Friday, November 9, 2007

Money, Money, Money for a Mel Brooks Show Must Be Funny in a Rich Man’s World

Mel Brooks to anchor Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News about the $450 seats to Young Frankenstein:

“One thousand eight-hundred-and-thirty seats—over 1000—1600, 1700 seats are a normal, whatever the Broadway prices are, and there’s a front row for twenty-five bucks a seat.”

You know, Mel Brooks does have a point. I love close seats to see a show and could never afford $450 for one, but I can understand his thinking. If people are willing to pay that much to see his show, why shouldn’t he charge it? There are plenty of other seats left over for the rest of us.

It is indeed a sad state of affairs in our more enlightened time that wealth buys you things many other people cannot afford—like seats on a plane where you have a statistically better chance of surviving a crash, your freedom after wrongfully being accused of a crime (or even being correctly accused), enrichment experiences for your children such as special camps and tutors, or the luxury of turning your lips into clown lips (a.k.a. lip augmentation). It’s really about time Broadway catches up with the rest of world, and it seems to me like off all these things (with, perhaps, an exception of lip augmentation), the cost of exclusive Broadway tickets should be the least of all things we exert energy worrying about.

But this issue also brings to the spotlight the much-discussed dilemma of the rising costs of tickets.

Let’s review a few facts. Broadway shows need to make money, but a majority of them close without turning a profit. See Exhibits A: The Pirate Queen; High Fidelity; The Wedding Singer; Caroline, or Change; Taboo; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; Tarzan; and many others. The butts in seats need to create these profits.

Cost of living is very high in New York City and all those people involved in the daily grind of Broadway need to have a home, have clothing, and pay taxes, often all while only being employed for two months until their show closes. These people include lead actors, chorus members, standbys, swings, instrument players, backstage workers, dressers, wig assistants, ticket window people, and so on. You can’t just cut people out of the process to save money, unless you have a small show with a small cast, that is. The butts in seats need to pay these expenses.

The actors need to be wearing great costumes and they need to be acting against stunning set pieces. This isn’t Dandelion Village Community Players presenting You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown after all. Large sets and great costumes cost money. The butts in seats need to pay these expenses.

So . . . When the world rights itself and the producers lower prices to $35 a seat for orchestra, then how do all these things get financed?

We have to face that fact that putting on a Broadway show is an immensely expensive proposition. If the tickets are lower—even, say, to $75 for orchestra seats, I’m not sure how this stuff would ever get paid for. After all, even when a show sells many discounted tickets, some people do pay the full price, which goes toward keeping the show running and keeping the blue collar Broadway workers employed.

Yes, we also have to face the fact that many shows don’t sell tickets at full price. Of course $125 for a seat is prohibitive and way too expensive, and at that price, shows have priced themselves out of the reach of many theatregoers, but so many tickets sell daily at TKTS, and there are a myriad of ways to access discount codes. If you don’t have $125 to spend on a show, there’s a very good chance you will find a ticket to a show you will enjoy for $55.

Even for the big hits—The Lion King, Wicked, The Little Mermaid, Young Frankenstein—that won’t sell discounted tickets for a number of years, the truth is that it’s only a matter of waiting. Yes, without paying full-price tickets (some at $450), no one ever got to see Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick in The Producers, but they did get to see other very fine actors like Hunter Foster and Roger Bart.

To me, a great Broadway show would be worth $500 a ticket if I had that kind of money to spend on it. Nothing will ever compare to sitting down and hearing Marla Schaffel and James Barbour singing “Secret Soul” or laughing uproariously at Bob Martin’s Man in Chair. I do agree that ticket prices rise too fast for the sake of practicality, but let’s temper that reaction with the reality of what ticket prices need to finance and the availability of cheaper tickets.

(For the full Mel Brooks interview with Brian Williams:

the Broadway Mouth
November 9, 2007

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