Betraying Broadway theatregoers – or just regulating the supply and demand?

Rafe Spall, Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig in rehearsals for Betrayal. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Rafe Spall, Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig in rehearsals for Betrayal. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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Theatre, as I've often remarked here before, is a supply and demand business – regulated by the fixed inventory of theatre buildings that have limited capacities, the sky is the limit when it comes to pricing shows where demand far outstrips supply.

So it is that Betrayal, which is playing a strictly limited season through January 5 at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre (seating capacity: 1,058) but has a stellar line-up of James Bond's Daniel Craig, his wife Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall, is now commanding prices – through its official box office channels – of up to $499 each.

Given that the play runs for barely 90 minutes, that means that patrons booking those seats are paying around $5.50 a minute for the experience (so you could see an entire movie at a Times Square cinema for less than the price of three minutes of Betrayal). Mind you, that is still cheap at the price: there are tickets available online via vividseats.com for $3780.00 each, in Row H of the stalls.

So someone is cashing in, and it isn't necessarily the producer, his creative team or stars that have invested all their time, talent and financial risk in making the show happen in the first place.

But it is certainly the case that the insanity of these prices casts a bitter pall over what should be a celebratory event: the fact that three actors, each of whom have a substantial stage pedigrees, are returning to their stage origins in one of Pinter's most complex and satisfying plays is one that serious theatregoers will want to enjoy.

And Mike Nichols's production, which I saw last night, is a visually stunning realisation of this great play – only Broadway could spend this sort of money (because, of course, it is making it too) on sets that seamlessly and miraculously change locations in a nano-second.

But unless you moved fast when tickets first went on sale, the possibility of seeing it now at anything like a reasonable price is all but extinguished. Nor is it a surprise, therefore, that Betrayal is the top-grossing of all plays on Broadway at the moment - last week it took $1,103,682 at the box office.

That put every other play in the shade – A Time to Kill ($247,168), Romeo and Juliet ($363,076), The Glass Menagerie ($734,661), The Snow Geese ($251,343), The Winslow Boy ($230,058) and Twelfth Night ($669,342), with new productions of Macbeth and Waiting for Godot not playing a full week as they'd only just begun previews.

The New York Times ruefully reflected on the success of Betrayal and a 2012 production of Death of a Salesman that previously set a record high in a recent editorial,

Arguably, these record-breaking runs demonstrate that there is pent-up demand for somber dramatic works by 20th-century playwrights. But impressive revenues are just a reflection of astronomical ticket prices. Betrayal isn’t the most popular, most-seen play in the Barrymore’s history; it’s just the one that has brought in the most dollars.

Who knows how high that figure is if you include the amount that is being made by the touts. Broadway has always been a gamble for its producers; but now it has become a multi-armed bandit for those wanting to spew winnings out of them. It's one thing for the producers who've taken those upfront risks; but another entirely for those who's only investment has been to buy the tickets in the first place, and then furiously mark up.

For more on what's going on in US theatre, read Howard Sherman's fortnightly American Stages column

3 Comments

  1. The point you neglected to mention in your Betrayal column is that both Salesman and Betrayal offered steep discounts when they went on sale.

    Theatregoers who bought either show during their first two months on sale had the chance to see it at meaningful discounts — and from good seats. What has happened on Broadway is that most theatregoers expect discounts to continue throughout the run, and so they feel little or no need to act quickly.

    And when the discounts are sold out — which they were in both of these cases by the end of the first round of the on-sale period — the prices went up, and by then the secondary market controlled a great deal of the inventory.

    But rather than accuse the secondary market touts as behaving greedily (which they don’t, since they can’t afford to go dead with tickets, and hence ONLY ever sell them for their provable value) or the producers for pricing too high (again, prices go down as well as up), you would do well to encourage a smart ticket-buyer to act quickly on a limited run with stars.

    120,000 people in a city of 11,000,000 (and that’s just NY residents) — that’s one percent — can see this show. In what world would the demand for it not cause the secondary-market prices to go where they’ve gone? It bears no more than a nano-second of calculation —- there are a thousand seats to sell 8 times a week. That’s nothing.

    Smart secondary market buyers bought everything they could and the premium prices are selling now at a fraction of what the brokers have available —- but had a desirous theatregoer acted when the brokers did, they could have had the same seats for vastly less than they cost now.

    In fact, in this instance, I opened the box office for a week (six weeks before the planned date) because I kept hearing from people who were complaining about the credit card mark-up, and so we gave them the chance to buy at the window without the mark-up since the show was selling so fast that all the really first-rate inventory was going to be gone by the planned box office opening. We grossed $700,000 at the window that week — so, in that instance, people who by then knew the show would be a sellout responded quickly and saved themselves a needless sales commission.

    But it only happened once the show was so hot that you were hearing about it everywhere. Smart audiences would do well to act on their instincts about what they want to see and to move swiftly when something exciting goes onsale. There are frequently very good values available if one looks for them and doesn’t wait for the herd to anoint the show as hot.

  2. Well – first off – the sets don’t change in a nanosecond. They lugubriously roll in and out while walls fly in and out. Expensive – also adding about 6 minutes to running time. I bought my ticket about four weeks ago for $90 online thru Telecharge. There are currently a handful of $145 normal priced orchestra seats avail for many performances thru Jan 5. ANd look at it this way. Despite a great play, great actors, an expensive set, and a brilliant director, this is a pretty mediocre if not totally bad production of BETRAYAL. So those able to pay zillions for a ticket arent getting much value.

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