With Oprah Winfrey's "The Color Purple" in previews, musicals about Bob Dylan and the vampire Lestat in the works, a "Sweeney Todd" revival getting raves, and Harry Connick Jr. and Julia Roberts making their way to Broadway, it wouldn't surprise us to see you heading in that direction yourself.

But nowadays, a Broadway seat has about as many prices as an airline seat. And for mega-hits such as "Wicked" and "Spamalot," the recent introduction of "premium" and "VIP" seats at scalper-caliber rates have eaten into the availability of regular-priced orchestra tickets. So here's a primer on how to navigate the ticket thicket, starting with what can be done in advance from home and then what can only be done once you get to New York.

Three things to keep in mind:

* There are easier ways to get discount tickets than lining up for a long wait at one of New York's venerable TKTS booths.

* Sometimes -- especially on weekends -- you've just gotta pay retail. That means $100 for most Broadway musicals (although "Spamalot" just upped its regular orchestra-seat prices to $110), and $80 to $90 for Broadway plays.

* Just because a show's "sold out" doesn't mean you can't get a ticket.

Step 1: Start Shopping Online

Forget waiting in line. Forget not knowing what you're going to see till you get there and sacrificing fresh for cheap. Forget having to pay cash. Now you can pull out the plastic and shop for discounts online in advance. And there are lots of them. When last we looked, 23 of the 34 Broadway shows and 72 off-Broadway shows were selling seats at discounts ranging from 20 to 50 percent.

Some examples: "The Woman in White," 20 percent off; "The Color Purple," 35 percent off; 2005 Tony winner "Doubt," 34 percent off; "Jersey Boys," the new musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, 50 percent off premium seats; "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life," 25 to 38 percent off.

Where to find these deals? Start at BroadwayBox.com (www.broadway box.com), which lists the most offers and doesn't charge to let you see them. This community Web site, the brainchild of an Internet entrepreneur who once paid too much for a ticket, is powered by theater fans who contribute discount codes they find in the mail, in ads, on posters and at show sites. Virtually every Broadway discount will show up at some point on BroadwayBox.com, along with dozens of off-Broadway deals.

Just go to the site, click a show title, read the offer and click to buy tickets. Usually this will take you straight to Ticketmaster.com, where you enter the discount code when prompted for special offers; or to BroadwayOffers.com, the site that handles both discount and premium offers for shows sold by Telecharge. Or you can submit the code to the phone rep or at the box office. Occasionally you may encounter a code that doesn't work, but most do.

If you're interested in an off-Broadway show and can't find what you're looking for at BroadwayBox.com, try the free online membership clubs at TheaterMania.com (www.theatermania.com) and Playbill (www.playbill.com). TheaterMania. com, which specializes in off- and off-off-Broadway, frequently has discounts for those venues that can be found nowhere else. Playbill's discount club has a smaller selection of discounts but will usually have a few off-Broadway offers that are unavailable elsewhere.

Both BroadwayBox.com and TheaterMania.com offer e-mail alerts about new discounts.

Other possible discount sources: classified ads and eBay.com. But before you buy, make sure you know a good deal when you see one: Compare what's on offer with prices found on BroadwayBox.com and Telecharge/Ticketmaster.

Step 2: Dealing With Telecharge or Ticketmaster

Eventually, whether buying at discount, full price or premium, most customers will end up at one of the designated telephone/online box offices, Telecharge or Ticketmaster, to make the actual purchase.

Telecharge service charges can vary, but generally run $6 or $6.50 per ticket plus $2.50 per transaction for Broadway shows, and $5 per ticket plus $1.50 per transaction for off- Broadway when purchased online (50 cents per ticket more if you buy by phone). The same rates apply to discount tickets through Telecharge's sister service, BroadwayOffers.com. Service charges for premium tickets will run higher, sometimes as much as 20 percent of face value (the legal limit).

Ticketmaster "convenience" charges also vary, and you can't find out exactly what fees a ticket will incur until you request specific seats. But by and large, they're about the same as Telecharge's.

A few tips:

* If you don't know which site sells the show you want, just go to one of them. If you're in the wrong place, it'll link you to the site you need.

* Premium ticket offers, if available, are flagged on the Telecharge and Ticketmaster sites. But telephone and box office reps won't tell you about them unless you ask. That's a policy theater operators instituted to avoid being accused of encouraging buyers to "trade up."

* Also look for alerts on the sites for special credit card offers for advanced tickets or preferred seating for some shows.

