Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"The Theatuh, the Theatuh, What's Happened to the Theatuh?"*

Or, an Open Letter to the Producers of “A Little Night Music” and the Management of the Jujamcyn Amusement Corporation

* With apologies to Mr. Irving Berlin

Last week Boy and I had the pleasure of attending a Broadway show for the first time in many months. I say “pleasure” because the recently-opened revival of A Little Night Music we saw was really quite good, with strong performances by most of its cast, most notably and somewhat to my surprise by Catherine Zeta-Jones. However, while the show was a pleasure, the experience of attending the theater was not.

I’ll tell you why . . .

Strike One: The Tickets Were Exorbitantly Expensive

Getting good seats these days to an early-stage run of a hit Broadway show is virtually impossible for mere mortals without going through a ticket broker, and the cost of procuring such seats can be astronomical. I pre-bought our tickets through American Express before the show opened and paid a whopping $277 per seat for our center orchestra seating, or $554 for the two of us. I was surprised to see, however, that this did not include a huge scalping fee as a full $267 of the per-seat cost actually went to the theater, with Amex and Telecharge between them taking only $10 in handling fees per ticket. On the rare occasions that Boy and I attend the theater we are usually willing to spring for seats in the orchestra, preferring to forego the experience altogether if it means being relegated to seats in a nose-bleed balcony or ones with obstructed views. While I recognize that one pays a premium price to sit in the center orchestra, I think having to fork over more than $500 to the house for two seats is exorbitant.

That's right, $277 a seat!

…Particularly when it is obvious that the producers have scrimped on the expenses of mounting the show, which was most definitely the case here.

But we didn’t know that when I ordered the tickets as a Christmas present to us, and–even though expensive–I was more than willing to pay such a price for us to see this show. That's because neither of us had seen it before in other revivals, we both enjoy listening to the original cast recording from time-to-time, and we thought it would be one of our last chances to see Angela Lansbury on stage.

Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt, Catherine Zeta-Jones as her daughter Desiree,
and Keaton Whittaker as her grandaughter Frederika (photo: Joan Marcus)

So we decided to make an evening of it, starting with dinner at “21”. I am going to be posting shortly about having dinner there so I’m not going to say much about that part of our evening for now, except that we both enjoyed it.

Strike Two: The Theater Was Woefully Understaffed

A Little Night Music is playing at the Walter Kerr Theater, a confection of a hall built in 1921 and one of the most intimate theaters on Broadway, seating only 975 patrons. We arrived there approximately ten minutes before curtain to find a scene of utter mayhem outside with people jostling and pushing to get into the sole door that was being used to admit patrons. That was the first thing about the evening that struck me as “off.” In my view, there should have been someone there from the theater to direct the crowd, several more of the six available entry doors should have been opened to admit the crowd, and there should have been more than the two harried ticket takers on hand to process the nearly one thousand people entering the theater. But that would have meant paying wages to such staff, I suppose.

Photo: Playbill

Strike Three: There Were Almost No Ushers

After we made it through the door we then found ourselves in the midst of absolute chaos. There were virtually no ushers to direct ticketholders to their seats or hand out programs (I had to pick mine up from the floor where someone had dropped it), and the aisles were jammed with people bumbling about. There were plenty of theater employees on hand, though, but all of them were busy hawking souvenirs and tee shirts, or pushing their way through the crowd with trays filled with snacks and bottled water for sale. Given how aggressive they were I suspect they are paid on commission, now that I think of it.

Strike Four: No Coat Check!

After vainly searching for the coat check to leave my briefcase, overcoat, and hat before taking my seat I learned from an exasperated theater employee–annoyed because I had interrupted a transaction–that the Walter Kerr doesn’t have one. This struck me as particularly odd. Not only is it my understanding that having a coat check is a standard offering at most theaters, the absence of one is a decided inconvenience for the Walter Kerr’s patrons–particularly during the winter. I suppose that the bean counters at the Jujamcyn Amusement Corporation decided that dispensing with a coat check altogether would help them maximize the theater’s revenue-per-square-inch calculation, since it opened up valuable real estate for more concession opportunities. Furthermore, they no longer have to pay salaries to the benighted lackeys forced to work checking coats. With this running through my mind, and annoyed by the prospect of having to sit buried under a pile of outer garments for the duration of the show, I then started to make my way to my seat.

Boy and I were eventually able to push our way through the hordes of people clogging the aisles and found the row that our seats were in. I was pleased to see that our seats were as billed, right in the center facing the stage, four rows back. All other seats in the row were already occupied so we had to "excuse me" our way past the seated patrons, none of whom bothered to stand up to let us by (as I would have done) despite the fact that the space between rows at the Walter Kerr is extremely tight at best, and far narrower than the stadium-sized seating found in most of the movie cineplexes the audience was likely more accustomed to. Much to my dismay I found that when I arrived at my seat it was next to one occupied by a Jabba the Hutt whose overly ample frame not only engulfed the arm-rest between our seats but also extended into my space, where it remained for the duration of the evening. I was not happy that I had to squeeze my way down into the seat while balling up my overcoat and putting it on my lap with my hat sitting on top of it.

