1. "Don't believe our rave reviews."
Here's what the critics are saying about some Broadway marketing departments: "Out of context!" and "Stretching the Truth!" The reviews by veteran theater critics can be atrocious, but Broadway marketers nimbly pluck out the one or two positive adjectives and plaster them in giant letters under the marquis or on the show's website, says theater producer Elizabeth McCann: "From time immemorial, people have taken a positive quote from a bad review." Or, promoters find the rare positive review from an obscure magazine or radio broadcast and quote, loudly, from that, she says. "There's a concentration of this advertising in Times Square," she says, "as by and large the theater is tourist-driven."
Even Broadway producers say ticket-buyers should be on their toes when it comes to quoted reviews. McCann, a Tony Award-winning producer of such shows as "Equus," "The Elephant Man" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf," says one word often appears on the under-sling of a theater's marquis: "Entertaining." (Exclamation mark included, of course.) Good or bad, McCann says such sound bites do little to give theatergoers in Times Square real insight into the show. Though, she adds, the media should take responsibility for bland reviews, too. Here are some current examples of repetition: "Entirely Entertaining!" (New York Observer on "The Addams Family" ), "Most Entertaining Nuns, Bar None!" (USA Today on "Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy"), "A Hugely Entertaining Cast (The New York Observer on "Priscilla Queen of the Desert"). They may well be entertaining, McCann says, but Broadway theaters are quite economical when it comes to advertising reviews. "There's almost an identical quote in theater after theater," she says. "I could make a living buying them all up and selling them to different shows for the next season."
Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway theater industry, declined to comment on the marketing of Broadway shows by individual productions.
2. "Previews are not necessarily cheaper."
Previews -- shows open to full audiences before opening night -- used to be the best deal on Broadway. Tickets were sold at a significantly reduced price because directors, producers and the rest of the creative team were still tweaking the show. And since the show wasn't quite finished, audiences paid less to see it. These days, patrons are unlikely to pay any less for previews than they would after opening night, says Dan Geisler, co-founder of discount ticket site BroadwayBox.com.
Tickets for the supernatural 1956 musical, "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever," currently in previews and due to open on Dec. 11, go from $83 including fees to $272 for premium seats -- broadly in-line with regular prices. However, in some cases patrons may have better luck finding discounts early on -- especially if a show receives rave reviews, says St. Martin.
Geisler says producers prefer to manage the availability of discount codes than change the list price of shows and, in some cases, patrons may have better luck finding discounts early on -- especially if a show receives rave reviews. But he says that can cut both ways: if the show gets rave reviews and it's a hit like "The Book of Mormon" there may be no discounts, but if it gets a lukewarm reception, discounts could be even steeper than those in the previews.
There can be other problems with previews besides price. Sometimes audiences can see two very different shows: "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which had a record 182 preview performances due to creative and safety issues with the production, was a significantly changed production post-previews. And if the show is a bomb, previews may be the only chance to see a turkey. In 1969, comedian Jackie Mason's comedy, "A Teaspoon Every Four Hours," lasted for 97 previews, then closed after opening night.
3. "You're paying for the restoration of our theaters."
There is a good reason to schlep to the box office in person. Fees for Broadway tickets sold online or over the phone can add up to over 12% of the price of the ticket. Some of these extra charges are called facility fees, which is another name for money that is charged by the venue for the upkeep and restoration of the theater. They usually hover at around $2 per ticket. But you can avoid some of these fees if you pay in cash at the box office. (There are also "convenience" charges from TicketMaster and other ticket services for handling and processing. These are often as much as $7.50 a ticket.)
Of course, supporters of the fees point out that many Broadway theaters are old and cavernous affairs that desperately need the extra help for repairs. These facility fees are a common fee charged around the country to help restore the many theatres that have been declared historical monuments, St. Martin says. "While they are splendid and beautiful, they are extremely expensive to maintain and we're sure these nominal fees don't come close to maintaining these buildings."
Some theatergoers say those aging buildings can't be fixed soon enough. Renee Young, a New York publicist, recently took her two daughters to see a musical when half-way through the performance two large rats ran through the audience. "My daughter screamed and jumped into the lap of a strange man sitting next to her," she says. "Not only was there no refund, but an usher came by to see what was going on and starting shushing us."
