Ticket prices hit $100, but discounts prosper

A C-note to see a Broadway play? Get used to it.

But while you’re at it, get around it.

In recent years, the norm for a Rialto play’s top ticket price has slowly inched up to $100. This fall alone, “Cyrano de Bergerac” tops out at $100, “August: Osage County” at $99.50, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” at $98.50 and “Pygmalion” at $96.25. Even Chazz Palminteri’s single-set solo show, “A Bronx Tale,” goes for a cool $96.50.

But as the high end is on the rise, the average amount paid by playgoers has actually gone down, thanks to the increasing prevalence of discounts and special offers. Last season, the paid average for a play slid $2.50 to about $64.

“With more offers being made available, the pricing strategy is much more complex than ever before,” says Bob Boyett, the regular play producer (“The History Boys”) whose non-tuner output this fall alone includes Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer” and Mark Twain’s recently unearthed farce “Is He Dead?” “There’s certainly more intelligence being put into pricing plans and policies than I’ve ever seen before.”

Plays first landed at the $100 mark years ago. Ducats to the two-part 1981 Brit import “Nicholas Nickleby” went for a Benjamin, and the same was true for the four-hour-plus 1999 revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Kevin Spacey.

Still, producers acknowledge there remains a psychological resistance to a $100 pricetag for a play that isn’t a big-cast epic. But with a dozen non-tuners on Broadway’s 2007-08 fall slate, more and more ticket prices are reaching almost that high.

For musicals, of course, it’s not uncommon to see a top (non-premium) ticket hit $120. But the higher tourist demand for song-and-dance — not to mention the increasing prevalence of best-location “premium” seats now priced as high as the $450 asked for some seats to “Young Frankenstein” — helped drive up the average sum paid for a musical last season by a hefty $5.13, to close to $78.

Premium prices for plays are available just as they are for musicals — “A Bronx Tale” premiums go for as much as $251.50, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” for $226.50. But with demand for plays generally much lower than demand for tuners, paying premium prices only rarely becomes a necessity for ticketbuyers.

Besides, premium prices, pioneered by a $480 ticket to “The Producers” in 2001, also has helped open the door for more flexibility on the lower end of the scale.

Broadway used to shy away from offering ticket discounts, for fear that auds would never pay top prices again. In practice, however, a more flexible pricing scale has increased traffic both at the high and the low ends of the price spectrum. (The airline ticket industry is the model most often cited as inspiration.)

The major benefit of reduced prices that lure theatergoers into seats is the resultant word of mouth, on which plays, even more than musicals, are particularly dependent. Discount ticket offers, sent out via direct mail or email, are now commonplace, especially in the early stages of a show’s run.

“All plays do special offers during a preview period,” says Jeffrey Richards, producer this season of “August: Osage County,” the revival of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and the new David Mamet comedy “November.”

“August,” a transfer of the buzzed-about Chicago preem of Tracy Letts’ latest play, is filling seats in previews with the help of such reduced-price offers. “We are going to be very dependent on critical reception and word of mouth,” Richards says. “In the meantime, we’re securing an audience that will take us through opening.”

The lower prices also increase accessibility, particularly for younger auds, which producers say remains an important concern for them.

Gotham nonprofit the Roundabout charges $96.25 for each of the two plays currently running in its Broadway houses — “Pygmalion” and “The Ritz” — but that pricetag is balanced by Access Roundabout, the blanket name for an array of audience-building programs that includes selling a chunk of tickets to initial preview perfs for $10 each, as well as HipTix, a program that offers $20 seats to ticketbuyers between the ages of 18 and 35.

Additionally, the three New York nonprofits with Broadway venues — Roundabout, Manhattan Theater Club and Lincoln Center Theater — have a subscription base that pays a lower per-ticket price.

“Our commitment has always been to our subscribers. We begin by charging them as little as possible,” says Roundabout a.d. Todd Haimes.

Top prices end up being paid by single-ticket buyers who turn out for a big hit or a big star. “We feel those are the people who should help subsidize the subscriptions,” Haimes adds.

As for commercial productions, most playgoers tend already to be theater avids well acquainted with discount offers and the TKTS booth. Those rare non-regulars — who more likely than not have turned out to see a celeb’s stint on the boards — are generally willing to pay top or premium prices for theatergoing that for them is a special event.

Not many plays, however, are able to take advantage of the premium-boosted grosses that can drive tuner numbers through the roof.

The 2006 limited run of “Three Days of Rain” logged astonishing tallies thanks to premium prices shelled out by theatergoers eager to see Julia Roberts onstage. But such cases are few and far between.

“The public isn’t going to buy $250 seats unless George Clooney is in it,” says veteran play producer Emanuel Azenberg, the producer of “Iceman” and the longtime backer of Neil Simon’s Rialto output. “The play audience cannot be treated the way we’re treating the musical audience.”

Marketing efforts have become increasingly targeted as ticket sellers accrue information about their regular customers. And thanks in part to the rapid response of the Internet, pricing shifts can be put into practice more quickly than ever.

“We now review pricing on almost a three-week cycle,” says Boyett. “We can move prices in either direction.”

Still, without the benefits of those super-elevated premiums, it remains tough for a play to climb into the black — so that even if discounts are bringing more people into the theater, the boosted attendance doesn’t necessarily make recoupment a slam dunk.

For ticketbuyers, though, it’s all upside, says Daryl Roth, the producer whose credits include “Proof,” “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “Is He Dead?” and “August: Osage County.”

“Smart, savvy theatergoers can always find a discount ticket,” she says.

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