The story of 21st-century Broadway is not a triumphant tale of bold new directions for American musicals. It’s a story of the expanding bottom line, fueled by ticketing strategies called “dynamic pricing” and “premium seating” — tactics that in earlier days would have looked a lot like in-house scalping.
It’s now expected that the very hottest shows (“The Book of Mormon,” “Hamilton”) will fry the Kennedy Center’s ability to satisfy the appetite. Demand radiates out from Manhattan, and each season, Broadway promotes its popularity by trumpeting its latest box office heights. The frenzied tone can make you crazy.
As you stare helplessly at the Kennedy Center website, wondering when “Hamilton” will come back, and wondering whether you’ll remember by then why you should care, here’s a brief map of the ticket price landscape, and a refresher on how we got here.
Stephen K. Happel, a retired professor of economics at Arizona State University, tracks the rise in prices to the early 1980s, when baby boomers had money to spend, and cheaper airfare transformed regional events into national ones. And when Ticketmaster first established itself as a major player.
“Prices were low because the older crowd was sensitive to price gouging,” Happel said. “Now, you have a whole generation who says. ‘I want the experience.’ ”
“The Producers” proved it in 2001, with its limited $480 “premium seating” tickets. The rationale? It was the best show anywhere, a guaranteed laff riot after a generation of lavish, heavy mega-musicals, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as the stars you had to see. Why should Mel Brooks, who even won a songwriting Tony Award for the irresistible adaptation of his loopy 1967 movie, let scalpers — who were getting $500 and more for tickets to his baby — laugh all the way to the bank?
“The real irritation is, ‘Somebody is making money off of me,’ ” says Marianne M. Jennings, a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State who has researched the ticket market. Jennings herself is irritated by that idea. “GM doesn’t get a cut when you resell your car,” she said, dismissing this argument.
“Hamilton” has catapulted the “experience” mind-set to penthouse levels. The figures are jaw-dropping: In late April, “Hamilton” tickets on Broadway averaged $286, with a top price of $849. Premium “Hamilton” seats hit $1,150 during the winter holiday weeks.
In January, face value was right at $1,000 to see Bette Midler during her final weeks in “Hello, Dolly!” The price for “Bruce Springsteen on Broadway” ranges from $100 to $850 and averages around $500. That’s not even a premium seat. It’s just a seat. To an experience.
Despite the “premium” strategy, the secondary markets flourish anyway — and the high prices for legit “premium” seats means the marked-up broker prices can look particularly wild.
Fish the murky waters of online brokers, and you can hook “Hamilton” offers of as much as $3,000 a ticket. Springsteen tickets are being hawked for between $2,000 and $5,000 each — and in many cases, the offer requires you to buy a pair.
That’s on Broadway, but coming this summer to the Kennedy Center, “Hamilton” is already starting to push $3,000, too. Those $99 seats in the Opera House’s second tier? By late April they were up to $900 each. That’s despite elaborate attempts to sell first to “members” and to limit purchases to four seats per customer.
The Kennedy Center’s sales issues are evidence of the problems that arise when audiences lack information. The early members-only was chaotic, whereas there was a glut of seats for the general public a few weeks later. People reacted the way they did because they weren’t given the information they needed, Jennings said.
“Oftentimes, the attempts supposedly to protect the public actually harm the public,” Happel said. “There is still secret stuff, like the number of holds [tickets that are kept from sale for producers, artists and other insiders, which can end up on secondary market]. But it’s coming out in the open. Once you have someone break the ice, more will follow.”
“I’m a theater fan and see a lot of shows, but just can’t get into the Hamilton mania,” one skeptical Washington Post reader commented on a recent “Hamilton”-comes-to-the-Kennedy Center article, but another saw it differently:
“I spent $600 I didn’t really have on tickets to see ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway. And I was seated WAY UP in the boonies of the balcony. I hired a babysitter for the weekend, drove into the city. Between travel expenses, tickets, dinner, etc., it was a $1,000 weekend, which is remarkably cheap compared to what others have spent, but WAY out of my budget. It was worth every penny and then some.”
The ability to persuade the public to pay ultra-extravagant prices for the biggest hits is driving Broadway’s overall average ticket prices up, further fueling the perception of a loony market. Four years ago, the average price for a Broadway show topped $100 for the first time. Last season, the average price was $109, according to the Broadway League, and $113 for musicals.
Forty-eight weeks into this season, attendance inched up over 2016-2017 by 1.5 percent. The box office gross, on the other hand, swelled big-league: 14.6 percent.
People are paying more — but not for everything, despite that rising average. You won’t get scalped trying to see “Waitress” at the National Theatre this month: Tickets are running $63 to $108, with premium seats at $203. (On Broadway, the “Waitress” range is $117 to $270.) This extraordinary season’s bottom line has been driven by “Hamilton,” Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler, with steady assists from the next half-dozen titles:
● “Dear Evan Hanson” (averaging $217 per ticket).
● “The Lion King” ($157).
● “Come From Away” ($145).
● “The Book of Mormon” ($134).
● “Frozen” ($133).
● “Wicked” ($119, all late April figures).
The glittery above-the-line marquee value might say something about where Broadway is going, and what audiences expect. Broadway might find it impossible not to keep tapping into the same kind of starry-eyed determination that compels Beyoncé fans to pay an average of $158 for this summer’s concert at FedEx Field with Jay-Z, and to grab VIP packages for about $2,000 . . . or maybe even to pay brokers up to $5,000 when demand grows really tight.
The vast majority of Broadway shows flop. Ten shows ate up half the take for the 81 that came and (mostly) went in a recent period, according to the New York Times. In April, tickets to the Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical “Escape to Margaritaville” had already sagged to an average of under $90. The massively expensive production of “SpongeBob SquarePants” — the kind of star-free, brand-name musical intended by producers to be tourist catnip — could be seen for $68.
Late on a Friday afternoon — April 27, before the Tony Award nominations were announced May 1, which always sharpens the line between winners and losers — 22 of Broadway’s 37 shows were on sale for 30 percent to 50 percent off at the TKTS booths. That included new musicals “The Band’s Visit,” “SpongeBob,” “Margaritaville” and “Summer”(the Donna Summer catalogue), and Bernadette Peters in “Hello, Dolly!” Buyer’s delight.
On the other hand, you could get only a very few last-minute tickets on Telecharge (the “legit” seller) to “Mean Girls” for $140 to $350, and to “Dear Evan Hansen” for $450 plus fees. Seller’s market. Ante up.
If you think it’s going to be the Next Big Thing, buy your tickets now for this fall’s colossus, the new musical “King Kong.” (It could happen: Who knew that Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” or the undeniably wonky “Hamilton” would be hits?) Right now, the top “King Kong” price at peak times — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s — is merely $175. By then, that could look like a deal. Or a colossal bust.
Happel doesn’t see an end to the trend. “Ten years from now,” he suggests, “you might look back and say, ‘You only paid $850 to see Springsteen?’ ”