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How to do Broadway on a budget

A recent online search for orchestra seats for “The Prom” yielded fees on top of the ticket prices that ranged from $26.50 to $136.04.
A recent online search for orchestra seats for “The Prom” yielded fees on top of the ticket prices that ranged from $26.50 to $136.04.

While exceptional theater can be found around the world — from London’s West End to right here in Boston, where Broadway in Boston and other theater organizations bring top-notch stage shows to New England audiences — there is nothing quite like Broadway, as booming attendance attests.

According to The Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway theater industry, attendance this past season was up 9.5 percent from last season, with overall grosses up 10.3 percent. In all, more than 14,768,000 patrons saw Broadway shows last season, for a box office gross of $1.8 billion, according to The Broadway League.


“This is the sixth year in a row that we’ve had an attendance growth, and this past season was the biggest of the six,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League. “I think in large part that’s due to the diversity of the types of shows we have in our 41 theaters. You’ve got so many that appeal to all audiences.”

But with all that Broadway has to offer, it often comes with a hefty price tag.

Yet there are ways to see Broadway shows without breaking the bank, and the myriad options might be surprising to some.

While I don’t profess to know every trick in the book, I have a few go-to tactics that have served me well.

The key is to be flexible. Of course that doesn’t always work — especially with a large group or when time is of the essence and you are set on seeing a specific show on a specific night in a specific section of the theater — but if you can build in some time and are OK with a little spontaneity, Broadway-on-a-budget is doable.

While there are some general tips that work for all (or at least most shows), some have their own programs for rush (discount) tickets. Many shows have online lotteries — which are totally random, so you can’t do anything to better your chances — but some also have limited lottery tickets available at the box office, where you can, in fact, improve your chances by arriving early. For example, “Beautiful, The Carole King Musical” at the Stephen Sondheim Theater on W. 43rd Street, has $40 digital lottery tickets available at BeautifulLottery.com, but if you get to the box office early, there’s a good chance — better than through the lottery — that you can snag orchestra seats for $40. The box office opens at 10 a.m. and sometimes only the first few people in line get tickets (up to two tickets each are allowed); other times, depending on availability, even more get them.


For “Beautiful,” I’ve gotten to the box office at 8:30 a.m. and there was already a 20-person-deep line (no tickets for me), and I’ve arrived at 9 a.m. and found only a few people in line (scored third-row center orchestra seats for $40 that time).

If you’re thinking, “There’s so much time and uncertainty involved,” you’d be right. But if you’re a Broadway geek like me, it’s worth it. Besides, the quest is part of the fun.

To get an up-to-date, show-by-show breakdown of which (on and off) Broadway shows offer rush (general and/or student), lottery, and standing-room-only tickets, visit playbill.com and scroll down to the “Broadway Rush, Lotto & SRO” link. Playbill.com also offers ticket discounts of varying degrees. Visit playbill.com/club to see what’s available.


Another great resource for discount tickets is Theatre Development Fund. Some would say it is one of Broadway’s best-kept secrets. For a $40 annual membership (and, thanks to a promotion, $35 for the month of June) members have access to greatly discounted tickets to Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows and special events. In an attempt to make theater affordable for more people, membership qualifications have expanded to include everyone from full-time students and teachers to freelancers to retirees, so it’s likely that you — or someone you know — is eligible for a TDF membership. And the savings on your first ticket purchase often exceeds the membership fee.

TDF lists available shows up to two weeks in advance — and sometimes day-of. Occasionally — especially for the hot shows — a listing could last only a matter of minutes, so if it’s a show you really want to see, act quickly.

One catch is that you don’t know where your seat is in advance. Getting tickets through TDF, I’ve sat in both the front row and the last row — but usually it’s somewhere in between.

TDF also runs the popular TKTS booths in Times Square, at Lincoln Center, and at the South Street Seaport. Unlike the TDF shows, TKTS tickets are released by the shows on the day of the performances.

