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In 1957, when audiences went to the National Theatre to see West Side Story, the hip new musical about youthful Manhattanites facing angst, love, and death, the top ticket price was $5.50, and an upper balcony seat could be had for $1.10.

In 1997, when audiences visit the National to see Rent, the hip new musical about youthful Manhattanites facing angst, love, and death, the top ticket price is $67.50, and upper balcony seats go for $35.

No wonder the theater’s dying, right?

As it happens, Rent is proving even more popular at the National than West Side Story did, but what those hyperinflationary figures indicate is that theater does indeed have a serious price problem. It’s not pervasive or insurmountable—and bargains are legion, as the accompanying articles illustrate—but neither is it dismissible as mere sticker-shock for the predominantly young, previously nontheatergoing crowds attending Jonathan Larson’s Bohème knockoff.

The problem for D.C.’s stage community is that the people making up those crowds, like their parents before them, tend to assume that all theater is as expensive as the trendy commercial smash they’ve just attended. It isn’t. As the price listings on Pages 37 and 38 show, the tariff for most of the area’s professional productions is less than half what’s charged by Broadway

touring companies.

Moreover, the cheaper shows are frequently superior as art. Patrons lucky enough to get seats for Stephen Sondheim’s Passion at Signature Theatre, for instance, did so for $25 and saw a show the New York Times heralded as a marked improvement on its Broadway cousin. No show this year sparked more raves or controversy than Olney’s white-on-white deconstructionist Importance of Being Earnest, and it had a $32 top, with prices ranging down to $15.

Still, pre- and post-Broadway tours are where most area residents get their first taste of theater, and where sticker-shock begins.So let’s look behind the sticker.

Start with the numbers. Adjusted for inflation, West Side Story’s $5.50 orchestra seat would go for about $31.10 in 1997 dollars.

This means that in real terms the top ticket price for a Broad-

way touring show—now $67.50 and likely to reach $70 by the end of the season—has a little more than doubled in four decades.

Audiences could probably live with that. It’s no secret that theater is a labor-intensive industry for which mechanization and computers can’t cut costs as readily as they can for, say, movies. The operator of a 14-screen cineplex can eliminate all but a few of the dozens of projectionists, ticket sellers, candy stands, and bathrooms he’d have needed to operate 14 free-standing theaters in 1957 to play the same number of pictures to the same number of paying patrons. But a 20-character musical playing to a full house at the National still requires 20 performers when it’s performed today. And that means 20 salaries, 20 costumes, 20 makeup kits, and on and on. Not to mention the 18-piece orchestra, the stagehands, the sound and light crews, and the full complement of ushers necessary to show everyone to his or her reserved seat.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that theater prices have risen in an era when most industries maintain the status quo through downsizing.

Commercial theater can’t downsize. In fact,

for the most part it has had to get bigger in

order to compete.

The problem for the most cash-strapped segment of the audience is that while commercial producers have doubled the price of high-end seats, they’ve more than quintupled the price of low-end seats. Inflation would make 1957’s $1.10 upper balcony ticket worth about $6.20 today, which suggests—if we follow the pattern downstairs—that the same seat in 1997 should cost somewhere around $13.50. But folks in the nosebleed section at Rent are paying $35, which means their costs have risen more than two and a half times as much since Broadway’s golden age as those of the expense-account crowd in

the seats below.

Commercial theaters have become so concerned about what this disparity means for the entry-level patrons who represent theater’s future—kids on allowances, students with summer jobs and tuition to pay—that they’ve instituted a number of programs to subsidize the cost of their tickets.

The Kennedy Center has substantial youth outreach programs and reserves half-price student tickets for every performance. The National offers half-price student tickets Tuesday, Wednesday, and at Sunday matinees. And most touring productions do something extra on top of those programs. Rent and Chicago each set aside front-row “Rush” seats for $20—not much more than the price of a CD—fully expecting college students to line up overnight to get them. The King and I pushed school shows. Beauty and the Beast had family discounts.

Donn Murphy, president of the National Theatre, notes that people who complain that theater costs have skyrocketed should remember that other things have, too. In the same newspaper that advertised West Side Story tickets for $5.50, a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon was 98 cents, and a steak dinner at a top downtown restaurant was $3.95. A room at the Ritz Carlton was going for $9 and a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Plymouth Fury for less than $2,000.

“I haven’t done an empirical study of this,” says Murphy, “but for years, theaters didn’t raise prices much because producers thought no one would come if they did. Then, when they finally did move higher, they moved pretty rapidly, and the public got the idea that prices were going through the roof. All they were really doing was catching up with everything else.”

