Sonia Friedman hopes her Belasco Theater initiative shows that bargain tickets can be a good business model
It’s always the top ticket prices that grab headlines on Broadway, especially during the annual holiday bonanza when skyrocketing demand pushes premium pricing through the roof. (Want a top-tier premium seat to “The Book of Mormon?” That’ll be $477.) But this Yuletide season, one production has turned heads with prices on the other end of spectrum.
Since opening at the Belasco Theater in November, the Globe Theater’s repertory stagings of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III,” pictured above, have seen weekly sales snowball to well beyond the $800,000 mark — modest compared with a megamusical, but a strong tally for a play in a relatively small theater, and robust enough to set B.O. records at the venue.
It’s unusual enough that historically accurate, original-practices presentations of Elizabethan drama have become not just critical hits but popular ones as well. But what’s extraordinary about these plays is that at every single performance, 250 seats are priced at $25 each. That’s 2,000 tickets per eight-show week, or nearly a quarter of the inventory in a house that seats 1,051.
The initiative, the brainchild of lead producer Sonia Friedman, goes against the grain in a Broadway economy that can seem greedy and discriminatory as prices creep ever higher. And with the production on track to recoup its $3.1 million capitalization in the first half of January, “Twelfth Night/Richard III” could stand as a model that works both as a commercial venture and as a pricing accessibility initiative.
Even before 2001 megahit “The Producers” launched the trend of premium pricing, legiters have worried that Broadway is pricing itself out of the reach of all but the wealthy. Among the orgs trying to combat that trend is Theater Development Fund, the Gotham nonprofit that operates the lower-price TKTS booth and offers Rialto ducats to its members at $43 or less.
“If you pull back and look at the larger picture, people are going to the theater less and less, and to plays (less and less) in particular,” says TDF exec director Victoria Bailey. “You have to be in the habit of going to the theater, and producers have to make sure there are affordable entry points. It’s important for ensuring that we’ll have an audience in 10 years.”
There are other low-price ticket initiatives around town, such as the Signature Theater’s $25 ducat program and the Public Theater’s annual free Shakespeare in the Park offerings. But examples like these are heavily subsidized, decidedly nonprofit affairs.
Making it work in a commercial production requires sacrifice on the part of everyone involved, since, according to Friedman, the sheer number of tickets priced at $25 — in seat locations all around the theater, and available for purchase in advance via all the usual ticketing outlets — takes some $80,000 to $90,000 per week off the production’s gross potential. Despite that, the production made it into the black with more than a month to go before its February closing.
“One of the reasons we got to recoupment is that the actors, the creative team and the general partners have all taken a (reduction),” Friedman says. “Everybody came in for less than they’d normally come in for, to make this work. We can only do this because the company joined me on it.”
Friedman, the transatlantic producer of Broadway and West End outings including “The Norman Conquests” and the upcoming Harry Potter prequel, hails from the U.K., where there’s far more of a culture of accessible ticket pricing for theater.
In 2002, London’s National Theater launched its influential, ongoing Travelex Season program, a subsidized, low-price ticket initiative that’s credited with transforming the National into a renowned troupe by broadening its demographic. Commercial West End producers are following suit.
“In a climate where we all have to rub alongside each other, it was inevitable the commercial sector was going to have to somehow match the subsidized sector in order to develop our audience,” Friedman says. At her London productions, she tends to offer some 75 to 100 seats per show at lower rates.
Whether she can make it happen again on Broadway is another question — one that depends not only on the specifics of the production and its venue, but also on the willingness of the participants.
“It was one of the reasons it’s absolutely essential to recoup on this show: We have to be able to prove you can have this kind of almost radical ticket policy on Broadway,” she says.