Theater: Pretty Woman Acts Up

5 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Theater critics don’t get to act like regular civilians very often, but when it comes to Julia Roberts, extraordinary measures are called for. The Hollywood star has prompted major buzz–and sellout crowds–for her impending Broadway debut, in Richard Greenberg’s play Three Days of Rain, opening officially on April 19. So I wandered down to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater to see just how tough it is to land a ticket. Very tough, I learned: only a stray seat in the back row or way off to the side, even for performances weeks away. Unless you’re willing to indulge in a relatively new Broadway pastime: the “premium” seat.

Most of the hot Broadway shows now offer an unspecified number of unsold house seats (those prime orchestra seats reserved for VIPs like … well, theater critics) for what would once have seemed exorbitant prices. The cost of seeing Ms. Roberts without straining your neck or bringing your telescope: $250. Make that $251.25, counting the $1.25 “facility fee,” intended to help keep up a theater where the seats are still cramped, the ushers surly and you can’t bring your drink inside the theater after intermission. And the scalpers used to be outside the theater.

Actually, that’s part of the point. Premium seats are the theaters’ attempt to regain some of the revenue for hot shows that would otherwise be flowing to scalpers and ticket agents. And it’s one small reason that Broadway, after years of crying its woes, is enjoying an improbable boom. Box-office grosses in 2005 were up 5% over 2004–and not all of that is due to rising ticket prices. Seats were filled at 80.4% of capacity, the highest rate since 1997. For the past 12 weeks–usually the slow late-winter period–that rose to 84.6%, the highest for any similar stretch in Broadway history. According to last week’s box-office figures, no fewer than 10 shows were running at 99% of capacity or higher–this at a time when movie grosses, TV ratings and CD sales are all moving the other way.

The odds against financial success on Broadway may still be long, but that hasn’t stopped producers from elbowing one another for space on a street where the NO VACANCY sign has been up all season. The off-Broadway musical Grey Gardens–based on the 1975 film documentary about two nutty relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and featuring a Tony-worthy performance by Christine Ebersole–might have been the best Broadway musical of the season. Except that it can’t move to Broadway, because all the theaters are filled.

What is Broadway doing right? Despite its aging audience, antiquated business model and fusty imperviousness to much of what’s happening in popular culture, the Great White Way has done a masterly job of marketing itself to Middle America. Tourists now make up 55% of the Broadway audience, and the influx of out-of-towners has meant hit shows that once would have closed after a successful season or two now rival the Empire State Building as New York City fixtures. Phantom of the Opera has been playing for 18 years; Beauty and the Beast for 12; Rent for 10. Les Misérables, which closed after a 16-year run (third longest in Broadway history), has been gone for just three years–and it’s already planning a return engagement in the fall.

Broadway has nurtured new audiences too: the family crowd, with popular and creatively adventurous shows like The Lion King and Wicked; the rock generation, with jukebox musicals featuring the songs of groups like Abba and the Four Seasons. And, of course, it has used star power to create Big Events. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are hardly names that would set a Hollywood mogul’s heart aflutter, but after their smash success in The Producers (theater’s Big Event of 2001), they made this season’s revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple Broadway’s hottest ticket.

Until Julia Roberts. Serious plays have not been left out of the Broadway renaissance (Doubt, last year’s Tony winner, is still doing a robust business after a year), but only a PEOPLE magazine cover girl like Roberts could have turned a quiet little play about the battle over a family inheritance (which had a little-noticed off-Broadway run in 1997) into a Broadway blockbuster. And good for her; she could be doing Ocean’s 17.

So I sprang for that $250 seat. Critics are forbidden to review a show before its official opening, while the actors and director are presumably still working out the kinks (although it’s not too early to charge ordinary theatergoers $250 for the privilege of watching them practice). I can say, however, that the audience applauded when she came out; the dour role doesn’t give her much chance to show off that famous smile; and the pro forma standing ovation for her curtain call at the end seemed a little more pro forma than usual. And for $250, I want to be able to take my drink back to the seat.

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