Holiday on Broadway

Prime Time Means Price Spike

By: - Dec 21, 2009

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As we swing into the Holiday season from Christmas to New Year tourists flock to Broadway culminating with watching the ball drop at midnight in Times Square.

But it is also when hotels and seats for the most popular shows, particularly musicals, spike.

The  Hotel Edison, at 228 West 47 Street, in the heart of the theatre district is normally an affordable option available for as little as $144 for a double. During this prime week it asks $259 for the same room. Fortunately the legendary Edison Café, one of the few alternatives for a cheap and fast square meal, does not jack up the prices on its menu. For regulars and theatre people it is known affectionately as The Polish Tea Room. For that power occasion to rub elbows with the stars there is, of course, always Sardis at 274 West 44 Street where burgers start at $17.50.

For orchestra seats at a hit musical like "Billy Elliot" the range is $126 to $151 depending on the date and season. For Priority Seating, generally center orchestra from rows six through twelve, the price is $256. But on peak evenings during the holidays, we checked and some are still available, expect to shell out $351. For a couple that's $700 for an evening of entertainment. Expect similar prices for "The Lion King" "Wicked" and just a notch down for other top musicals.

These end of the year price hikes are the last chance for Broadway shows and the hospitality industry to fill the coffers and hunker down for the slow months of mid winter. During January and February there are all kinds of deals for the shows that are left standing. Broadway shows are holding out for spring and the excitement generated by the annual Tony awards.

When "Billy Elliot" won all those awards last year it assured that the show, like the perennials "Lion King" and "Phantom of the Opera," would be around forever.

But the holiday season does not assure box office success. At least not  like it did prior to these past three years of grinding recession. Sure, there are still those flush tourists who will pay any price for the best seats to the top shows and sports events. But the average theatergoer, the bridge and tunnel crowd, or visitors from rural America, are budget conscious and only want shows starring well known actors or the top tier hits.

During Thanksgiving week, a prime time for Broadway, of 34 plays and musicals 11 productions were less than two-thirds full. During that same week in 2008 only 5 of 30 shows recorded box office sales at under two-thirds of capacity. But during Thanksgiving, 2009, "Wicked" became the first Broadway production to gross $2 million in a week.

So the top tier shows flourish while mid level shows, without big name stars, struggle.

An option for theater lovers on a budget is the TKTS booth at 47th street in the heart of Times Square. They open at 3 pm offering discounts from 30 to 50% for shows that day. Most folks line up around 2 for a shot at good seats to the musicals. But don't expect to find the "Lion King" "Wicked" or "Billy Elliot." Scalpers hover about offering tickets to those shows if you are willing to pay the price.

After an overhaul redesign the TKTS booth has moved back to its original location with new policies. They take credit cards where previously it was a cash only business. They also now have a separate line for non musicals. So even arriving at 3 for the best seats there is a relatively short wait compared to the line for musicals.

During our early December visit, for a variety of reasons, we opted to try the TKTS booth. Normally I would call pr people or go on line and look for offerings. But there were some glitches that called for a change of plans.

Because we  visit museums and galleries it is inconvenient to break up the day and show up at 3. So when Chelsea shut down we headed uptown to look for tickets. When we arrived around 5:30 there was no line. We also discovered that theaters also release most of their last unsold tickets at that time. So you may in fact have a chance for better seats later in the day.

After a bit of discussion we opted for the new David Mamet play "Race." It was precisely the  show that we  most wanted to see. When I asked for the best seats we were surprised to find that they were in the third row, left, in the orchestra. Although close they are not considered  prime seats. The discount was 30% and I have seen recent on line deals for 35% so, overall, we did quite well at the last minute.

We were scheduled to see an Off Broadway show the following night but when we arrived at the box office there was a glitch. There was an option to hang around and take our chances when our contact arrived. Instead, there was time to head up to the TKTS booth and see what was available.

Narrowing it down to a choice between a drama and a musical we asked the agent which show had the better seats. For the drama there was the balcony but for the musical "Memphis" we were again third row, aisle seats, in the orchestra. We just loved the musical. Also we got to chat with a party of four in front of us. It seems that they were  preachers from Brooklyn and their wives. They had purchased their seats just after we did.

In was an unseasonably balmy week in New York just before a cold snap. People were having lunch outdoors and walking around in shirt sleeves. It was more like spring than early winter.

Cruising around Times Square before show time we found a number of vendors with sandwich boards hawking discounted tickets to shows. One was for "Oleanna" another Mamet show that closed a week later. It was running to a third of a house. We were surprised that they were hawking "Fela" conceived, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones.

While "Fela" opened to rave reviews and was widely discussed as the freshest new musical on Broadway  it lacks the name recognition that sells shows. Also the treatment of Afro Pop star Fela does not strike a familiar note with the average audience.

It is anticipated that "Fela" will be recognized during the Tony awards season but the producers will have to hang in until then. The marketing and signage is a bit deceptive hyping the show as another "Lion King."  While also set in Africa that is the only point of commonality.

At the TKTS booth we might have opted for Jude Law in "Hamlet" then in the final week of its run. During  Thanksgiving week it earned just under a million dollars. Audiences flocked to the show to see the popular star while seemingly ignoring mediocre reviews. Had we stayed a couple of more nights we would have seen the show. Or "A Steady Rain" a hit, now closed, with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig.

Swinging into the pricey holiday season we are hunkered down. On New Years Eve we will watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV, remark on how young Dick Clark still looks, give each other a kiss, make some noise, have a bit more champagne. And wait for an early spring. Until then, give my regards to Broadway