The Playgoer: Welcome to NYC Theatre, Part 2: Tickets

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Welcome to NYC Theatre, Part 2: Tickets

Part of an ongoing series.

Today we school theatre loving newcomers to our city in the ways of obtaining Broadway tickets without defaulting on your student loans.

(The economics of ticket-buying for Off Broadway, nonprofits, and downtown venues will follow shortly.)

First let's dispel the myth that you will always have to pay $100 for a ticket to a Broadway show.  Usually it's a question of when you want to see it, how far in advance you plan, how flexible you are with dates, and, most crucially, where you're willing to sit.

The $100-and-up price is now the standard quoted price for all orchestra and front mezzanine seats.  Rear mezz and balcony often aren't much cheaper at around $75.  Sometimes, the very, very last row or two at the top of the balcony is marked down to $40 or even $35.  But they are truly awful seats, and only worth it if it's a big musical or spectacle.  For a small play, you're better off watching the video at Lincoln Center.

But keep in mind all these are merely the stated price at the box office for folks who just walk up to the window blind. (Or buy on Telecharge, in which case add $15 or so for fees.)  And full price is for suckers!
While you may sometimes find yourself shelling out that much for shows you really, really, really want/need to see (and do choose those carefully), most of the time, if you plan ahead and follow the advice herein, you can still get into a Broadway show for less than $75, often even $50.

Except for predestined star-driven mega-hits (like Pacino's Merchant of Venice or last season's Hugh Jackman-Daniel Craig monologue workshop known as A Steady Rain) most shows will initially flood the market with modest discount codes that show up in many places but are basically all the same discount.  Easiest place to find them are either of the two big theatre websites, Playbill and Theatermania, where the offers are usually identical. (Theatermania sometimes offers more non-Broadway discounts.) Both these services are free, requiring only free online registration.  (The paid-membership Theatermania "Gold Club" is something different, which I'll get to.)

These are usually not super bargain discounts.  For instance, right now you can get an orchestra seat to a hit like Memphis at "only" $90; but a struggling show like Next to Normal will offer a $60 "top."  If you want to lowest price you'll go for the discounted mezzanine and balcony seats, which will usually be discounted below $50.  But for that special night you actually want to treat yourself (and someone else) to a nice downstairs seat for a change, you can get better value by shelling out the $75 or so.

Caveats: Do read the small print.  The discounts will usually be offered for limited dates--especially while the show previews and the producers await post-opening sales.  If it's a hit, the discount code may expire.  If it's not, then they'll extend. But even then, the offer may not be good for "peak" performances like weekends. Also: save yourself an added $15 or so per ticket in internet fees and walk the coupon over to the box office. Of course this requires actually going into Times Sq during daylight hours, but if you're buying more than one ticket, it's definitely worth it.

By the way, these are basically the same discount offers you'll get through other listservs, like the NY Times service, mass marketing emails, and snail-mail postcards.

You might find different offers on Goldstar, which serves multiple cities, and their NYC discounts sometimes include professional theatre, and sometimes even good theatre.

No, it's not just for tourists!  You'll have to wait in line with many and risk being taken for one--but a small price to pay for a sometimes-significant discount.

There are now actually three TKTS stations in the city, so you don't have to go to Times Square--and in fact you'll probably prefer not to go there since that's the most crowded--even though it does have the most accommodating hours. So if you live or work near South Street Seaport or Borough Hall in Brooklyn, give those a try.

Do familiarize yourself with all the TKTS rules and technicalities.  Times Square, for instance, only sells day-of, but the other sites will do some day-before for weekend shows.  Once upon a time TKTS only took cash, but now plastic is ok!

Downside to the Times Sq TKTS is, of course, the long wait and huge lines.  Going right when they open on a non-matinee day (3:00 on Monday, Thursday, and Friday, or 2:00 on Tuesday) is probably your best bet for speedy service.  And also don't forget the separate "Play" window; since most tourists are there for musicals, drama lovers can usually get a break.  This is why I think the best case to use TKTS is for a Broadway play that isn't doing well--it'll almost definitely be offered and no one else will be asking for it.

The TKTS discounts are usually either 50% or 25%. Unfortunately, only the already top-price seats are sold here, so you'll usually pay more than $50 anyway.  (Plus $4 service charge per ticket.) But, again, you're getting bigger value here more than cheap prices.

Of course, TKTS can be a waste of time if they're not offering the show you're looking for. They make it hard to know, since producers decide each day whether to offer their show based on current sales.  The TKTS site does offer a look at the previous week's offerings to get a sense of what may be there. And now the "At the Booth" app updates you each day.  (TKTS wasn't too happy about that for some reason. Guess he beat them to it.)

There a few organizations that charge you a fee in return for various random offers of cheap tickets to something.  The most popular is TDF (who also runs the TKTS booths). But I have found the offerings pretty sporadic--at least theatrically. (You get other arts discounts, too). 

TDF is fine for the casual playgoer.  But for the more addicted, there's the "hotline" approach offered by Audience Extras and, now, TheaterMania Gold Club.  These are great if you're willing to see anything, anything on any given night.  Your membership basically gives you access to very cheap seats at whatever the club is offering that day.  My view is it's fine if you're really ok with checking out a number of random, mostly downtown shows, just for exposure.  (In other words, your first year in NYC.)  My sense is you get a Broadway offer sometimes, during previews or for troubled shows.  But don't count on it frequently, nor for shows actually doing well.

Rush tickets (student and otherwise) are more common at the nonprofits than on Broadway. But not unheard of!  Basically each producer decides that policy for their show and, naturally, it could change throughout the run, depending on how business is.  Also popular are same day "lotteries" for a small number of seats.  Standing room is mostly a tradition of the past, but hardly dead.  But it only pops up today for big, big sold out hits.

Luckily Playbill maintains a handy and up to date list of all the Broadway rush/lottery/student offers. Bookmark it.

As for students, that's also decided on a show by show basis.  But student discounts are increasingly offered on B'way, as an attempt to attract the college crowd and twentysomething adults.  Lately, student ID policies have redefined "student" as 25 and under--probably due to armies of "adult education" folks trying to pass.  Faculty ID's used to be just as good as a student ID, but no longer.  So make sure your ID is clearly for students and, preferably, stamped with the current semester. (They don't always check the date, especially if you look plausibly college age.)  The "25 and under" policy has also eclipsed student rush so much that a school ID is sometimes not necessary--just a drivers license.

Finally, should your problem occasionally be not getting a low price but getting any ticket at all to a hot show, and you're willing to shell out a little more than full price, you can of course try Craigslist, but I now recommend StubHub--the new, perfectly legal, scalping site.  Unlike Craigslist, Stubhub basically mediates and guarantees all transactions, so I consider it safer.  It also attracts many sellers offering tix at many different prices, so there's usually some choice.

So there you have it.  Broadway on a budget.  Soon to come: non-Broadway on a budget, which is not as easy as it might sound...


Anonymous said...

Groupon is also a great place to spot cultural deals. The main caveats being: they're only offered for one day, on the condition that enough people express interest, and you have no idea which shows/events are going to be offered and when. That being said, you have exactly one hour to get uber cheap La Cage on Broadway tickets for as low as $23 here:

If all else fails, just dig up your student ID and show up at 8 AM, unshowered and wearing sweatpants for any student rush. Works every time.

RLewis said...

I'm a big fan of the tkts booth at south street seaport. If I get there 20 minutes before they open, the wait in line is usually less than 15 minutes (weekdays).

ps. where did the theatrosphere go? my day-gig is so boring without your fellow indie bloggers.