On Hamilton ticket prices
Live theater is inextricably wrapped up in FOMO, conspicuous consumption, and artificial scarcity. There’s certainly a frisson, an immediacy to a live performance, but I think it stems in large part from the fleeting nature of it – the scarcity. twitter.com/mogwai_poet/st…
This is a subject I care a lot about, and Hamilton is an educational example of what theater artists intend and how that fits uncomfortably with the realities of the business.
I agree that few people can afford top-tier Broadway theater. I take issue with the implication that theater producers are greedy for exploiting theater’s ephemerality to inflate ticket prices, i.e. that they shouldn’t.
The business of theater requires it. Few major theatrical productions earn back their investment. The big wins fund dozens of losses. Ham earned 6x its first year, but that’s far from typical. I consider it a miracle that Broadway takes as many artistic risks as it does.
Musicals routinely share out a partial experience on inexpensive media in the form of the cast recording. Yes it drives ticket sales: Ham was a relative whisper of excitement until the album dropped. But for many it’s an inexpensive way to enjoy and participate.
If we accept that a filmed play is only a partial experience of a live show, then in some sense CD vs DVD is a matter of degree. I love filmed plays but some plays are unfilmable. (I’d offer Network as an example, despite being based on a film.) I support the business model where a show sells as many tickets as it can, then releases media after it closes. Very few shows get long indefinite runs, and I hope we see a trend of preserving shows on film before they disappear forever, if only for students.
If greed is a rule, then Ham is an exception. From day 1 they’ve been generous with their rush lottery (HAM4HAM). They filmed the original cast with full intent of a DVD release. They spawned multiple productions and tours, and are accelerating high school licensing. Early on they released a music-only version of the cast recording. Karaoke, sure, but there’s no way they did that without full intent of boosting unlicensed student productions. My kids were in one. I watched intently as Ham struggled with overwhelming popularity. It was genuinely heartbreaking to the artists to see reasonably priced tickets scalped to death. Raising prices captured market value but locked out an audience that they really wanted. So they bussed in school groups, and invested in anti-scalping measures and improvements to the rush ticket system so they could maintain two rows of $10 tickets.
Unauthorized filming of plays is a legitimate business risk for an already risky business. Maybe some of this is from lost sales, but another big issue is counterfeit productions. I don’t have a handle on the numbers, I’ve only heard pros talk about it, but it’s real. (I reconcile the no-filming policy with the music-only album release via Lin’s dedication to theater students. Using the album for a counterfeit production would be an egregious violation of copyright. But again I’m missing numbers.)
Unauthorized filming of plays is an insult to the art itself. The implication that a shakycam is just as good as live, that it’s OK to refute an actor’s offer of intimacy with a camera, is offensive. Actors hate cams and it’s not because they’re seeing $$$. I’m way out on a limb here, but I wonder how stage actors feel about official cams. I was at the filming of Falsettos and Lapine described it as an honor to have the work preserved. I wonder if deep down it’s a mixed bag.
I don’t object to the claim that the immediacy of live theater stems from its ephemerality. I do object to the implication that the pleasure of it comes from its exclusivity. Maybe some people flash playbills like dollahbills, but in my experience, theater people, including theatergoers, wish everyone could experience live theater. Without hard evidence it is cynical to assume otherwise. Maybe the broader topic is what happens to fashion around things that are expensive. We’re so used to expensive things being artificially expensive to appeal to the upper side of a wealth divide that we assume anything expensive is designed to be exclusive or elite. (People talk about Apple products this way. I have mixed feelings about that too but if it defends against a fashion stigma on cheaper phones and laptops that are just as useful, so be it.) But it’s frustrating to me to hear that same cynical assumption applied to live theater. So much of theater is about inclusion, empathy, challenge to power, and bridging divides. That’s why most of us go to the theater.
Theater is expensive, and I consider myself very lucky to be able to afford it. I buy $300 tickets with the hope that it pays the artists, subsidizes the $80/$25/$10 tickets, and encourages investors to boost diverse and radical voices, on and off Broadway.
(Originally posted to Twitter on June 10, 2019. It received 6 likes and 1 retweets. It has been edited for presentation.)