As Broadway ticket pricing starts to resemble the aggressive competition of the airfare market, the legit epicenter last season showed unexpected resistance to inflation. Rejoicing penny-pinchers paid almost the same for a ticket on the Great White Way as they did the previous year.
And pundits are speculating that more competitive pricing, as well as the increased availability of premium ducats, may be helping to keep average ticket prices stable.
In the season that ended May 29, the average paid admission -- or APA -- was $66.67, just 20¢ more than the previous season. Compare that to the previous five seasons, in which the price jumped by anywhere from $2.34 to $4.64. Twenty cents is the lowest rise since the 1985-86 season. Inflation says the bump should have been almost $2.
Why did this happen? One factor: the unofficial $100 ceiling on ticket prices, which was first reached by "The Producers" in 2001 and which hasn't budged since.
This ceiling is a result not only of the round number, but also of the growing awareness of higher-priced premium seats. Another concept first initiated by "The Producers," premium seats are now available for a whole spectrum of Broadway shows, from "Wicked" (usually $300) to "Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed" ($150).
One might expect premium seats to pull APAs upward. But producer Bob Boyett, whose "Monty Python's Spamalot" has around 30 $300 seats available for every perf, says that premium seats also push APA downward by keeping the official $100 top price from rising.
"If you've got somebody who wants to buy a $250 or $300 ticket, that's available for them," says Boyett. "If you're going to have that additional income, why raise ticket prices to $105 just to gouge everybody else?"
In addition, discounts are becoming easier to find, as more and more discount emails flood theatergoers' inboxes.
"The discounts have been thriving for quite a while," says Jim Edwards, director of account services for the theater ad agency SpotCo. "But some of the discounts may be a little more competitive."
The past season's Broadway offerings are another possible factor, along with the way the shows were skedded.
Steven Chaikelson, a general manager and head of Columbia U.'s theater management and producing program, points out that tuner flops like "Dracula" and "Brooklyn" opened earlier in the season than more successful shows like "Spamalot" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."
If "Spamalot" had opened earlier, he notes, "people would have been buying those full-price tickets all year long."
By contrast, the previous season's biggest tuner hits, "Wicked" and "Avenue Q," opened in the first half of the season.
Most of the pricing discussion has centered on musicals, which are more responsible for the slow-down than plays are. Not only do tuners rep 83% of all tickets sold, but also the APA for musicals went down 29¢ to $67.92 this season, according to figures from the league. Past years' rises have ranged from over $1 to just over $5.
Play fans, however, have reason to fret, as the APA for plays skyrocketed by a whopping $5.52, to $60.79, according to the league. This is largely attributed to just two shows -- the high-priced "700 Sundays" with Billy Crystal and "Julius Caesar" with Denzel Washington. But hits like "Doubt" and "The Pillowman" also helped pump average tix.
"When the musicals hit $100, they all kind of stopped there," says Edwards. "The plays have been slowly inching up to get to that level."
One factor in the rise of plays' APA is the increase in star casting, which creates greater demand for tickets. Paying for Hollywood stars' salaries has driven up operating costs and ticket prices, notes Boyett, who also produced "The Pillowman."
So what will happen next? Will APA continue to plateau? Will consumers catch on?
"This is only a couple of data points, so I think it would be risky to draw any big longitudinal conclusions," Bernstein says.
And when will someone break the $100 barrier?
Boyett says he has no plans to pass it with his upcoming Broadway production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "The Woman in White." A better candidate might be another West End import, "Mary Poppins," backed by a household name and two megaproducers, Cameron Mackintosh and Disney.