Dan Savage interviews Frank Rich about many weighty issues--both theatrical (Sondheim) and political (gay rights)--but their digression about the size of "road houses" is perhaps the most important take-away:
[O]ur two big houses [in Seattle] are no Broadway houses. They're movie palaces that were built to accommodate some vaudeville, but they are lousy places to see musicals in. The seats are all too close together—they did a good job rehabbing it, but still. It's too large. People here don't realize how small most Broadway theaters really are [i.e. 800-1200 seats].
You're absolutely right, and I would say that Seattle's experience is typical of almost every out-of-town city. The whole arrival of performing-arts centers in Tampa, Cleveland, and so on changed it all. So now every Broadway show plays these huge barns out of town, and they don't want a smaller theater like the old Shubert in Chicago—by small, I mean still 1,800 seats. They don't want it. They want the 3,500- or 4,000-seat auditorium.
Which is too bad, because those theaters weren't designed for live performances.
Oh, it's ridiculous, and you have a show like Avenue Q, which is what everyone thinks of it—it's an intimate show with puppets, played in one of the smaller Broadway houses. It played in a theater with about 800 seats in New York. That's been playing around the country in places like the Fox in Atlanta, which is 4,000 seats.
Yeah, I saw that here for the first time at the Paramount. I called and made sure I could get tickets in the first 10 rows, and there were people in the last row in the balcony.
It's shocking. My guess is that the first maybe 12 rows of the orchestra or 15 rows of the Paramount equal the entire capacity of the Golden Theatre, which it played on Broadway in New York.
The erecting of these huge barns and the shuttering of the older, smaller venues is no coincidence. It's pure math: pack more asses into your seats in less time. In a Broadway-size house, selling, say, 20,000 tickets takes 20 days. At the Atlanta Fox--five. (Or, in other words, one long weekend, before you're onto the next town.)
So what if the suckers in the balcony are paying top dollar for the equivalent of the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. They still get to see their Wicked, don't they!
And don't think these dynamics are not having an affect on the mic-ing and over-amplification of Broadway.