Strike Five: The Patrons Were Under-Dressed, Ill-Mannered Boors

Once I had collected myself somewhat from this unpleasant experience, though, I was further dismayed when I turned and looked around the theater, taking in the rest of the audience. With few apparent exceptions the vast majority were dressed like slobs, wearing clothes more appropriate for an afternoon spent cleaning out the garage than for attending an evening's performance on the Great White Way. I felt like a decided fish out of water in my suit and tie and a throw-back to a different (and in my view better) era. Does anyone make an effort anymore?

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Not surprisingly once the show started the peanut gallery of the audience commenced a steady stream of comments, coughing, and gurgles, at least that is when their mouths weren't occupied with swilling water from plastic bottles that annoyingly captured the stage lights every time they took a swig. In retrospect I'm surprised I didn't hear someone loudly speaking on a cellphone during the performance giving a blow-by-blow description of what was taking place on stage.

Strike Six: As Little As Possible Was Spent on the Production

Fortunately I was able to block most of this out and enjoy the show, and the first act was quite good. But despite solid, and at times quite wonderful performances, both Boy and I were struck at how stripped down the production was, a view shared by many reviewers. The New York Times noted that there were barely enough musicians hired to constitute a pit orchestra. In my view "orchestra" is a complete misnomer as in reality there were barely enough musicians to constitute a combo, and what few there were were relegated to a mezzanine level on stage left as the pit had long-ago been dispensed with to make room for more lucrative seating.

In addition to an understaffed group of musicians the stage was barely decorated with a virtually nonexistent set, and there was little in the way of scenery changes between acts. Finally, as far as I could tell there was only one full change of costumes for the cast during the entire show. Not even the leading lady got more than two gowns to wear that evening. In some of the articles that I've read the producers apparently claimed that they were aiming to create a concert-like, Chekhovian mood in this production, but I rather think that was merely an excuse for why they invested what appeared to me to be the absolute bare minimum in the show's production.  Forgive me for what I'm missing here, but what do Ingmar Bergman and Stephen Sondheim have to do with Anton Chekhov?

Photo: Charles Sykes/AP

After an intermission that saw the reemergence of the army of hawkers and hucksters shilling souvenirs and tee shirts at every turn we settled (well, in my case squeezed) back into our seats for the second act. It was quite enjoyable, and the highlight was when Ms. Zeta-Jones sang a nuanced "Send In the Clowns," a song that I have heard mutilated by so many bad performers over the years (including Boy's worst nightmare of Bonnie Franklin holding a sheaf of balloons) that I usually start to cringe at the first few notes of its intro. Ms. Zeta-Jones' performance actually brought tears to my eyes (contrary to what my readers may think I am a sentimental fool), and it was the only time during the evening that the audience really quieted down. In my view Angela Lansbury pretty much mailed in her performance that evening as Madame Armfeldt, but I don't begrudge her that since it isn't exactly a toothsome role to begin with, and as far as I'm concerned she has the right to rest on her laurels at this point in her remarkable career.  A letter from Ms. Lansbury is still a treat indeed.

Strike Seven: The Huckstering Never Let Up

Even as we left the theater we were continued to be assaulted by vendors desperately trying to unload more souvenirs, snacks, and memorabilia. Management had even set up another stand outside with a barker urging everyone not to miss their last opportunity to sign up for a pre-sale of the as-yet-to-be-released cast recording. I couldn't wait to get away.

In our apartment Boy and I sat for an hour or so talking about the evening. Although we were both genuinely happy to have seen the show, and enjoyed it, we were both highly irritated by how unpleasant the experience of attending the Walter Kerr Theater had been. We laid most of the blame on the producers and the theater's management, who appeared to us to have done everything in their power to extract as much as possible from the audience while giving as little as possible in return. In the end I do not believe I got anywhere near my "money's worth" for the more than $500 I spent on our tickets--if I had to put a number on it I'd probably appraise the evening's true worth at no more than about half that.

Given our less-than-enjoyable experience in attending A Little Night Music, Boy and I agreed that we won’t be in any hurry to return to the theater to see a Broadway show, and particularly one with the misfortune to be staged at the Walter Kerr. As far as I'm concerned, I'd much rather stay at home and spend my money on something else that would give me lasting pleasure, such as the original cast recording of A Little Night Music--the one with Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold.  And since I already own it I would have $554 more in my checking account than I do today.


  1. I certainly concur with your thoughts on the lack of dress people sport these days. Perhaps I am old school, but being in the city, even for shopping, has always meant putting in a little extra effor.

  2. I'm telling you, Reggie - My partner and I are both Front of House Managers at bigtime venues in Toronto and neither of us can even see a show anymore. The cobbler's children have no shoes, as they say.

    Every. little. thing is so frustrating.
    From terrible Patrons to lacking service to a bad environment - Never good. Top to bottom.

    All we try to do is operate our venues with integrity.

