October 17, 2007

A King's Ransom

Besides the looming stagehands' strike, the hottest topic in theater circles over the past few months has been the $450 that Mel Brooks and his co-producer have decided to charge for premium tickets to see Young Frankenstein. My fellow bloggers Steve on Broadway and Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals were among the first to rail against it. Last month, John Heilpern wrote a witty and trenchant jeremiad in The New York Observer (click here to read it). And just about everybody else who has anything to do with theater has also had something to say about it. Everybody except me. Until now.

I'm not sure what’s taken me so long. Part of it I suppose is that I felt that it's Brooks' show and he has the right to charge whatever he wants and if people feel it's too much, they just won’t go see it. And, of course, I know that not all of the tickets are priced that high. But I still couldn't get that $450 figure out of my head and watching John Heilpern denounce it on Theater Talk this past weekend got me thinking about it even harder. And the more I thought about it, the sadder I got. It's not so much the money that bothers me, although (1) it's a lot of money, (2) it's inevitable that other producers will start charging equally ridiculous prices for their "premium" seats and (3) it means that eventually all seats, even the "cheap" ones, will become more expensive. It's the message that depresses me. The mere existence of a $450 ticket, over four times the cost of the already expensive average price of seeing a musical, says, and says loudly, that Broadway is only for rich people—trust fund babies, hedge fund honchos and other fat cats.

And it's part of an alarming trend that is turning the cultural world of New York into a gated community. As a kid, poor but culture-crazed, I used to stroll into the Met or MOMA on Sunday afternoons and wander their corridors without paying a cent. Those museums now say that you only have to pay what you wish but the big signs over their ticket booths say you should pay $20 and I can't imagine my younger self daring to walk by them. During one spring college break back in the '70s, I saw seven Broadway shows for $100 bucks. If the price of a single ticket back then had been $100, I wouldn't even have thought of going to one show. And that's the problem. Those of us who love theater want everyone, maybe especially poor theater-crazed kids, to think of theater and art and music as something that is for them.

Broadway folks work hard and they deserve to be paid for it. (Hey, I'm the wife of a pit musician so I'm definitely for people getting paid.) But it's also hard to find a less money-conscious group of people than Broadway folk, always performing free for this benefit or that cause, always taking jobs for the love of the work and not the size of the paycheck, always caring about Broadway. And that may be what makes me saddest about that $450 ticket. In his column last week, New York Post columnist Michael Riedel wrote about how Brooks had resigned from the Dramatists Guild rather than pay the 3% of his royalties that all members are assessed (click here to read it). When Brooks brought The Producers to Broadway in 2001, he was hailed as its savior, someone who was leading the musical comedy into a new golden era, who was, as a lyric from the show put it, The King of Old Broadway. As my grandma used to say, you've got to be careful what you wish for.


Unknown said...

This will only get worse, and it's not new. The $450 ticket was the top price for Producers as well when Broderick and Lane were in it, after the first few weeks they raised it to that level.

I agree with your assessment of the 70's, I too wold not have gone for the prices they have now. But the only way to end this is to not go anymore.

And the price hike does not go to the artists - hardly. It goes to the producers. Which is why the first show was so aptly named.

I just moved to Des Moines to open a new branch of my theatre company which continues in NYC - The Subjective Theatre Company - all free theatre. Check out how it works in the sticks at www.zmannheimer.blogspot.com.

Esther said...

Wow, seven Broadway shows for a hundred bucks!

When I tell people that I've paid about $100 to see one Broadway show, they're pretty shocked. I was certainly shocked before I went the first time to see how expensive it was.

I assume a lot of shows still have discounted seats for students. I guess the problem comes when you're not a student anymore, but you're still not making enough to afford a hundred dollars for a theater ticket.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I share your dampened spirits. Throw in the cost of exorbitant hotel rates in the Big Apple and increased airfares, and suddenly, the entire New York experience will be outpriced for most Americans who have their sights wistfully set on Broadway. How very sad. Now I'm depressed.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to detract from your lament about ticket prices, which I agree with. But it's awfully hard to compare prices over time. Consider:

In 2006, $100.00 from 1973 is worth:
$453.54 using the Consumer Price Index
$366.01 using the GDP deflator
$427.91 using the unskilled wage
$674.53 using the nominal GDP per capita
$954.27 using the relative share of GDP

from http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks to anonymous for the calculations. Math is not my thing but even if I had that generous relative share of GDP equivalent of my original 100 bucks, I'd still only be able to get 2 seats at Young Frankenstein instead of seeing the 7 shows I saw back then.