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Mark Shenton’s week: Dynamic ticket pricing risks leaving angry patrons out of pocket

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus
Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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It has long been the case when travelling by aeroplane, that you could be sitting beside someone who has paid half the price – and of course you will both arrive at your destination at the same time.

The exact same thing happens in the theatre, too, in which you could watch exactly the same show, with the same view, beside someone who has paid a very different price.

Of course the dynamic pricing model fluctuates: prices usually go up, but they can also go down. Earlier this month, I was in New York. We had been to Tuesday evening’s performance of Groundhog Day and returned for the Saturday matinee.

On leaving that show, we made straight for the box office to secure tickets for the final matinee the following day to see it one last time (and in my case the ninth). Even though this involved changing our flights.

The box office clerk told us she only had premium priced tickets available – and not three together. So we bought two tickets at $249 each in Row P of the stalls – and another single at $375 in Row H.

But on Sunday morning, I went online on the Ticketmaster website (the official agency for the Jujamcyn theatre chain) and saw that there were now three tickets available together on the aisle in Row G at $249. Now we felt ripped off – not just that we were sitting all the way back in Row P, but also that the third ticket one row behind had cost us $375.

We emailed customer services, but got a bounce back that they were not staffed on weekends and if we had any queries to ring Ticketmaster. So we did, but they had no responsibility or jurisdiction, they said, for tickets sold by the theatre itself.

I emailed Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theatres, direct. To his credit, he personally replied (amazing, given that it was a Sunday morning). The tickets we'd been sold had not been misrepresented, he said. The ones I could see online in Row G were newly released house tickets that had not been available the day before. But, as luck would have it, he could upgrade my Row P seats into the adjoining seats to the one I already held in Row H.

On the one hand, it demonstrates the power of going right to the top – and is one of the reasons why Roth occupies that position. He understood the frustration I was feeling. But on the other, it proves that buying 'early' on Saturday, directly at the theatre box office, was not the best way to secure the tickets. I should have waited till Sunday morning.

Of course, I'd then have run the risk of nothing being available at all – and it also would have meant paying the exorbitant Ticketmaster booking fees (not payable for in-person bookings).

As another industry friend put it to me when I recounted this story: "If critics had to purchase their seats themselves (even if a work fund paid for them) there would be a lot of features about how un-patron-friendly theatre ticket buying is."

How Mack and Mabel flops again (and again) – but is a winner in concert

Rebecca LaChance and Michael Ball in Mack and Mabel at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Jerry Herman's 1974 musical Mack and Mabel, a biographical show about the relationship between silent film director Mack Sennett and his star Mabel Normand,  ran for just eight weeks during its original Broadway run. Though it received eight Tony nominations, including for Best Musical and for its stars Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, it won none, and promptly shut after 66 performances.

But the score has simply refused to go away. In the UK, Torvill and Dean used its overture for their 1982 entry for the World Figure Skating Championships.

Thanks to the ongoing championing of Radio 2 DJ David Jacobs, the show received a one-off West End concert performance at Drury Lane in 1988 that was recorded and released.

In 1995, it finally made its West End debut in a production that transferred from Leicester Haymarket to the Piccadilly, starring Howard McGillin and Caroline O'Connor in the title roles, but it ran for less than eight months. Then in 2006 an actor-musician version transferred to the Criterion from Newbury's Watermill with David Soul and Janie Dee, but it ran for only two and a half months.

A delightful small-scale production at Southwark Playhouse in 2012, with Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, was the closest I've seen to it working. But another attempt at to revive it on a large scale, with Michael Ball and Rebecca LaChance, at Chichester in 2015, failed to transfer  to the West End (though it embarked on a UK tour).

In my review of the latter for The Stage, I wrote: "While director Jonathan Church previously scored a significant Chichester hit with Singin' in the Rain, another musical revolving around the transition from silent films to the talkies, he can't make this talkative musical soar. In Educating Rita, also revived at Chichester this summer, Rita famously suggests that the answer to solving the staging problems of Peer Gynt is to do it on the radio. Perhaps the answer to Mack and Mabel's problems would be to perform its score purely as a concert."

And that, finally, is what it happened last weekend at Hackney Empire, where the London Musical Theatre Orchestra gave its gorgeous score the full power of 32 instruments, and a cast led by two-time Olivier Award winner David Bedella and Natasha J Barnes made you wonder how the show could possibly have ever failed.

But a musical is far more than a collection of great songs – and there's something irredeemably unbalanced about the dramatic thrust of the show and its attempt to make the unhappy relationship at its centre feel sympathetic. Its also remarkably similar to the trajectory of Funny Girl (swapping Mabel's drug problems for Nicky Arnstein's gambling ones), a musical from 1963. Coincidentally, it was recently revived in the UK with Barnes heroically stepping in for star Sheridan Smith.

Barnes brings a similar aching vulnerability to this role, and lends Time Heals Everything a shattering dramatic intensity that's the soulful equal of Funny Girl's People.

And there was a show-stopping turn from Tiffany Graves with Tap Your Troubles Away. One of our most treasurable and unstoppable dancer-singers, she auditioned for her most recent London theatre role in The Wild Party at the Other Palace just three days after the birth of her son. That, and much more, will be included in her new cabaret on musicals and motherhood, that she'll debut at Live at Zedel on November 19.

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