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Howard Sherman: Ticket bots are wreaking havoc on Broadway prices

Bots are buying up tickets faster than punters can get them. Photo: Mclek/Shutterstock Bots are buying up tickets faster than punters can get them. Photo: Mclek/Shutterstock
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“I have a guy.”

I used to hear this phrase a lot, from various people not in the theatre industry, who always seemed to be able to acquire tickets to sold-out Broadway shows with ease. I don’t hear it so much anymore, because now everybody has a guy, whether ‘he’ goes by the name of StubHub or Ticketmaster Fan-to-Fan resale or something along those lines.

The rise of the automated bot means reasonable prices are harder to find than ever

In 2007, when New York State lifted caps on the amount that ticket resellers could charge over face value, long-standing opposition from the commercial theatre community had gone silent. Only six years after The Producers had introduced ‘VIP’ or ‘premium’ pricing, using the argument that these higher priced tickets would make it possible for productions and artists to realise more income via direct sales, most shows followed suit, with their sales success directly correlated to audience demand. Resellers jumped into the fray, more openly than ever before. But now, with the rise of automated bots that gobble up tickets for sale online, it seems to be getting even harder for the average ticket buyer to acquire seats at something close to a reasonable price, even from the official ticket outlet, in the already expensive Broadway arena, if they can get them at all.

In Why Can’t New Yorkers Get Tickets?, a report issued last week by the state attorney general, the results of which surprised no one familiar with what’s been generally evident for some time, it was affirmed that a combination of preferred sales that limited the number of seats actually made available to the public, along with mass acquisition of tickets by bots, were biting into ticket inventory in a big way. While there are laws in New York against the use of bots by resellers, and a few fines have been levied, it’s going to take a lot more scrutiny to police such sales. As it seems in so many aspects of modern life, the people determined to get a leg up on everyone else, even when their actions are criminal, seem to be further ahead of the technology curve than those chasing them.

Theatre is not alone in this struggle; the same holds true for rock concerts and sporting events. But any given theatre is so much smaller than those venues that the problem seems more pronounced, as does the heightened demand that drives prices up, a situation most apparent today with Hamilton, which is enjoying demand that’s comparable to those experienced, in my theatregoing life, by, among others, Cats, Phantom, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, the 1992 Guys and Dolls revival, Rent, Jersey Boys and The Book of Mormon.

So this isn’t a new story, even if it has been turbocharged by technology and made more apparent by the rise of online sales. It’s based in the fundamentals of supply and demand. Some theatre buffs might feel some small sense of pride that theatre is able to generate this kind of interest and desire. But in the process, it only emphasises how expensive theatregoing can be, even when only a few shows command eye-popping prices on the open market.

Broadway is a predominantly commercial enterprise, so it’s unlikely that capitalistic efforts will ever return ticket sales to something close to accessible for the majority; the real battle is over who gets their hands on the most significant part of the revenues being generated. However, just as dynamic pricing spread from the commercial realm to subsidised companies, one can’t help but wonder what’s happening when celebrities appear in regional houses, or when 200-seat theatres such as New York Theatre Workshop start selling tickets to Othello with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in the leads this fall. While NYTW made an effort to limit resales during its run of Lazarus by requiring photo ID to pick up seats, that will only go so far.

As someone who was extremely surprised when the commercial theatre industry ended its opposition to resale caps almost a decade ago, I certainly applaud efforts to put all ticket buyers on a level playing field and stem the tide of unbridled price hikes, both official and illicit. At a time when income inequality continues to divide America in so many things, it’s a worthy effort, though I fear a losing battle which has probably already had an insidious and deleterious effect on the perception of theatregoing as an entertainment option for all, even beyond the confines of Manhattan.

Somehow, some way, people with the means to do so will manage to get the tickets they want, when they want. They will always have a guy, even if their guy is now a silicon chip.

This week in US theatre

John Patrick Shanley’s Catholic school years were the foundation of one of his most successful works, Doubt, and now his prep school years are the basis for his newsest play, Prodigal Son, which opens Tuesday at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway venue. Shanley also directs the production, which features Robert Sean Leonard, and has been extended for a week even before its opening, scheduled now to play to March 27.

First seen at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, where it’s set, Lydia R Diamond’s Smart People makes its New York debut at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage, opening Thursday and playing through March 6. Kenny Leon directs the story of four Harvard intellectuals caught up in “social and sexual politics” on the eve of the 2008 presidential election.

It seems that wherever I look, there’s another Lauren Gunderson play popping up somewhere. It’s just last week that I caught up with her popular I and You here in New York, and now she’s out at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park with the premiere of The Revolutionists, billed as a “girl-powered comedy,” albeit one where the “girls” include Charlotte Corday and Marie Antoinette. Eleanor Holdridge directs the historical fantasia, which plays through March 6.

I’ve been smitten with Chicago’s Neo-Futurists since I first saw their perpetually running, perpetually changing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind some 15 years ago, and I remain intrigued by so many of their offerings, too distant for me to see. Their newest, Pop Waits, is about two depressed performers who rally their spirits and their muse by summoning “the sacred powers of their heroes, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits”. Malic White and Molly Brennan will be undertaking that task through March 12.

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