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Getting Steeper All the Time

The theater is costly, and with good reason. But how many people are turned off by having to pay five times what they would at the movies?

October 06, 2002|SEAN MITCHELL

One of the many things that appear to cost too much in our entertainment-based culture of immense gratifications remains the theater, the fabulous invalid of the arts that won't go away but also won't let us down from the balcony for less than $50. Or so it often seems, especially on trips to New York. And by the way, have you tried to get your tickets for the "The Producers" at the Pantages yet?

The high cost of the ancient art of Shakespeare and O'Neill and Shepard and Sondheim is not good news to those among us who want to believe that theater can remain relevant to society at large and not disappear behind the velvet ropes marking off territory reserved for the rich. This fall brings the first $100 ticket to off-Broadway--for Brecht, yet, even if it is Brecht ("The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui") performed by Al Pacino, Billy Crudup, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman. Without regard to the quality of the show, it's hard to see how at that price an entertainment does not qualify as elitist.

When "The Producers" opens here at the Pantages in May, with Martin Short and Jason Alexander, it will carry a top ticket price of $90, a new local threshold.

Compared with New York, prices remain, if not cheap, somewhat lower in L.A. A survey of recent ticket prices here would reveal a $45 top at our leading institutional theater, the Mark Taper Forum; at the larger Ahmanson, $75; at the Geffen Playhouse, $46; the Pasadena Playhouse, $60; "The Lion King" at the Pantages, $77; and "The Full Monty" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, $64.50.

At smaller theaters like the Odyssey, the Falcon, Theatre West and A Noise Within, tickets are in the $15-to-$40 range.

That's still lot of money to spend on entertainment for anyone who has to pay a baby-sitter while stretching to make the rent or mortgage payment. But the first thing the producers at those theaters will tell you--after they tell you it's not the theater's fault it costs so much (and that no one is getting rich)--is that you can get in for less if you really try. And they're right on both counts.

In many a consumer's mind the theater suffers mainly from comparison to that other more popular form of two-hour storytelling, the movies, where you can usually get in for less than $10. To pay two, three, four or five times that to see a play, you have to value the difference: that film is a mass medium, with individual titles showing on thousands of screens across the country at once, while a play is a live event, being performed by actors in real time in a single place for an audience of from 100 to 2,000 people. A particular movie might be good and a particular play bad, but the relative economics of each remain the same.

It's mainly in competition with films that the theater looks expensive, because when you check out the continued inflation in the cost of attending other live events like rock and pop concerts, you wonder who's paying those prices. The cheapest Bruce Springsteen tickets on his current tour are $49.50, with many selling through ticket services for upwards of $500. Top ticket for the Rolling Stones concert at Staples is more than $300; for the Who, $153; Luis Miguel, $140; Cher, $125; Jimmy Buffett, $75; Sheryl Crow, $60. When the new Disney Hall opens next year, the best seats for Los Angeles Philharmonic performances will increase from the current $82 to $120.

Tickets to sporting events are also no bargain. Good seats to see the Kings and the Lakers at Staples are $70 or more (with parking at a price-gouging $15 to $20).

But professional sports and pop music benefit from mass marketing, television and radio exposure and iconography that only occasionally touch the theater. Whatever the price of a ticket to a pop concert, the audience often has a good idea of what to expect and can decide whether it's worth the money. Likewise, while you can't be sure the Lakers are going to win, you have a pretty good idea what the experience inside Staples is going to be like.

Going to theater is riskier. You have to be ready for anything. Even if a play is familiar, it is likely to have unfamiliar actors, and new plays are uncharted territory. Theatergoers have to value the unique experience of being in that room with the actors and the other members of the audience while something hand-made and human takes place to allow for the possibility that what's on stage might not transport them. Hope springs eternal that it will.

Unlike sports and rock 'n' roll, the theater does provide ways to bring down the carriage trade prices for students and others who otherwise couldn't afford it. Any number of theaters have a weekly pay-what-you-can night, like the one at Actors' Gang, the 99-seat theater in Hollywood where "The Guys" is playing.

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