4. "The shows with the worst reviews last the longest."
Broadway is littered with turkeys that flopped, critically acclaimed shows that close after a short period and monster family-friendly hits that go on and on, despite being ravaged by the critics. "The Addams Family," which opened on Broadway in April 2010 and will finish its run at the end of this year, was panned by many New York-based critics. The Wall Street Journal's theater critic, Terry Teachout, wrote: "As you depart the theater, you'll probably catch yourself wondering whether it was really, truly worth it to take your kids to a goodish musical whose tickets are so expensive that you can buy an iPad for less than the price of four orchestra seats." Tickets for this Saturday range from $74 to $240 on Broadway.com. An iPad 2 starts at $499.
On the other hand, the musical "Caroline, or Change," ran at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on May 2, 2004 and closed on Aug. 29, 2004 after 136 performances and 22 previews -- a relatively short run. It was nominated for 11 awards and won six, including a Tony award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. Ben Brantley in The New York Times called it "an impeccably performed show." Leaving aside the obvious explanation that family-friendly shows do well with tourists, McCann has another theory. There's a herd mentality among theatergoers and it proves the power of word-of-mouth. "If something is commercially successful, the pack follows the pack," she says, "and many people would rather listen to their Aunty Mabel than Ben Brantley."
5. "Good luck trying to invest in a Broadway show."
Broadway is a one-way street for ordinary people. They pay for tickets but, experts say, it's much harder to get in on the real action. A hit can earn an investor millions of dollars, but it can take years and not a small amount of luck, and often not until the show has a second life on the road. "Investing in a Broadway musical is something that is usually only available to a select group of people at very high investment thresholds," explains theater producer Ken Davenport in his Broadway blog. One investing "unit" in a Broadway show typically costs $10,000, $25,000 or even as much as $100,000, he writes. To be fair, there's probably a reason for the high bar. Broadway productions are incredible costly and risky endeavors.
Nonetheless, Davenport is trying to make Broadway investing more accessible. For his recent revival of the rock musical, Godspell, Davenport announced what he calls, "the first crowd-funded Broadway musical." Davenport charged only $100 per unit with a minimum of 10 units per investor. He didn't hide the risks either. "Investment in the Godspell LLC involves a high degree of risk and investors should not purchase Units unless they can afford to lose their entire investment," according to what he billed as an "important disclaimer" on his blog.
6. "Our audience members are mostly white women."
About 70% of people who purchase Broadway tickets and 66% of the audiences are women, according to annual data from Broadway League, the clearinghouse for show data. (No wonder Australian song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman is "Back on Broadway") What's more, three quarters of audiences are white. The Great White Way has made efforts to attract a more diverse crowd beyond the stereotypical fur swaddled suburbanite and tourist, but not to great success. (True, the number of Asian theatergoers inched to 6% from 4% during the last season, reflecting the relative strength of the Japanese and Chinese economies.)
The Broadway League's Charlotte St. Martin doesn't see the Broadway demographic changing anytime soon, despite the variety of shows. "It's hard to move the needle a great deal. We have so many limited runs that are making a great impact on Broadway, but they're not playing 12 months a year in the biggest houses." Plus, it's also a tourist-driven industry: Some 63% of Broadway tickets are sold to tourists, according to The Broadway League, and 17% of those come from overseas. One other explanation, say experts: Broadway shows are prohibitively expensive. Many of the "cheap" seats start at around $70, according to listings on Broadway.com.
7. "Our stars are long gone when we get to your town."
The original headline cast of "The Addams Family" -- Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth -- were replaced by fellow bright lights Roger Rees and Brooke Shields. But don't expect the same star voltage in your town. Addams Family just opened at the Proctors Theater in Schenectady, N.Y., with the far lesser-known actors Douglas Sills and Sarah Gettelfinger as Gomez and Morticia.
