Whatever show gets the biggest boost from next month's Tonys, it likely won't match last year's juggernaut, The Book of Mormon, which grabbed nine awards and has sold out virtually every performance since. Just try finding a pair of tickets for the show online, at least at the standard rate--top price: $155, soon to be $175. There are exactly none for the rest of 2012. But you might luck out if you're willing to pay for premium seats--blocks of prime orchestra spots priced from $352 to $477. Add service charges, and that pair could set you back nearly $1,000, plus dinner and babysitter.
Could the time be ripe for an Occupy Broadway? It seems so. The chief culprit is the premium seat, a phenomenon that began in 2001 when backers of The Producers decided to meet high demand by offering a select block of seats for $480 apiece. A decade ago, The Producers was an outlier; now premium seats are part of the ticket-pricing plan for every Broadway show, and not just elaborate musicals. Death of a Salesman--a revival of Arthur Miller's 1949 classic, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman--has raised its top price for regular tickets to $161.50, with premium seats peaking at $426.50.
Producers and theater owners argue that premium pricing (which has long been common in sports and live music) is needed to recoup the ever soaring costs of putting on a Broadway show. But they're also fostering a class divide on the Great White Way. On a recent search for Mormon tickets, I found a $369 premium seat for a Saturday night, six rows from the back of the orchestra. Assuming that all the seats ahead of it were priced the same or higher, that adds up to roughly 300 premium seats--nearly one-third the theater's capacity of about 1,100.
What's more, the boom in premium tickets has done little to subsidize folks at the other end of the economic spectrum. Discount tickets are still available at the TKTS booths in Times Square and on sites like BroadwayBox.com but rarely for the hot shows or good seats. (In London, a more egalitarian theater town, government-supported venues like the National regularly offer seats at deep discounts--as low as $19--on the day of performances.) In 1986, before the dawn of the premium age, the top paid admission for a Broadway musical was $47.50 ($93 in 2010 dollars), about one-third more than the average paid admission of $34 ($67). Now the top price for a hit musical like Evita is $275, more than twice the average of $123.
That growing disparity is almost certainly influencing what kinds of shows populate Broadway, geared toward upscale, older audiences that can afford to see them. This season we got 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 Gershwin songs and society swells; Other Desert Cities, about a family of rich Republican Wasps; and The Columnist, with John Lithgow as the aristocratic Kennedy-era political columnist Joseph Alsop.
Significantly, all four plays feature characters who are on a first-name basis with Presidents. Not exactly Willy Loman territory. But from the premium seats, it might just seem like home.
FOR A WRAP-UP OF THIS YEAR'S TONY NOMINATIONS, GO TO time.com/tonys