Indeed, top seats for musicals did spend nearly a decade flirting with crossing the $10 barrier, actually hanging in for several years at $9.90 because producers thought the extra dime would be a choke point for customers. That was in the late ’60s. The great leap forward came a decade later, as the ’70s theatrical spareness epitomized by A Chorus Line gave way to costly ’80s spectacles like Cats and Les Miserables, and prices climbed from $12 to $35 in just a few seasons.

Not coincidentally, those big price increases came at precisely the moment that a group of smaller, not-for-profit theaters began to flourish in D.C. Today, their monikers—Studio, Woolly Mammoth, Round House, Source, Gala, the Shakespeare Theatre—are among the city’s most respected arts-related brand names. But in the late ’70s, chief among their many selling points to audiences was that, as small professional theaters, they required only small outlays of cash at the box office.

“It’s interesting that we should be talking about this today,” says Anne Norton, president of the League of Washington Theatres, “because I’m meeting my brother in about an hour to give him money for Stones tickets, and I was surprised at how little difference there was between the most expensive seats and the cheapest. Sixty dollars versus $39.95. I mean, in a stadium, why would anyone settle for the cheap seats and sit back where Jagger looks like an ant?”

She’s voicing a query not unlike the one many theatergoers have asked themselves after opting for a commercial hit’s midprice (which is to say, second most expensive) seats, only to find that they’re in the second-to-last row of the upper balcony.

That sort of question is not, however, heard at nonprofit theaters, for two simple reasons: 1.) Nonprofits tend to be small enough that there’s nothing wrong with being in the second-to-last row, and 2.) practically the whole audience is sitting in midprice seats.

This latter fact is possible because discounts are the rule, not the exception, in the nonprofit sector. Between subscribers (who generally reap substantial savings for buying an entire season of plays in advance), students and seniors (who are routinely offered discounts), and bargain-hunters (who frequent half-price booths and seek out coupon deals or pay-what-you-can nights), the city’s noncommercial theaters have comparatively few full-price patrons.

“In this town, with the exception of the big, big houses, money is never a legit excuse for not seeing theater,” says Norton.

That’s been increasingly true in the ’90s, with the proliferation of a new wave of small theaters—Signature, Washington Shakespeare Company, Washington Stage Guild, Le Neon, Theater of the First Amendment—that use Arena Stage’s pioneering work in subscription sales and group outreach as their marketing model. Quality of performance is why these theaters have survived, but price plays an important role in attracting and holding audiences.

To understand why, think back once more to the days of West Side Story, when the nonprofit movement was in its nascence, and theater going was not a particularly common pastime hereabouts.

In 1957, there were fewer than 2,000 seats to fill in Washington’s professional theaters on a typical Saturday night (the National’s 1,682 plus another 247 at Arena’s Hippodrome), and the public could hardly be said to be clamoring for more. The management of the Warner Theatre (then called the Earle) had so despaired of luring patrons with stage shows that it had installed a projection booth and begun showing movies. Ford’s hadn’t been lit since the 1860s, the brand-new Olney Theatre was open only in the summer, and no one had yet so much as proposed that a national arts center be located in Foggy Bottom.

In 1963, when David Merrick brought Carol Channing to D.C. in Hello Dolly, he booked the National for three weeks, figuring that that would pretty much exhaust the city’s available audience. And it wasn’t until 15 years later that a single pre- or post-Broadway booking in Washington exceeded four weeks. There just weren’t enough playgoers to fill a theater for longer than that.

Today, with Phantom of the Opera wrapping up a sold-out four-month run at the Opera House, and Rent in the midst of a simultaneous 11-week engagement at the National, the local audience has clearly grown. But so has local theater capacity. As the D.C. area’s 30 most prominent professional stages begin their seasons, they have among them some 16,294 seats into which paying customers must be put nightly. (And that figure doesn’t include venues like Lisner Auditorium that host plays and musicals only occasionally.)

Sixteen thousand seats to fill. Eight times a week. Small wonder troupes will try almost anything to attract patrons—baby-sitters in the lobby, post-show wine tastings, flex-passes, pay-what-you-can nights, subscription-seating parties, and discounts for anyone who can convince a large enough group of friends to go to a

play together.

“As an industry,” says Laura Hull, marketing director for Arena Stage, “we may actually have gone too far with this. Pay-what-you-can is a misnomer. They ought to be called pay-what-you-want nights. Everyone who’s ever done one can tell you about a customer pulling up in his Lexus to get cheap seats. We promoted them selectively for our Community Carol Christmas show, because we wanted to be sure the audience the show was created for would actually see it. But you have

to be careful.

