Lack of affordability in theater cripples poor people

BY FORREST ROBINETTE ’16
SENIOR EDITOR

Even if you have no interest in theater, words may still have reached you about “Hamilton,” the hip-hop infused musical that is dominating Broadway now and for the indeterminate future. The show began performances at the Richard Rogers Theatre in July of 2015 and sold over 200,000 tickets in advance, pulling in $30 million before even opening. This intense popularity has not diminished, and “Hamilton” has been sold-out for most of its run. Right now, the soonest available ticket is for an evening performance on Tuesday, Sep. 13, almost eight months from now. If you wanted to sit in the orchestra section for that performance, you would need to pay over $400.00.

All of these realities point to the fact that most people will struggle to see “Hamilton” on Broadway in New York. And, if they are, they probably aren’t going to see it anytime soon. The inaccessibility of “Hamilton” highlights a larger trend on Broadway and in American theater. The prices for “Hamilton” tickets are not that extraordinary. Prices for a seat at “The Book of Mormon” were similarly outrageous for the first year of its run.

The high cost of “Hamilton” is especially heartbreaking because, not only has it been called a great work of art, it has been roundly praised for its ability to provide a stirring and dynamic history lesson for its audiences. Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said of the production, “Here’s a story that talks about American history and the ideals of American democracy, and it features an immigrant who is impoverished initially and shows through perseverance and grit what he can achieve.” Rodin’s comment echoes what many others have said about the need for a play like “Hamilton:” one that celebrates diversity and reminds us of our immigrant roots in a time of xenophobia on the presidential debate stage and elsewhere.

Ben Brantley, the chief theater critic for the “New York Times,” heaped praise on the production as well. Noting that people have been talking about “Hamilton” as though it were a “once-in-a-lifetime comet,” Brantley writes, “it really is that good.” How heartbreaking that lovers of theater and those being introduced to the art form must hear this endless praise for a masterpiece they cannot see. Later in his review, Brantley writes in another laudatory sentence, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But “Hamilton”… might just about be worth it.” Brantley’s joke might be funny if it weren’t a stark reminder that people of limited means will not be seeing this play anytime soon.

Theater, as a result of the material cost one must suffer to enjoy it, has become a socio-economically stratified art form. When I attend plays at Hartford Stage, I make use of the student discount, which allows me to obtain tickets for $10.00. I applaud Hartford Stage for this and any other theater that offers similar reductions in price. It’s important to note that $10.00 tickets are available only to students, and, as such, the adults in the audience are paying around $60-70 per ticket. Contrast this to $11.00 for a standard movie ticket. Although the price of admission at cinemas is rising, it’s still much lower than the vast, vast majority of theaters. If there were a movie that everyone was comparing to a rare comet, it’s likely that a person of limited means could go see it. This is not the case with “Hamilton.”

It’s important to note that there have been some efforts made to solve this issue. Most notably, the Rockefeller Foundation donated $1.5 million to subsidize tickets for 20,000 New York City 11th graders to see the show. Thanks to this grant, these 20,000 students will be able to purchase tickets for $10.00, rather than $300.00. This donation was praised as a way of opening up the theater to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. I, however, don’t understand how this massive donation can be seen as anything more than a small Band-Aid. These students will experience one superb production, and the benefits will end there. The Rockefeller Foundation, through its misplaced grant, has only fed the money-making machine that is present-day Broadway. Throwing cash at the industry will not make theater more egalitarian.

The solution to the inaccessibility of today’s theater is equally simple and impossible: lower ticket prices. Only a fraction of what an audience member pays for their tickets goes to the set, the costumes, and fair salaries for the actors and crew. Most goes to either star cast members with sky-high salaries, such as Daniel Radcliffe, who was paid $50,000 each week that he performed in “How to Succeed,” and the various businessmen, producers and advertisers, who find their way into something that should not be commercialized. If theater hopes to remain relevant to any population greater than the wealthy members of American society, ticket prices have got to give.

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