The Sensitive Scalpers
Four months after the plan went into effect, Filichia finally lets off steam about The Producers' $480 tickets.
As someone who thought that theater tickets were getting way out of hand in 1975, when Bob Fosse's Chicago with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach upped prices from $15 to $17.50, you can imagine how I felt when The Producers announced it was going to charge $480 for some seats. And so, marking the fourth-month anniversary of the program, I spoke to Joe Farrell, CEO of Broadway Inner Circle, to see how the plan was going.
"Well, it's not $480," he reminded me. "It's $400. The $80 is a service charge." But that didn't quite take a load off my mind. You mean to say that $80, which only a few years ago was the top-price ticket ever for a Broadway show, now only represents the service charge? Farrell tried to justify it by saying that $80 is, after all, only 20% of the cost of the ticket. And Ticketmaster, he pointed out, has a 17% service charge.
So, then, why isn't it "just" $468? "This is not a normal ticket," he insisted. "It's not to be looked at in the same way you'd price a ticket for a show. Our customer base is the high-end corporate client base and the traveler. A senior VP or CEO has a client who wants to see the highest impact entertainment product he can go to in New York--a sold out show. You can go to a sports event anywhere it the county but you can only go to Broadway in New York. These aren't the people who buy tickets six or nine months in advance; these are people who say they need four tickets for Saturday night."
And why do they "need" them? To show off? To make supposedly rich and powerful people feel even more rich and powerful? What would happen if they didn't see The Producers and had to "settle" for The Full Monty, a wonderful show in its own right? Would they feel just a little (or a lot) less rich and powerful, and would that bruise their egos? So what!? Listen, I didn't see the original casts of Hello, Dolly! or Fiddler on the Roof, and I've lived.
"This," Farrell continued, "is for that executive assistant who has never picked up the phone and called Ticketmaster, Telecharge, or the box office. And if they do, they'll find that don't have the seats that we've reserved for Broadway Inner Circle--in the first 15 rows of the orchestra, never more than four seats off the aisle, or in the first and second rows of the mezzanine. So the assistant opens his Rolodex and finds brokers. Tickets from them can cost many hundreds if not thousands of dollars; $40-$50 million a year is paid to brokers. There are 11,000 broker sites on the web. When a person who goes through a broker deducts those tickets as IRS expenses, he can only claim the actual price of the tickets: $100 each. But when he buys from us, he can deduct the entire $480 as a corporate business expense because that is literally the price of the ticket and he has a legitimate and legal receipt. He's also entitled to a full refund if Nathan's out, which he wouldn't get with the brokers, and he won't have to go back in line."
Actually, Nathan is out--now and forever, along with co-star Matthew Broderick, as of yesterday. "The Producers won 11 Tony Awards aside from Nathan Lane," Farrell was quick to point out--but that didn't cut much (you should pardon the expression) ice with me. I don't care what the show is: There's always a loss of luster when the original cast leaves. The Producers will never, ever again be the experience it once was, even if Henry Goodman and Steven Weber turn out to be better in the roles than Lane and Broderick.
When Farrell told me "We have a concierge in the lobby each night," I expected to hear that Broadway Inner Circle was really going to offer something special. But here are the perks: "If you lose or forget your tickets, the concierge knows you bought them, and you'll be seated." Well, I remember that godawful night when I lost my tickets to Grease. (There are those who would say that I was actually lucky to have lost them, but that's another story.) I went up to the box office and was very kindly informed that, because I knew where my seats were, they'd put me in them; only thing was, if anyone came with the tickets, then we'd have to talk about who really belonged there. No one showed up with my missing seats and I saw the show, without benefit of a concierge.
And remember when Garth Drabinsky offered $125 VIP tickets to Ragtime but at least gave those who bought them access to a private lounge, free drinks, and bathrooms that weren't as crowded? There are those who'll tell you that Drabinsky was a crook (not necessarily for this service), but he seemed to offer more than Broadway Inner Circle does.
Well, it's not just the concierge! "If you have 20 people for a theater party," Farrell explained, "we'll have people come to your living room and work out the chart where you want people to sit. That's included. We'll also arrange limos and make the calls to get reservations for dinner. We'll have certain tables held in restaurants for you. Our focus is on giving our customer base legitimate access to seats. This is not a general public thing. I'm from Florida and, before I got involved with this company, I used to come to Broadway a few times a year and wanted a unique Broadway experience. I didn't want to sit in the balcony, so people took me and paid premium prices." (You know, there are plenty of other shows out there that could have accommodated Farrell at the normal full price or even half price and he probably would have had a wonderful time. But would he have felt as special? Perhaps this type of customer needs people to spend money on him so he can feel like a big shot; the show becomes secondary to that feeling of power.)
"Just shy of five percent of every ticket goes to the theater unions," Farrell went on, "and we give half the proceeds to September 11 funds. From November 16, when it started, to the end of the year, that was $200,000 in premiums." While I found it hard to argue against that, I did have to wonder how well these obscenely priced tickets are selling. Farrell first said only that it was "a daily monitored activity." Then, when I pushed him a little harder, he begrudged: "We hold tickets until different times each day." I pushed again and he conceded that they're held until "late in the afternoon. But," he added, "very few go back to the box office." Finally--it was like pulling teeth--he conceded that about 10% go back. Honestly, I would prefer it if all of them went back so that people who really love theater and are willing to brave lines in the cold and the rain could at least see the show for $100, which is still a staggeringly high price.
I asked how people who have bought Broadway Inner Circle tickets thus far have taken to the plan. "To be frank," Farrell said, "our expectations were that 50% of our customers would feel it was worth the price and 50% wouldn't--'I feel raked over the coals but here's your damned money.' But we have experienced, without any exaggeration, a 99% favorable return. I'll tell you, I'm surprised by that." So am I, Joe. So am I. Now The Crucible has joined the Broadway Inner Circle with $240 seats. Whoops, excuse me, I lie: They're really just $200 seats that happen to have $40-apiece service charges.
The fact that Broadway Inner Circle offers better options than the scalpers doesn't hide the fact that they're scalpers, too. Everyone involved with The Producers is making enough money; they don't need any more. Broadway Inner Circle should sell those $100 tickets to charities that could then re-sell them for $480. That way, do-gooders could get all, not just half, of the largesse. As for the so-called VIPs, let them discover that there's more to Broadway than just the white-hot shows.
Throughout our conversation, Farrell tried to hide his exasperation with me. He pointed out that he was originally a poor boy from St. Louis who once had a tough time scraping up $2.50 to see his favorite sports team. That should make him want to help poor boys and girls who are interested in Broadway. Other shows offer $20 seats to kids...but this idea apparently hasn't occurred to Broadway Inner Circle.