The ruby red bleachers located in the center of Times Square are an iconic landmark in New York City. Crowds of tourists stop at the bleachers to take photos, eat food or to simply take in the flashing lights, honking horns and the suffocating pace of New York City.
Next to the bleachers is the TKTS ticket booth, where a perpetual line of tourists and occasionally New York City residents queue up to buy discounted tickets, especially for Broadway shows, at up to 50 percent off of the face value.
While the TKTS ticket booth is a popular resource for discounted tickets, tickets to most Broadway shows have become a high expense. Between 2008 and 2013, the average Broadway ticket rose 34 percent, and was over $100 as of 2013, with prices for hits like “Hello, Dolly!” going for upwards of $1,000, according to data conducted by The Broadway League. For premium tickets for popular shows such as “Hamilton: An American Musical,” tickets can be sold for as high as $800, with the cheapest being well over $100. The average Broadway ticket is currently around $110.
When “Oklahoma!” premiered on Broadway in 1940, the top ticket price was $4.40, which would be around $60 in 2015. The price to see a Broadway show has inflated.
The high costs associated with seeing a show a Broadway has raised questions about theater becoming economically inaccessible to the majority of Americans. For a family of four to see a Saturday evening performance of “The Lion King” on Broadway, a seat in the mezzanine of the theater would be $160 per person. Tickets to see a Saturday evening performance of “Wicked” with seats in the final rows of the mezzanine are at the cheapest $100 per person.
Broadway is an industry heavily reliant on tourism and is becoming increasingly popular despite the increase of ticket prices. In research conducted by the Broadway League, Broadway attendance in the 2016-2017 season reached 13.27 million, with a gross of $1.45 billion. Tourists purchased 7.7 million tickets in the season.
And even with the high cost of tickets, Northwestern University professor and theater criticism scholar Harvey Young believes that theater has always been economically inaccessible, but has only become more extreme.
“It's not a forum that has appealed widely to people regardless of their socioeconomic status,” he said. “When a person decides to go to theater to see a show on Broadway…they [are] making a significant investment.”
Anna Cohen is a first-year theater major at Northwestern University from Port Washington, New York, where Broadway was only a short drive away. Her exposure to theater has been expansive, with many excursions to Broadway with family and enjoying student rush tickets with friends. Despite her exposure, Cohen understands that there is a Broadway elitism forming.
“I think Broadway in particular, because ticket pricing can be very closed off, you have a certain type of person who is able to see Broadway shows regularly,” she said.
Darron Hayes, a freshman musical theater student at Pennsylvania State University, has never been a regular theatergoer and did not have the exposure to Broadway theater like Cohen did. Growing up in Winston Salem, North Carolina, he enjoyed both singing and acting as separate hobbies, and did not discover musical theater until he got the lead role in a school musical in the seventh grade. He was in middle school when he first visited New York City with his family where he saw a Broadway show for the first time, and seeing “The Lion King” was a “magical experience” for him.
Hayes relied on reading plays and musicals to gain exposure to theater due to his lack of proximity to New York City.
“Growing up and still now my family is not extremely rich and we don't have money to just go to New York all the time and see professional theater when we want to,” Hayes said.
Young says the rise in the price of Broadway tickets is caused by a combination of the high demand for certain Broadway shows, the expensive cost to produce a Broadway show and the issue of scalpers, who raise the price of the Broadway tickets they are reselling. Before 2007, New York City ticket brokers and scalpers could only mark up the face value ticket prices by 20 percent. That rule was dissolved in 2007, however, allowing brokers and scalpers to charge as much as they want. Therefore, Broadway producers have an incentive to counter the schemes of brokers and scalpers.
“The dream of producers is to have a face value that equals whatever scalpers can charge for it,” Young said. “If you buy a ticket to ‘Hamilton’ for $200 and then a scalper sells it for $1000 then the company's lost out $800.”
Despite raising the price to combat resellers, Broadway producers are enacting provisions to prohibit scalpers from taking advantage of customers. Such provisions include limiting the number of tickets a person can buy and verifying accounts. They have also increased the upfront price of tickets. And, according to Young, “that's the best way of getting as much money as possible from the audience member.”
The rising cost of Broadway tickets are in some ways unpreventable. Most shows cost at least $2.5 million to produce on Broadway, and musicals typically cost between $10 million and $16 million, according to an article by the “Los Angeles Times.” The long-running musical “The Book of Mormon” cost $9 million, while short-lived family favorite “Shrek the Musical” cost $25 million. “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” cost $75 million to stage, making it the most expensive Broadway show produced. While the musical initially did well in the box office, earning $2.9 million over its first nine performances, the show became notorious even before it premiered on Broadway in 2011 for problems such as injuries to some of the cast members, opening night delays, poor reviews and unpaid royalty claims. The exorbitant cost of producing a Broadway show that includes paychecks and a multitude of fees is, according to Young, the disincentive for producers and the barring factor for affordable tickets.
