By Jason Livingston
When my nephew was eight years old he came to visit me in New York for the first time and I bought us tickets to see “Lion King.” I paid about $100 per ticket for orchestra seats just off of the aisle. It was a lot of money to spend on an eight year old, but I love the theatre and hoped to engender the same love in my nephew. During the spectacular opening number he was so excited! He was on his feet looking around, and at the end of the opening he turned to me with huge eyes and a smile that stretched from ear to hear and said, “I like theatre, Uncle Jason!”
A few years later his little sister, then also eight, came to visit and I bought us tickets to “Wicked.” This time tickets about $125 and we were in the mezzanine house right. They weren’t ideal seats but they were the best reasonably priced seats I could get. My niece was silent throughout the show, and silent for about 20 minutes afterward. Then, suddenly, she was done processing what she had just seen and spent the next hour or more excitedly telling me everything she loved about the show. She couldn’t stop talking about it and even now, five years later, she still listens to the soundtrack, and it is one of the most memorable experiences of her young life.
During subsequent visits I’ve taken the kids to see “Annie,” “Blue Man,” “Matilda,” “Pippin,” and last year won Uncle of the Year by taking my nephew to see “Hamilton.” How do you engage a 16 year old? Find the one show that combines popular music with one of his interests, American history. I loved it, too. It is easily the best Broadway show I’ve seen in a decade, probably longer. The music and lyrics are smart, funny, and sophisticated with a breathtaking blend of traditional Broadway and hip-hop that works beautifully. And I wonder if it’s the last Broadway show I’ll be able to take the kids to see.
Why? Partly because I paid about $130 for seats in the second to the last row of the balcony. We were so far away that it was very difficult to make out facial expressions. More importantly, though, Broadway ticket prices are about to soar.
On Tuesday the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, published an op-ed piece in the New York Times. In it he complains that the average Broadway lover can’t get tickets because ticket brokers are using computer software, called ticket bots, to buy up tickets as soon as they are released and then reselling them at huge markups. Ticket bots are currently estimated to be buying up to 25% of the show’s tickets. He calls for the state legislature to pass a bill that will curtail the use of these bots so that average people can buy tickets.
In retrospect, one has to wonder if this wasn’t just a campaign to soften up the reader for Wednesday’s announcement that “Hamilton” was raising top ticket prices to an unheard of $849 for center orchestra seats, and that all other ticket prices were going up by 12% to 29%, from $139 -$177 to $179 - $199. How long will it be before other shows follow? Orchestra seats are already over $400 on quite a few shows, and if “Hamilton” can get away with extortion level pricing, can “Book of Mormon,” “Wicked,” and others be far behind?
“Greed Is Good” Gordon Gekko
“No it’s not” Most of Humanity
The thing about the announcement that really angered me is a quote from Jeffery Seller, the lead producer, who said, “What has certainly been frustrating to me, as a business owner, is to see that my product is being resold at many times its face value and my team isn’t sharing in those profits.” I’ve checked the Constitution, the Bible, and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare and nowhere does it say that he’s entitled to all of the money. Perhaps I should have checked the Complete Works of Donald J. Trump.
In one year the show has already recouped its $12.5 million dollar investment, and is making an estimated $600,000 per week in profits. It’s on track to join “Wicked” with $1 billion (with a B) in sales. Last month the show cancelled $10 million in bulk ticket purchases because it suspected that ticket bots were involved, and in the next round of tickets to be release there will be a maximum of six tickets per purchase. The show is doing great, artistically and financially, and is taking big steps to limit ticket bot purchases. So what’s really going on here? I have to believe that it’s simple greed. And, while that greed may be great for this show’s investors, I worry about its impact on the theatre at large and the people who love it. Think about it – two tickets at $845, plus taxes and fees, will cost about $1,750. That’s more than my mortgage!
The show’s producers point out that there’s a ticket lottery – 46 tickets at $10 for each performance. However, that’s only 3.5% of the seats. 10,000 people per day enter the lottery for those $10 seats. Assuming that the seats are awarded in pairs, you have a .23% chance of winning seats. With those odds you can’t make plans to see “Hamilton,” you can only hope.
My youngest niece is two. I worry that in six years I won’t be able to take her to see her first Broadway show because two tickets will cost $500 or more. I won’t be able to pass on my love of great theatre, or at least not my love of great Broadway theatre. Is Broadway going to become like most opera, the domain of the rich, or will it remain accessible to all of the people who love it?