Bright lights, cheap seats Theater: 'Rent' makes happy campers and TKTS draws the line as Broadway's slashed ticket prices get rave reviews.

March 10, 1997|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- Broadway's latest discovery doesn't sing or dance, but it's music to the ears of cash-strapped theater fans. The deeply discounted ticket has become a smash hit.

Not everybody on the Great White Way wants to call the super-savers a trend, but the signs are there. And the bargains are as attainable for the opportunistic out-of-towner as they are for the savvy Manhattanite.

"Chicago" is slashing $75 tickets to $20 for the first 50 people willing to wait in an early-morning line. "Rent" is attracting all-night campers on 41st Street who want to grab front-row seats for $20. "Stanley," which just won the Olivier, Britain's version of the Tony Award, hasn't even opened yet, but every one of the $10 ducats made available for its scheduled run are already gone.

Note that these are not aging standards wheezing out their runs. They're the top draws in town.

"Chicago" co-producer Barry Weissler said he's simply "trying to give something back," making an in-demand show available to those who otherwise couldn't afford it. Asked if he was also using the move as a publicity stunt, Weissler snapped, " 'Chicago' is the world right now. Do you really think I need to sell $20 tickets?"

Marc Thibodeau, spokesman for Cameron Mackintosh, producer of "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables," asserted that cutting prices is simply good business.

"There's a fear among Broadway producers that if you ever did a public sale, people would think your show was a flop or in trouble, when the reality is every business operates that way," said Thibodeau. "You sell a cheaper hotel room or airline ticket when it's not peak season. Why not do it in the theater?"

Gregory Mosher, producing director of the Circle in the Square theater, is convinced the prevailing attitude will be healthier for Broadway in the long run. He likens the trend to choosing careful soil cultivation over strip-mining. Instead of reaping limited but huge harvests by selling only full-price tickets, producers are seeing the value of attracting younger audiences who will be the full-price buyers of tomorrow.

Mosher is putting his discounts where his mouth is. His nonprofit theater is practically giving away tickets at $10 per show provided that patrons buy a one-year, $40 subscription. Circle's first mounting is "Stanley" and demand has been so heavy that it's sold out, and discount seats for other Circle plays aren't available until August.

"There's a realization that producers better do something," he said. "It's a chance to do something dramatic."

Another show not open yet but already jumping on the discount bandwagon is "Candide." Twenty-dollar tickets for seats on both sides of the stage apron are available in advance. "They're going through the roof," said Mary Bryant, a rep for the adapted Voltaire classic scheduled to open April 19.

The musical "Jekyll and Hyde," previewing March 21 and officially debuting April 28, is also riding the rush ticket wave. An employee at the Plymouth Theater said $20 seats will go on sale the day of the performance, but details had yet to be finalized.

(Two other much-awaited musicals, "Titanic" and "Steel Pier," are apparently not planning any rush discounts.)

One veteran observer said the surge in cheap seats is because many producers "feel guilty" for charging such exorbitant sums. "Greed is the first motivator of most producers," he said, adding that the number of cheap seats set aside is negligible considering the 1,000-plus seat capacities of some theaters.

The truth is, shoppers have been able to find bargains on Broadway for decades. After World War II, two-fers for fading shows were placed in hotel lobbies and tobacco stores. Then the Theater Development Fund set up two "TKTS" discount booths 30 years ago to sell off unsold tickets as show time approached. Afternoon lines are routine at the Broadway-and-47th Street location, while the downtown outlet, at Two World Trade Center, isn't as well-known. The Hit-Show Club doesn't get the same patronage as TKTS, but it too can get you into the theater at cut rates through coupons.

Those who wait in line for the $20 seats the morning of a performance risk getting shut out, but they say it's worth the gamble. On a recent Tuesday morning at the Shubert Theater, where "Chicago" is holding forth, customers were allowed to queue up inside the toasty confines of the box office. And better yet, the line was short enough to accommodate everyone who had shown up by 9: 30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. sale.

Joan and Jonah Sherman of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., were in the middle of a weeklong theater expedition in which they had yet to pay more than half-price. "Chicago" was about to be another notch in their Playbill. "I actively looked for tickets that are going to give me additional bang for the buck," Jonah said.

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