Carl Forsman, theater director and professor at University of North Carolina School of the Arts emphasizes that because Broadway is a “labor-intensive good” based on the work of people rather than machines, the high ticket prices are unavoidable.
“If you address all of the economic imbalance of Broadway by making all the tickets 20 bucks you'll have great accessibility, but there would be no Broadway shows,” Forsman said.
Producers do not want to lose money in their productions, but to seemingly combat economic inaccessibility, many shows use methods such as general and student rush tickets, standing room and lottery tickets.
The ticketing process of rush and lottery was conceived in the mid-1990s by the producers of “Rent,” who continued to produce monumental hits such as “Hamilton.” Rush tickets are discounted tickets to Broadway shows usually ranging from $25 to $40 that are dispersed on a “first come, first served” basis where people usually have to arrive to the show’s box office several hours before the performance. Lottery tickets are similar to rush tickets, and is a system where people can enter their name in a lottery for a chance to win a discounted ticket. “Rent” was a cultural phenomenon, aimed at the generation of Bohemians in the 1990s – many of whom could not afford to see a show on Broadway.
Broadway became accessible, but only to a lucky few. These policies became extremely popular. Now, all Broadway shows – long-running and short-lived – have a lottery or rush ticket policy where anyone can see a Broadway show for no more than $40.
Some consider the lottery system controversial. Many lotteries are now conducted online, and thousands of people enter the online “Hamilton” lottery every day. But an online system is less trouble than a rush ticket. For “Rent,” many slept on the sidewalk outside of the Nederlander Theatre, waiting for hours for a front row ticket of the show, according to producers of the show. Similarly, before “Hamilton” transferred its lottery to an online platform, ticket hopefuls would arrive at the Richard Rogers Theater en mass to enter the lottery, spilling into West 46th Street and blocking traffic, an incident often captured on photo and video.
But the lottery system also serves as a way to get the name of the show out there. “Hamilton” became famous for its $10 lottery tickets, a reference to the founding father the musical is based on.
“A lot of companies will do this mechanism to allow people to get in and see it for $10 and then what you do is promote them,” Young said. “You say, ‘Let me profile the person or interview the person who came in saw the show for 10 bucks.’ You're like, ‘Wow, it is a show for the people.’ It really isn't.”
The low chances of winning the lottery makes it an “imperfect system,” Cohen believes. “Hamilton” has 46 lottery tickets available for each show. Out of around 10,000 entries, there is a 0.0046 percent chance of winning a $10 front row ticket.
Another effort to make Broadway more accessible to the masses is to record of the show, usually at the end of the run. The final shows of “Rent” were professionally filmed and released on DVD in 2008. Many Broadway productions such as “Falsettos” and “Newsies” have been professionally recorded and released in movie theaters or broadcast live on television for a limited time. Recently, PBS has broadcast three recent Broadway productions that were previously filmed for the streaming service BroadwayHD: “She Loves Me,” “Holiday Inn” and “Present Laughter.”
Forsman sees these “alternative ways of consuming theater,” as well as viewing The Tony Awards, as the most practical way to make theater more accessible.
While the audience would not experience live theater, professional recordings exposes theater to a larger number and more diverse group of people. To Cohen, this is the direction theater should go. The “ephemeral nature of theater” remains, with lights, sounds and staging, but this time, “anybody can enjoy it from anywhere.”
A drop in the ticket price for Broadway shows seem unlikely to occur. According to Forsman, because Broadway is a gamble, addressing the economic inaccessibility will never become the “number one problem” that producers want to address. They have a “short-term focus” of making money off of their current production in effort to stay in business and pay off their investors. With the mindset of always thinking ahead to their future productions, the lack of accessibility of their current productions transforms the exposure current and future theatergoers receive.
“That short term thinking, expanded over the whole industry, means that the problem of developing the next generation of theatergoers doesn't fall on anyone,” Forsman said.
But according theater journalist Suzy Evans, the high price of Broadway tickets will not stop theatergoers from paying the high price to see a show.
“When people come to New York, it's an extravagance,” Evans said. “They're coming here to spend money and I think people, even if they don't have a lot of disposable income, they're going to go see a Broadway show.”