Theatre yesterday and today



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“High Ticket Prices Are Fueling a Broadway Boom” read this morning’s headline in the New York Times, hitting me hard over my ritual cup of coffee. Nearly a year ago, a similar Times piece about the end of the 2015–16 season, led me to write an article I titled “Who’s Broadway Is It, Anyway?” In it, I asked whether we are now past the point where ordinary souls can purchase an advance ticket (not a rush or lottery one) without having to take out a bank loan? It is no longer on a human scale when Broadway box office personnel, and not a scalper, offers to sell you an $895 ticket with a smile on their face. And I’ll mention it only once that I had the luxury to attend the theatre on a regular basis as a child when the top ticket price was $15, and a mere $2 allowed me to sit up in the cheap seats, as I did week in and week out for years.

The conclusion I drew from the leading producers quoted in today’s article is that most of them don’t appear greatly concerned with the issue of high ticket prices. After all, this is America and a free market enterprise is the way things work. Whatever the buyer is willing to pay is what the seller is happy to charge. My concern is that in the near future reading “Boom” in a Times headline about the theatre will bear an exclamation point and bear an entirely different meaning. As in “the end — no more — with the theatre priced out of existence.

According to the Broadway League, the industry trade group which monitors these things, the 2016–2017 stats that concluded at the end of April (prior to the announcing of this year’s Tony Award nominations), had box office grosses rise 5.5 percent over the previous year, to $1.449 billion — a new high. Attendance was slightly down by 0.4 percent, but in the face of film and television facing far steeper downward trends, this is not a tremendous dip. However, the Times article makes an important point when it stated that “Broadway needs to be concerned about raising the number of ticket buyers, rather than just the price of those tickets.”

There will always be rich people willing to pay and who can easily afford whatever is charged, in addition to foreign tourists (who are increasingly the life blood of Broadway) to assure stability. But my concern, as always, is for an average person of limited means who has a passion for the theatre. It’s totally unaffordable for a student or a young person when a hit show comes to town (like Dear Evan Hansen) that so many of them are desperate to see and that doesn’t offer discounted tickets. In the words of producer Ken Davenport (quoted in the Times), “We have to be adding new audience for our long-term health.”

And once again, as I wrote in my piece from nearly a year ago, the question of how straight plays fit into today’s Broadway landscape is another major concern. Even though this was a good year with some excellent plays, most are struggling to compete financially against competition from musicals. Plays simply remain an endangered species. And with three of the four nominees for Best Play transfers from last season, when they were presented Off-Broadway at lower ticket prices, I for one am not adding to the box office by not returning to see them, since they are all mostly the same productions with the same casts, only in larger venues. It’s a problem.

Leave it to a non-producer in the Times article to make the most cogent point. Theodore S. Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, hits it on the head when he asks “I do wonder if people are starting to think every seat in the theater is $500. I know more and more people who feel as if ‘I can’t afford to go to the theater any more,’ and I hope we don’t wake up one day to find a tradition is diminished.”

And without our tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: