

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