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