“Last time I checked,” she adds, “the average that people paid [at pay-what-you-can shows] nationally was $2.50. Can you see why they won’t be done while I’m sitting in this chair at Arena Stage?”

What Arena does instead is reserve what it calls Hottix for every performance—seats

in noncentral locations that are sold 90 minutes before showtime at half price. But the

penny-pincher-in-the-Lexus model apparently still holds.

“It’s been a frequent enough occurrence that it’s made us realize that this kind of ticket is not about your ability to pay but about the fact that some people are real bargain hunters and they don’t buy anything, whether at the grocery story or at the box office, unless they get a deal. We don’t want to turn those people away, but we don’t want to create a situation where we hurt our ability to sell full-price tickets.

“The original purpose of setting up those programs was to make sure that people for whom the cost of tickets was a factor wouldn’t be excluded. I think most people in the business had a different type of patron in mind than the bargain hunter who often shows up.”

As co-founder of the scrappier, much smaller Washington Stage Guild, Norton is less worried about who uses her discounts. And she’s actually a bit surprised that more patrons don’t latch onto the steepest one WSG offers. Rather than a season subscription, the theater has a $50 four-ticket season pass that’s good for seats to any of its shows in any combination. You can bring three friends with you to one show, use the tickets one at a time to see all four plays in WSG’s season, or even form an impromptu group with folks behind you in line and get in for 37 percent off the price you’d pay solo.

“There are people who figure this out right away when they read the brochure, and there are people who don’t. We call it our Patron Intelligence Test, and sometimes I think it’s proof that math training in this country really does stink. In fact, in this year’s brochure, we actually said it that way: ‘Do the math.’”

Norton also swears by TICKETplace, the half-price booth in the Old Post Office Pavilion. “A lot of theaters don’t know how to use the booth,” she says. “I always make sure I have tickets at TICKETplace, even if it’s only one pair, because that way they list us on their board, and the instant they sell our tickets, they have to scrawl ‘Sold Out’ across our show’s title, which I think leads people to believe it’s a hot ticket. And of course, if I can only give them one or two pairs to sell, then it’s true: We are a hot ticket. It’s absolutely the best kind of advertising.”

Which is not to say that discounting always works. Paul Bilieu, who is now senior press rep at the Kennedy Center but was recently the director of marketing and public relations for Ford’s Theatre, remembers the frustration of promoting The Fantasticks, a family show with excellent reviews, terrific word of mouth, and the bad fortune to open opposite a bigger competitor.

“Last year, when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was doing well at the Kennedy Center but not selling out, we just couldn’t fill The Fantasticks, no matter how low we discounted tickets. Even at $15 we weren’t selling. Tourists all wanted to see Beauty, and the Opera House still had seats, so that’s where they ended up. This year, with Phantom selling solid, we did much better with Paper Moon.”

Arena’s Hull says the competition problem is often compounded by escalating costs that make discounting more and more troublesome to a troupe that’s watching its bottom line. “The fact is that our need for advertising is up greatly. The public doesn’t distinguish between us as a nonprofit theater and Rent. They don’t think, ‘Gee, let’s go take in a nonprofit play tonight.’ So if the National or the Kennedy Center are in the newspaper with a half-page ad and we don’t come up with something fairly big, we don’t make a splash.”

Obviously, if a theater discounts too much, it can’t afford to make that splash. So a compromise must be reached. “You get to the point,” says Hull, “where you have to be happier with a house that’s only 60 percent full, rather than trying to sell out all the time. And every time you roll out a discount, you have to be cognizant of every other discount you offer, of your full-price customers, and especially of your subscribers, or you start suggesting to your prime customers that they’re not the ones you care the most about. At Arena, we’re forever phoning our subscribers, telling them about special offers we’re making, giving them the first shot, so they know they’re important to us.

“Like anything else in the marketplace,” she continues, “you can diminish value if you make everyone expect sale prices. More recently, the marketing strategy that I’ve been seeing around the country is that instead of discounts theaters are going to value-added packages where you get something extra with your ticket: receptions, seminars, that sort of thing.”

In a way, of course, that counts as a bargain, too. And while Arena and virtually every other theater in town have0 begun offering those extras, they haven’t cut out their discounts just yet.

So for the time being, local theatergoers get the best of both worlds…if they know how to shop. CP