David LeShay, director of marketing and public relations at TDF, said that while some visitors may be intimidated by the long line at the Times Square TKTS booth, it moves more quickly than some might think. “After the first hour [after opening at 3 p.m.] you can pretty much walk up to the windows with less than a five-minute wait,” he says.


The other TKTS booths actually open earlier than the one in Times Square. Lincoln Center opens at noon and South Street Seaport opens at 11 a.m. And since the tickets are made available to all of the TKTS booths, going to one that opens earlier could prove beneficial.

The Times Square TKTS booth has two “fast track” lines of which many people are unaware, LeShay says. If you’re down with seeing a play versus a musical, you may go in the “Play Express” line, which is always considerably shorter than the general line. And there is also a seven-day “Fast Pass” window. Visitors who are in town for a stretch and plan on seeing more than one show may bring their ticket stubs from the show they already saw (within the previous seven days) and get in the “Fast Pass” line.

LeShay, who notes that the $5 service charge on TKTS tickets goes to TDF’s education and access programs, also suggests downloading the free TKTS app, which will show in real time what tickets are available for which shows.

And speaking of service charges . . . that is where ticket agencies and brokers often get unknowing customers to spend more than they have to.


“You have to do a little bit of work, because there are brokers who will mark up ticket prices considerably,” St. Martin warns. Hotel concierges can make the ticket-buying process quick and easy — no lines, no uncertainty — but chances are you will pay for that service with high markups.

I was recently searching for orchestra seats for “The Prom” at the Longacre Theatre and — for a Friday night in June — found two center orchestra seats on Broadway.com for $179 each. The service and handling fee for each ticket was $68.02 — so $136.04 in fees for two tickets. In searching on Broadway.org, which directs buyers to Telecharge, I found two center orchestra seats for the same show on the same night for $159 each, with a service charge of $11.75 per ticket and a $3 handling fee for the entire order. So the total fee on top of the ticket prices was $26.50 through Broadway.org, versus $136.04 through Broadway.com. (Note that there was a savings of $20 per ticket as well.)

Some theaters offer discounts for young people through sites like LincTix.com (Lincoln Center’s Theater discount program for 21- to 35-year-old theatergoers) and HipTix (Roundabout Theatre Company’s $25-per-ticket program for theatergoers 18-35) and there are a variety of programs for youth — like The Broadway League’s “Kids Night on Broadway,” held once a year in February when kids get a free ticket to a show when attending with a paying adult.

“We’re in our 23rd year of doing it and it’s a very, very exciting program,” St. Martin says. “We have a special Playbill for them and the shows do all different kinds of things whether it’s face painting or contests . . . and most of the shows will do talk backs with the kids where the stars will come onto the stage after the show and talk about the show and answer questions.”

Also popular is NYC Broadway Week, a twice-yearly event offered by NYC & Company, the city’s tourism bureau, in conjunction with The Broadway League. During this event (the next is Sept. 3-16 — check nycgo.com beginning Aug. 14 for availability), theatergoers may buy two-for-one tickets and also get discounts on dining, lodging, and attractions.

One tip for discounted tickets that I never read about but use all the time is asking at the box office about obstructed-view seats. If a patron is going to miss so much as a half of an actor’s foot stepping onto the stage due to the seat’s location/stage configuration, the theater must list the seat as obstructed view and, as such, offer a significant discount.

A suggestion for scoring affordable tickets at the box office: Check in an hour or so before curtain and see what kind of availability there is. Sometimes excellent seats — whether they’re house seats released at the last minute or cancellations due to credit cards not being approved — become available at the last minute.

Finally, by all means be extra nice to the agents behind the ticket windows. You should do it because their jobs can be demanding and stressful. You might also do it because they often have more discretion when it comes to pricing and seat selection than people realize. So delivering a little extra courtesy — even if it requires some playacting — can work in your favor.

Juliet Pennington can be reached at writeonjuliet@comcast.net.