Just over two years ago, I went to see Dear Evan Hansen in New York. The show tells the story of a teenager trapped in a lie about his friendship with a boy who died by suicide. Yet, it’s joyous. I saw the first performance after the show’s triumph at the 2017 Tony Awards. It was one of the most life-affirming experiences I’ve had in years. Everyone should see it.
Not everyone will be able to see the show when it hits London this month. Some will get lucky. In a gesture toward economic inclusivity, producers last week launched a ticket lottery, through which a few lucky winners will be able to purchase tickets at £25. There are also 44 restricted-view tickets available for each performance at £15 (including £2.50 booking fee). “Very RV [restricted view],” reads one note on these. “Due to a side view and safety rail. Will need to lean forward.” I sometimes dream of being able to send a reviewer to test the most restricted view seats at every new show, and review only what they can actually see.
But what really gets my goat is an old theme: preview prices. Dear Evan Hansen launched previews on October 29 and opens on November 19 after 20 preview performances. It won’t offer tickets at a discounted rate during that period. If you want to go this week, you can still pay £127.50 for a seat – all for a show that supposedly isn’t ‘finished’.
We’ve been here before. There is a basic principle that producers don’t invite critics to see performances until a production is ready. We all accept that performers need time to test a space. However, as I argued until I was blue in the face when I reviewed Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in 2015 for the Times (and no, there’s not space to rerun all of that here), that deal depends on producers agreeing to charge full price only after press night.
West End producers, with their ever-more exclusionary ticket prices, are misleading the public if they sell tickets to a complete ‘product’ while simultaneously telling critics their show is not yet ready for their superior palates. It’s a weird kind of snobbery that tells my uncle that a performance is worth £127.50 of his cash, but tells Michael Billington it’s not yet worthy of his sight.
After the Hamlet debacle, Sonia Friedman, who produced that production, impressed me. She met critics, including me, talked through how to make relationships work better, and publicly committed to offering clearly discounted preview tickets. For a while, other producers followed suit. But as the West End ticketing models look increasingly like those on Broadway, the trend for full-price tickets before press night is creeping back. And the new tendency for producers to tie a chunk of seats to ‘premium’ packages, thus automatically reserving them for the super-rich, is another horrible Broadway trend.
Friedman, admirably, has stuck to her commitment. Her next big production, Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt, observes preview ticketing protocol scrupulously. It’s a gross irony that not all producers seem to have learned the same lesson.
Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby