Mark Shenton: First Broadway producers turned touts, now they’re offering loans
In the market-driven economy of the commercial theatre, it’s not so much about getting what you pay for, as charging what people are willing to pay.
Ticket prices are fuelled by supply and demand. Limit the supply – and tickets are invariably limited when even our biggest musical houses seat only around 1,500-2,000 people – and the prices are going to go sky-high when a show is at its hottest. No wonder that ticket prices for Hamilton in the West End are now topping out at £250 each – and that’s through the box office, not secondary ticket outlets, which are being shut out by a scheme requiring tickets to be collected in person with matching ID.
That’s a bargain compared to what has been charged on Broadway for the same show: premium tickets through the box office during last year’s Christmas season hit $1,150 a ticket. Tickets for Bruce Springsteen’s current Broadway run – in a theatre that seats fewer than 1,000 – were priced between $100-$850 at the box office; but don’t even think about obtaining one there. You’d have to trawl the secondary ticket market, where tickets for this week can currently be found for up to $3,953 each.
You could argue that Springsteen is very much a one-off: seeing a global music superstar at close quarters on a Broadway stage, as opposed to the stadiums he usually plays, is upping the ante. But now that the market has been tested – and it has been proved that those tickets will sell, whatever the price – it will encourage others to follow suit. Greed invariably follows opportunity.
And that’s precisely how we came to this pretty pass. The offer of so-called ‘premium’ seats started with Mel Brooks’ The Producers. It’s somehow appropriate that a show about a pair of shady backstage operators who hatch a get-rich-quick scheme turned itself into the hottest ticket on Broadway and invented its own scheme for upping the ante, with the offer of $480 premium seats.
That was back in 2001; when Brooks and his investors and creative team (who participated in the royalty pool of dividends from the show) were loathe to see others profiting off their hard labours by selling marked-up tickets. Instead, they would do it themselves.
Now, every single show on Broadway lists premium prices. As a recent feature in the Washington Post put it: “The story of 21st-century Broadway is not a triumphant tale of bold new directions for American musicals. It’s a story of the expanding bottom line, fuelled by ticketing strategies called ‘dynamic pricing’ and ‘premium seating’ – tactics that in earlier days would have looked a lot like in-house scalping.”
Dynamic pricing, which has been facilitated by the computerisation of box offices, allows producers to respond directly and immediately to demand, resetting tickets at will.
And what’s happened in the US has been exported to the UK market. Not least as Broadway’s biggest hits launch their assaults upon the West End, and export not just the shows but also their marketing and ticketing strategies. The coming months will see a flurry of transfers, including Come from Away, Waitress and Dear Evan Hansen. As one West End fan tweeted last week: “I will look back at 2019 as the year the West End took all my money in exchange for tickets to Broadway transfers.”
Perhaps it’s time for the West End to look at an instalment payment plan, like that introduced on Broadway by Ticketmaster, which handles primary ticket sales for the Nederlander and Jujamcyn theatre chains. It has partnered with a bank to offer a “buy now, pay later” option called FlexPay, in which theatregoers pay over six months or a year at an annual interest rate of 10% (which doubles to 20% should the initial promotion lapse).
As Philip Boroff wrote for Broadway Journal: “The new offering is symptomatic of ticket price inflation and Americans’ increasing tolerance for debt. In the past decade, the average Broadway ticket increased 62% to $123, according to Broadway League figures, more than double the percentage increase in average US wages.”
But sometimes even producers can’t match the likely demand – and even more radical measures need to be employed. Last week, the National announced dates for a new collaboration between playwright Martin Crimp, director Katie Mitchell and actor Cate Blanchett, which will play in its smallest Dorfman space from January 16 to March 2 only.
Only 10,000 pairs of tickets will be available, so tickets will be offered by ballot only. Another strategy is to plan for an NT Live screening, so theatregoers who can’t get in and/or live outside London can participate in a live filmed version of the event. That’s a more democratising way of dealing with the issue than leaving it to the luck of a lottery, or price-gouging those happy to pay for the privilege.