Off B’way pumps up prices

Top tix hit $65, on par with Broadway

The difference between a Broadway play and an Off Broadway play used to be the size of the theater and the cost of the ticket. But now the second half of that definition has essentially evaporated, as Off Broadway ticket prices close in on their Broadway brethren.

“The audience for plays will go anywhere — if the play is good,” says Ben Sprecher, who put a top price ticket of $65 on Yasmina Reza’s “The Unexpected Man” at his Off Broadway venue, the Promenade Theater.

Sprecher will charge the same for his production of Richard Nelson’s “Madame Melville,” which goes into the Promenade in April. Over its 16-month run, the producers of Donald Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends” at the Variety Arts have raised the top price incrementally from $50 to the current $65. And tickets for Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” at the Century Center top out at $60 on weekends.

Meanwhile, Broadway plays “The Dinner Party,” “Dirty Blonde” and “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” have a top ticket of $65, with only “Proof” ($69) and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” ($70) getting marginally more.

Twenty-five years ago, tickets for an Off Broadway play went for $7.50 as compared with $11 on Broadway, more than a 60% markup. The difference today between the $65 Off Broadway top and the $70 Broadway top is a mere 7.7%.

“I think they have become indistinguishable,” Sprecher says of the two legit species. “The only real difference, which is arbitrary and wrong, are the Tonys, which (this season) will exclude the Reza and Albee plays, which is ridiculous.”

Why the climbing prices Off Broadway? The simple answer is that producers will charge what the market will bear, and increasingly audiences don’t distinguish between Broadway and Off Broadway when they’re pulling out their credit cards.

More is less

“Is (a smaller theater) a disadvantage or advantage for the audience?” asks Alan Schuster, ex-managing director of the Minetta Lane and Union Square theaters, who is now m.d. of the future (and as-yet-untitled) Off Broadway theater complex on West 37th Street.

“If you’re going to see a good play,” echoes Daryl Roth, one of the producers of the Albee play, “what’s to say the one on 15th Street isn’t as valuable an experience as the one on 48th Street?”

Various producers also mention the rising costs of producing Off Broadway. “Ten years ago it wasn’t the norm to have substantial stars playing Off Broadway. Really big stars inflate the budget,” says Sprecher, whose “Madame Melville” arrives with name star Macaulay Culkin.

He reels off the names of Vanessa Redgrave, George C. Scott, Al Pacino and “Unexpected Man’s” Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins, all of whom have performed in theaters with less than 500 seats. The presence of a big star invariably means a limited run, which in turn means a shorter period in which to recoup — and thus the higher price. “Unexpected Man” played only 128 performances, but it sold out almost all of them.

Producers put breakeven for a play on Broadway at between $150,000 and $200,000 a week, more than double Off Broadway’s point of return at between $55,000 and $75,000.

And while the larger Broadway houses mean greater potential profits for hits, many producers believe upscale straight plays are too risky on Broadway.

“There is a finite audience for an esoteric, literate play,” says Alan Schuster, “You can draw more (theatergoers) putting the play on Broadway — but not that many more.”

“If the ticket price is the same, you can break even at a very low multiple Off Broadway,” he continues. “Therefore, you don’t have to capture every audience in the world to make a profit — if you keep the play Off Broadway.”

Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” is likely the most esoteric and literate play of the moment, and its producer, Elizabeth I. McCann, admits, “I don’t know how wide the audience is. It seems wide at the moment, but it could be like what we used to call the Broadway carriage trade: It lasted until everyone left for the Hamptons.”

Although Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” “Proof,” “Dirty Blonde” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” represent a recent surge in profitable plays on Broadway, one doesn’t have to look back far to find more sobering reminders that serious plays can take a beating on Broadway, even with positive critical receptions. Recent money-losers on Broadway would include the Pulitzer Prize winner “Side Man,” “Closer” and “The Weir.”

Holding the line

Surprisingly, while Broadway and Off Broadway ticket prices for plays have merged, those for musicals continue to hold to a basic 60%-65% gap that existed 25 years ago when “A Chorus Line” sold for $15 while an Off Broadway tuner went for $9. (The exception today is Off Broadway’s long-running “Naked Boys Singing,” which tops at $70 on the weekend, not far below the $85-$90 high on Broadway.)

“Bat Boy: The Musical” will hold to Off Broadway’s $55 average for a tuner. It opens at the 499-seat Union Square Theater on March 21.

“‘Bat Boy’ is a Broadway musical Off Broadway,” says Robyn Goodman, one of the show’s five producers. Goodman is also an associate producer on the Broadway-bound Ed Kleban musical “A Class Act,” which features a smaller cast (eight performers vs. 10) than her “Bat Boy.”

Goodman, who co-founded Second Stage with Carole Rothman, puts the cost of “Bat Boy” at $1 million “and change,” which is definitely expensive for Off Broadway but far less than the $7 million to $10 million needed to stage a Broadway musical.

As for the $55 top, the producer remarks, “The next generation of theatergoers is our thing with this show. We have to keep it available to people in their 20s.”

Goodman recently became the creative director for Off Broadway’s Orpheum, Union Square and Minetta Lane theaters. She calls the $65 top for Off Broadway “scary,” as do a few other legit insiders who prefer not to be named.

“The buying pattern for Off Broadway is much more last-minute than Broadway,” she says. “Unless you have a huge success, people perceive it like going to the movies.”

The difference now being that for $60 you can get a single ticket to an Off Broadway play, or take the whole family to the movies.

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