Some out-of-town fans long for bigger names. "From time to time a show here will have some moderate star quality," says Susan Hawkins, an Atlanta, Ga., copywriter who regularly attends performances at the local Fox Theater. "But more often we tend to get people like Toni Tennille in "Victor/Victoria" and Alan Ruck in "The Producers."
Historically, top stars used to tour with the shows, McCann says. But these days lesser known actors are the rule. One exception: When the stars are the show. Veteran Broadway actors Patti Lupone and Mandy Pantinkin will bring their act, "An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin," currently at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in Manhattan, to the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO.
On-the-road productions do have their plusses. It's one way of seeing shows like "Wicked" and "Mary Poppins" with production values as close as possible to the original. And the price is often right: The average regional show costs up to 50% less than its New York equivalent, theater experts say. "I definitely do not miss the outrageous ticket prices I'm seeing for shows on Broadway these days," Hawkins says. "My Thursday front-row seats average $50 to $65 per ticket."
8. "The noisiest performers are sitting next to you."
A bad actor can be a luxury compared to the performances in the seats. Ringing cell phones, crinkling candy wrappers, snoring, chatting and karaoke-style sing-a-longs have unfortunately become standard acts in today's theatergoing experience. Why, some patrons ask, did these people pay $100 a ticket just to snooze or chat?
Ann Mowrey, a public relations executive in Baltimore, Md., once complained to parents of children who were noisily opening bags of popcorn and snacks and eating them during one show. She was told by the child's mother, "The boy has to eat." Similarly, Eileen Z. Woltzer, a blogger based in New Jersey, has found herself sitting next to people snoring during Broadway plays. For those with children, the Broadway League does have a kids' night where children aged 6 to 8 can see a participating Broadway show for free with an adult. Mowrey gives companies like Disney credit for helping to make Broadway theatre more accessible, but says that comes at a price: "This is also why people treat theater a bit more like going to the movies."
9. "You can buck the premium-seat system..."
For those who don't mind spontaneous purchases, there are ways to snag last-minute seats with uninterrupted views below nose-bleed level. Emanuel "Manny" Azenberg, a veteran Tony-award winning Broadway producer who has worked with playwright Neil Simon for more than three decades, says if a theater has only sold 30 of its 100 premium seats -- usually located in the center near the stage -- it will start unloading those tickets a couple of days before the show. Some of these seats are also held back for celebrities and friends of the show. "If VIPs don't call back, their tickets are released back to the box office," he says.
For those who don't mind sitting in less desirable seats, go with a friend who works in the non-profit sector or a New York City employee and have him/her book the tickets. The Theatre Development Fund offers discounts for students, civil service employees, union members, members of the armed forces, the clergy and non-profits for a membership fee of $20 to $25 per year, Or check out discount websites like BroadwayBox.com that have special last minute offers typically with savings of 20% to 50%. Keep in mind there are usually no refunds or exchanges.
10. "...and predict our last-minute sales."
Timing is everything, onstage and off. Broadway shows are becoming better at managing their inventory carefully. For instance, the first 26 weeks of the 2011-2012 Broadway season grossed $534 million, a 5.6% increase on the same period last year, even though attendance was down 1.3% in the same 26 weeks, according to The Broadway League. (Last year, attendance was mostly flat.) But Geisler says Broadway shows also know when to raise prices for premium seats. "It definitely shows a trend where the growth of Broadway is a result of increasing prices and not increased attendance," he says. But this works both ways. "Discounts on Broadway are based on the premise that when the theater doors close, all empty seats are worth zero."
Demand for Broadway tickets slackens and deals suddenly become available the week before Christmas, Jan. 15 through President's week, the July 4th weekend and the entire "back-to-school" month of September. During all of these times, shows get a little desperate to sell tickets because New Yorkers are busy or out of town and tourists are often home with their families. It's an alternative to buying standing-room tickets -- in theaters that allow it -- and as the lights go down scoping out the best empty seats. For the best deals, go to the box office in person or call the theater directly, Azenberg says. And always check the weather. If it snows on the Wednesday or Saturday of a matinee, it's worth heading to the box office for seats left empty by Broadway's "snow birds." Azenberg adds, "There are always empty seats in a snowstorm. The theater will have a tough time filling those seats."