* It's not easy to call New York Ticketmaster from Washington. The 800 number (800-755-4000) is virtually impossible to get through on from D.C., and while there is a local Ticketmaster office here, it doesn't sell New York tickets. So use the Web site, www.ticketmaster.com, or make a toll call to the New York number, 212-307-4100. Telecharge's toll-free number, 800-432-7250, does work in Washington, or you can use the Web site, www.telecharge.com.

* Bonus tip: If you want to be among the first to know when tickets go on sale for Julia Roberts's Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg's "Three Days of Rain," you can go to the Telecharge site and sign up for early notification.

Step 3: When a Show

Is 'Sold Out'

So Ticketmaster, Telecharge and the box office are all telling you the show's sold out. Yet when you Google the title, the Internet is crawling with sellers offering tickets. That's because savvy brokers snapped them up at the first whiff of a hit and are reselling them at way over face value. We clicked the link to "Tickets for sold-out shows" at BroadwayBox.com and went shopping for seats for the Saturday night after Thanksgiving, Nov. 26. For "The Odd Couple," we found seats ranging from $225 for the mezzanine to $1,000 for orchestra row AAA. For "Wicked," the range was $160 to $570.

Luckily you have a few other options:

* Scattered single seats may be available. But Telecharge and Ticketmaster may not tell you unless you ask.

* Standing-room tickets may be available for sold-out performance. Go to Playbill.com's Insider Info section (on the lower right of the home page) to see if shows you want to see offer this.

* A hotel concierge may be able to obtain tickets through a broker (for big bucks).

* The Actors' Fund (www.actorsfund.org), Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation (www.cancerresearchfund.org) and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (store.yahoo.com/broadwaycares/caretix.html) all have dibs on a few select house seats at almost all Broadway theaters and sell them at double the face value -- but you can deduct the amount over face value on your income tax as a charitable contribution.

* Splurge and treat yourself to tickets from Broadway Inner Circle, which offers VIP seating for nine shows; prices are high, but include concierge service and, in many theaters, a private entrance. Tickets are available for "Hairspray," "Sweet Charity," "The Producers," "Movin' Out," "Chicago," "Doubt," "Jersey Boys," "Sweeney Todd" and the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular; prices range from $180 for Radio City matinees to $301.25 for "Jersey Boys."

* Try the free classified site craigslist (www.craigslist.com; click on "new york," then go to "for sale" and click on "tickets"). You might find better deals than those listed above, but they tend to disappear fast. For example, we found the same Saturday-after-Thanksgiving mezzanine seats for "Wicked" for $13 less, but when we rechecked a few minutes later, they were gone.

Step 4: Once in New York

Three things you can do at the box office and nowhere else:

* Buy full-price tickets at face value with no service charge.

* Buy unused house seats and unsold premium seats at regular orchestra prices. House seats are reserved for theater people and VIPs, and premium seats are prime orchestra spots designated for sale at double price and up. Unneeded and unsold seats are released to the box office 48 hours, 24 hours or two hours before curtain, depending on the policy of the theater.

* Buy $20 to $30 student "rush" and standing-room-only tickets. Some theaters dispense them by lottery, others on a first-come, first-served basis. Playbill's Web site has a rundown on which theaters offer them and their policies; click on Insider Info (at the bottom right of the home page).

Finally, there are the time-honored TKTS booths. The two sites, at Times Square and the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, are operated by the Theatre Development Fund (www.tdf.org/tkts), a nonprofit service organization for the performing arts. They sell same-day-only tickets to selected shows for 25, 35 or 50 percent off, plus a $3 service charge. They accept cash and traveler's checks only. The caveats are that many of the shows offered are past their prime or are too new to have generated much buzz.

The Times Square booth at 47th Street and Broadway begins selling for evening performances daily at 3 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 10 a.m. and Sunday matinees at 11 a.m. The booth closes at showtime.

The South Street Seaport location (at the corner of Front and John streets, the rear of the Resnick/Prudential Building at 199 Water St.) opens at 11 a.m. daily and closes at 6 p.m. weekdays, 7 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays. Matinee seats here are sold the day before the show. Lines at this location tend to be shorter.

Unfortunately, the only way to find out what's available on a given day is to stand in line. You can, however, check the Theatre Development Fund's site to see what was selling at the booths the previous week.

Sharon Isch has been making regular treks to Broadway since before Lily Tomlin went there searching for intelligent life in the universe. Next on her list: Rosemary Harris in Ariel Dorfman's "The Other Side" and Gabriel Byrne in O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet."