- Premium tickets: Don’t bring us your poor
Add another exclamation point to Hello, Dolly! The NY Times reports that premium tickets to the mega-hit between now and the departure of superstar Bette Midler in January will go for an eye-popping $998. That “98” sounds like Walmart marking its prices just short of the next dollar mark, and it would be nice to think that the producers are embarrassed enough to want to avoid four figures. But we know, of course, that they don’t care a whit about what anyone thinks given the overwhelming demand and limited supply for their tickets (which will actually cost $1,009 with Ticketmaster’s usurious charges, reaching four figures anyway).
Once upon a time, the theater was at least nominally an egalitarian business: you stood in line, you got your tickets when your turn came around. You knew that everyone else in an orchestra seat paid the same as you did (other than perhaps discounted day seats). Black, white, male, female, American, foreign, tall, short: everyone had an equal chance at getting a ticket. Yes, scalpers always existed, and we all knew that the rich weren’t standing in any line for their tickets. But we could comfort ourselves with the knowledge that scalping at outrageous prices was at least illegal. Now it’s the producers themselves who are charging those prices, claiming that they’re being deprived of all that illegal money. Got it? Instead of finding ways to prevent illegitimate activity, they’ve simply made it legitimate.
They have every right to do so, of course; no one is forcing the public to buy tickets, and allowing supply/demand to determine prices is the very basis of capitalism. The limited supply of tickets has to be allocated somehow, and doing that through pricing is no less legitimate than though first-come, first-served, i.e., time vs. money. What that means in real life, though, is that like elsewhere in our society, the rich go to the front of the ticket line, and you, the not-rich, go to the back. The theatrical community no longer even pretends to be treating everyone equally. Fair enough. But when the largely left-of-center Broadway community goes on about diversity and the poor and undocumented immigrants and all that, their words ring awfully hollow.
Remember when the actor from Hamilton spotted Mike Pence, vice president-elect at the time, and gave him a dressing-down for attending the show? He pointed to the cast’s diversity and asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us” – he meant the American people, I think, not the cast. That’s from a member of the show that pioneered the $998 price tag, ensuring that his audiences are going to be overwhelmingly rich and white. He’s complaining on behalf of a poor that he will never have to deign to perform for. Hip-hop history? Too good for you, you poor black/Hispanic/white-trash people.
What’s good for the producers of Dolly and Hamilton may ultimately not be good for Broadway. As premium prices become the norm, don’t think it will go unnoticed by actors, stagehands, theater owners and the rest, all of whom will want their share. The standard ticket price is presumably calculated in the first place so that the producers and investors can cover their costs and make their money back in a reasonable time (though I’ve always suspected that the standard used in the business model is actually the half-price day seats). The higher theoretical potential from premium tickets will raise the costs for all producers, meaning standard prices will have to be that much higher to make up for it. That’s okay if you have a Harry Potter or Frozen, or you’ve hired Nathan Lane for The Producers 2 or Lady Gaga for Mame or Hugh Jackman for [you name it]. But its effects on more ambitious fare, especially plays, remain to be seen. That is, the phenomenon could change the very nature of what we see on Broadway. (It should be noted that Broadway has a number of interesting plays due to open in the coming months, albeit mainly revivals or imports of British hits. So I hope I’m wrong about all this.)
It will also serve to keep theater out of reach for a certain segment of society, who are already woefully underrepresented on Broadway and will eventually give up on it entirely. Yes, there are cheap seats available, but basically you’re a second-rate citizen in Luggage Class versus the lucky rich in First Class. You’re not standing in the same line and can never get the luxury seats designated for your betters. So much for theater as a communal experience.
I’m in the fortunate position of being able to afford these tickets. But I refuse to play the game. Theater is the physical interaction in real time of actual honest-to-God non-virtual human beings on stage, backstage and in the audience, and I had hoped it would be a last bastion against the commodification of everything. It’s disheartening to realize that the theatrical community’s commitment to concepts like equality and diversity doesn’t extend to its audience and goes no deeper than its wallet. Pitiful.