Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hamilton and the "Not-For-Profit" Off-Broadway Theatre Scene

This is as close as most of us will be able to get to Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's much ballyhooed new musical about one of America's founding fathers.

Anyone hoping to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's hotly anticipated new musical Hamilton better already have tickets. The show's thrice extended world premiere at the Public Theatre was essentially sold out even before the show opened to rapturous reviews on Tuesday night, making the chances of finding a ticket now about as likely as winning the lottery. Which is wonderful for Miranda, the actors, the Public Theatre, and the producers who are surely already plotting a Broadway transfer, but is maybe not the best thing for the Off-Broadway theatre scene.

Why? Because the Public Theatre, a non-profit which spends a great deal of time talking about making theatre accessible to everyone, has been charging almost Broadway level prices for the privilege of seeing this apparently groundbreaking new work. Regular tickets run $120, whereas Public Theatre members - who have already made a donation in support of this supposed not-for-profit - have access to tickets at the low, low price of $85. And as they have sold out an entire four month run, there isn't a whole lot to stop other Off-Broadway producers from attempting to charge the same thing.

To be fair, the Public is offering a daily "Hamilton for a Hamilton" lottery, with a whopping two whole seats per performance available for $10 each. And there is supposedly a $20 ticket lottery in the theatre's lobby prior to each performance "subject to availability," which in this case probably means "if anyone cancels." This to me does not sound like a company that is trying to make theatre accessible to the masses.

Now, obviously there are a lot of production costs involved with mounting a brand new musical, especially one with a large cast like Hamilton. Furthermore, I know that the Public has a whole season to finance, and many of their shows lack the sort of commercial appeal of Miranda's hip-hop historical opus. I'm sure a portion of the profits from Hamilton will go towards funding some of the Public's more obscure works, not to mention their hugely popular and much appreciated Shakespeare in the Park series (which remains free to anyone with the time and patience to wait in the legendarily long ticket line). And obviously they aren't charging more than the market can bear since, as previously mentioned, the show is legitimately sold out.

But I still find it sad and more than a little upsetting that Off-Broadway, and specifically not-for-profit Off-Broadway, has gotten so ridiculously expensive. What used to be known as a low cost alternative to the ever-more-expensive Broadway now routinely costs upwards of $100 for high profile shows, a price point most people can't afford more than once or twice a year if that. It's hard to totally blame the Public for charging what they're charging (obviously many people are happy to pay $120 a head), but at the same time it would be nice if a greater number of seats were set aside at a more affordable level for the vast number of people who don't have hundreds of dollars to spend on an evening's entertainment. Hamilton has a gloriously multicultural cast and a musical style that could attract vast segments of the population who don't normally see theatre, but for a multitude of reasons way too complex to address in this blog many of the people who look like the cast of Hamilton couldn't even begin to afford a ticket.

The New York theatre scene is currently in the midst of a vicious, self-destructive cycle that will take some drastic measures to change, and Hamilton is just the latest example. High ticket prices keep all but a narrow segment of the population from being able to see theatre, a segment that if we're being honest is getting older and dying out without a new generation of patrons to replace them. These high prices put pressure on producers to give audiences their money's worth in the form of needless spectacle and too many works that pander to the lowest common denominator. After all, if shows cost millions of dollars to mount, producers are understandably reluctant to tackle projects without a decent chance of financial success, which generally rules out more adventurous works and less established creative voices. Because the industry is notoriously tight lipped about each show's actual costs, it's difficult to know where cuts and changes can be made, but someone needs to tackle this problem before live theatre becomes just a diversion for the wealthy that has little cultural impact or significance to the general population. If a major non-profit with a stated focus on accessibility like the Public isn't willing/able to lower prices, then it may already be too late.

1 comment: