Willy Loman’s Legacy: Broadway’s Soaring Prices

How premium seating and critics have fomented a class divide on Broadway

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Getty Images

Mike Nichols’ new Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, had plenty to brag about. It got rave reviews, garnered seven Tony nominations (more than any other play revival) and was the season’s biggest box-office hit, setting house records almost weekly at the Barrymore Theatre. But the show achieved one other less noted milestone to which attention must be paid: Death of a Salesman set a new record for the costliest ticket in Broadway history.

If you were looking online to buy a seat for one of last weekend’s performances (Salesman ended its limited run on Saturday night), you would have been startled. A “premium” ticket (the only kind available) to Arthur Miller’s 1949 assault on capitalist heartlessness would have set you back an eye-popping $499.50. That surpassed even Broadway’s reigning hit musical The Book of Mormon, whose premium seats currently top out at $477.

Is Broadway just for the 1%? Increasingly, it is looking that way. The chief culprit is the premium-seat phenomenon; those blocks of prime orchestra (and often front-mezzanine) seats that every show now sets aside for well-heeled, or very desperate, theatergoers. The practice dates back to 2001, when the small-P producers of The Producers, starring Nathan Lane, decided to meet the sizzling demand by offering a select block of seats for $480 apiece. Other hot-selling shows followed suit, and now premium seats are part of every Broadway show’s ticket-pricing plan. For mediocre-selling plays, the premium seats can go for a relatively nominal $200 or so (compared with a top regular price of $125 to $130). But for the most in-demand shows, these choice seats often top $300 or $400 (with top regular prices moving north of $150).

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Broadway is a tough business, and there’s certainly a case to be made for premium seats. People who want to see a hot show, and who have the money, have long paid exorbitant prices — to ticket brokers and scalpers. By raising prices on the most desirable seats, producers and theater owners argue, they are simply ensuring that the money goes to the creative people who make these shows possible. Premium prices (which have long been common for sporting events and music concerts) are needed to help recoup the soaring costs of putting on a Broadway show, theater people insist. They are helping keep Broadway alive.

But at what cost? Premium seating is helping to foster a growing class divide on Broadway. People who can afford it, quite simply, get to see the hot shows, on the prime nights, from the best seats. All the other people have to crane their necks.

Though the number of premium seats is never publicized (it varies according to show and night-to-night demand, like airline tickets), it is almost surely growing. Searching online for Book of Mormon tickets recently, I found a premium seat for a Saturday night performance in row O on the side — six rows from the back of the orchestra. Assuming that all the orchestra seats ahead of it were priced the same or higher, that adds up to at least 300 premium seats — nearly a third of the theater’s 1,066 capacity. (Looking for a regular-price ticket for The Book of Mormon this year? Don’t make me laugh. There are precisely none left — for any performance, weekend or weekday, matinee or evening — for the rest of calendar year 2012.)

Nor has the boom in premium tickets done anything to subsidize folks at the other end of the economic spectrum. In London, a more egalitarian theater town, government-supported venues like the National Theatre set aside a block of seats for every performance for sale at deep discounts on the day of the performance. In New York City, bargain hunters have to stand in line at the busy TKTS ticket booth (where many of the “half-price” tickets now sell for more modest discounts of 30% or 40%), or look for deals on websites like BroadwayBox.com, where the hot shows are rarely available.

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Critics don’t help the aura of privilege attached to Broadway theatergoing. Sitting in the sixth or seventh row on the aisle, they — we — see a different show from theatergoers of regular means. Facial expressions and nuances of body language that may bowl over a critic often barely register to someone in the cheap seats. A few weeks ago I went back to see Death of a Salesman for a second time, buying the best mezzanine seat I could get — row E on the side (cost: $126.50). Hoffman’s performance as Willy Loman looked even smaller and less commanding from the rafters than it did a few weeks earlier, from my close-up critics’ seat. Try sitting in the rear mezzanine for the musical Memphis; because of the overhang from the Shubert Theater’s balcony, you literally can’t see some scenes, which take place on a raised platform. And I laugh when I read things like a recent New Yorker capsule review of the musical Newsies, praising star Jeremy Jordan for his “clean voice and dark, expressive eyes.” Is this a joke? How expressive can an actor’s eyes be to someone sitting in row S?

Premium prices, moreover, are almost certainly influencing what kinds of shows come to Broadway. More and more, they are big-star revivals, expensive musicals and the kind of straight plays that reflect the lives and concerns of the mostly upscale, older audiences that can afford to see them. And so, among this season’s major Tony contenders, we have a revival of The Best Man, Gore Vidal’s creaky 1960s political drama (with two octogenarian stars, James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury); Nice Work If You Can Get It, the latest musical pastiche featuring old Gershwin songs and rich society swells; Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz’s play about a dysfunctional family of rich Republican WASPs; and John Lithgow playing the aristocratic Kennedy-era political columnist Joseph Alsop in The Columnist.

Significantly, each of these shows has at least one character who’s on a first-name basis with the President. Not exactly Willy Loman’s territory. But from the premium seats, it seems like home.

Zoglin, TIME’s theater critic and a former assistant managing editor, is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America.

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