By Barbara & Scott Siegel
When we look back at theater history, we can see the ebb and flow of its many changes and pinpoint the reasons for its often seismic shifts, For instance, operettas, the rage in the 1920s, disappeared like dinosaurs with the coming of the dark and cold Great Depression. The romance, splendor, and big budgets of the operetta no longer suited a world of breadlines. Another example? Musical revues, long a staple of the Great White Way, virtually disappeared when television was awash in variety shows. And romantic comedies, another regular feature on the Rialto died, as well, when our modern ideas of romance could no longer support their conventions.
Along the way, we’ve had British Invasions, site specific theater, interactive theater, and waves of puppetry. We’ve had audiences dominated by the Irish, then the Jews, and now the larger world of the tourist. And we’re not done yet; the changes are still happening…
As always, the key thing you must do to observe the ever-changing theater landscape, is to follow the money. The big sea-change in the theater is the monumental cost of tickets. Broadway tickets to a hit show aren’t just expensive, they’re obscene! Yes, Off-Broadway is less expensive, and initiatives, like the cheaper seats at the Signature Theater, make some theater reasonably affordable, but the overall rise in ticket prices has, essentially, priced the middle class out of regular theatergoing. Of course, you can get cheaper Broadway tickets to struggling Broadway shows via a wide assortment of discount services, but decent seats at the popular shows are now the province of the rich, whether its wealthy Americans or foreigners, or corporate clients.
Where will this lead? For starters, it’s reinforcing and accelerating a trend that has been going on for a very long time. Look who is gaining prominence as producers of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. Independent commercial producers like Scott Rudin are becoming increasingly rare, while institutional producers like Lincoln Center, The Roundabout, Second Stage, and Manhattan Theater Club are staking an ever-greater claim on both Broadway real estate and its audience (take note that Second Stage just took over the Helen Hayes Theater for future Broadway productions).
These institutional theater companies can produce less expensively because of sweetheart deals with unions, offer shorter runs to induce stars to sign up for shows, and guarantee audiences, thanks to large subscription bases. And most important of all, their productions are supported by a wide variety of sponsors that cover a large percentage of their overhead.
It’s clear that the free market is at work in terms of the exorbitant prices for shows like Hamilton, Wicked, Aladdin, The Book of Mormon, etc. If there weren’t people willing to pay those prices, the prices would come down. Wisely, to defuse outrage, most hot shows have some form of lottery for cheap seats that let’s people in to see them who could not otherwise afford the price of a ticket. And this system may be a glimpse into the future…
Look for the lottery system to morph into something more formalized across Broadway; agreements much like those in the high end real estate market that insists upon a certain number of affordable housing units within high rise luxury buildings. In other words, if a show is going to have a certain number of seats at $800 per ticket, they must also offer a certain number of seats at (let’s say) $100 per ticket in roughly equivalent areas of the theater. Pressure for this kind of change may come from a variety of sources, but once one of the three big theater chains put such a system into a effect, the others will follow with their own variations.
At some point, to save the theater, all must have a chance to see what’s current; if that doesn’t happen, the theater will have even less currency as a popular art form than it has now.