  3. Oh my! Good for you for sharing this dreadful experience. Compare that to the wonderful experience of theater in London! So sorry.

  4. I obviously don't know you, but you seem to echo sentiments I would express about such an event, which probably accounts for the fact that I find going to the theatre tiresome. And the movies too! Like you, I don't mind spending money on something good, but I detest being taken for a ride. Vote with your feet!

  5. Ah Reggie, you had me rolling in the aisles... and it's 12:45! I just might read it again. BTW talking about birds of a feather, this is getting eerie...I have a post on "21" which I was going to post tonight and postponed till later this week. Perhaps I will beat you to it, since your writing is so much better than mine and you already beat me to La Grenouille!

    Last time I saw Ms. Landsbury, we were both having Clam Chowder at the counter of the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, many many moons ago! My, you are right, she could mail...no...TEXT her performance and still be awesome!

  6. Reggie, I am very sorry.

    Josh and I had a similar experience last March on a night so important to us: I had just had my second baby girl seven days before and Josh had just returned from a seven month deployment at the war (Naval officer, you see). I cannot tell you how very disappointing both dinner (Bar Americain) and the show were for just the resons you point out.

    As New Yorker, I am always certain my beloved city will do it big and brilliantly, but it is failing... my Mother was on both B'way and at the Met, even my childhood memories, fuzzy as they are - are so far from this place now. Altho, when my childhood pal won the best actress tony, the lights never shone brighter, right?!! Indeed it may be the last time I look at B'way as a truly memorable experience...

  7. Can you elaborate on the "under-dressed" situation and what sounds like a strange inconsistency- people pay $200+ for a seat and then go to theater in sweat shirts and jeans- why?! Is this because most all tickets are purchased through tourism plans and are then sold for a much lower price than you paid?

  8. where to begin? i could go on for days commenting about this..
    but i'll start with:
    it never ceases to amaze me that people don't realize it would be more pleasant and less inconvenient for them to actually stand to let others pass in front of them in order to reach their seats in the middle of the aisle. they are just making it more difficult and uncomfortable for everyone involved by making those who are trying to pass brush along their knees. is it from spite? how lazy and inconsiderate can they be? very!
    i can't believe the way people dress in public. it's grotesque. i went to midnight mass at my church and was surrounded by people who looked like they came to church on CHRISTMAS, no less, in clothes that appeared as though they had slept in them. you hit the nail on the head when you described them as clothes better suited in which to clean the garage rather than attend the theater. no one makes an effort- again, lazy. dressing up is a sign of respect for yourself and others. it makes an event special and brings up the tone. no wonder so many americans are fat. they let themselves go. their clothes say, i don't care. they don't take care of their appearance. they think it is superficial, but it goes deeper.
    people and their noises are another bone of contention for me. people are so disrespectful to those around them. i believe it is the result of the tv generation. they have grown accustomed to watching movies and programs in their own living rooms, so they have grown into a habit of talking and making noise through the entire thing. so when they are out, the habit has already stuck, it is too late, they can't hold their tongue or sit still. i can't tolerate the people around me who seem to have no clue that they are in a public place. they talk through whole movies/shows/anything as though they were completely unaware they were not alone with their family or friends in the privacy and freedom of their own living room. they don't give a thought to others enjoyment of the event. they don't care if their actions are distracting to others.
    and what is that coughing? it's non-stop!
    you didn't mention it here, but i'm on a roll, so i'll throw it in. how about babies crying? if a baby is crying, why doesn't the mother take the child out of the room or restaurant or store? it's as if the mother thinks to herself, well, i can't get away from my child, and if i have to listen to it cry, everyone else should have to suffer, too.

  9. My first comment, but I've been following for a while. Expensive tickets are obviously no insurance against a poorly managed theater or inappropriate behaviour and dress by the patrons. A small percentage of still care, I suspect most do not. Business decisions will be made to maximize profit. Short of entertaining like minded friends at home, I'm not sure there are any solutions or hope of change. Unfortunately at the moment, I seem to be a bit short of like minded friends.

  10. Just have to add my vote for, please good people, if you're going out to an event -- any event -- can't you please dress for the occasion? I am so tired of jeans and t-shirts -- no matter how expensive. Dress like adults; you'll feel better and everyone around you will appreciate the effort.

  11. So many good comments here, I'm clearly not the only one smarting about this (hello Jujamcyn -- are you reading this?)

    Jason: How frustrating it must be for you to witness the degradation of what you hold near and dear.

    Columnist: I plan on doing just that, these feet will need to be dragged into another Broadway theater.

    Lindaraxa: I look forward to your scribe on "21"

    BH: I'm not sad, I'm angry. The destruction of what once made attending the theater enjoyable has been willful and calculated.

    Lulu: indeed!

    DocP: It may be a done deal, but I still don't like it. But how does one entertain oneself on an evening out when going to the theater and such has become so unpleasant? Must I be confined to restaurants and dinner parties only?

    Janel: Exactly!

    Thanks everyone

  12. My husband and I have had similar experiences at the theater lately, although we have enjoyed South Pacific -twice! We lately have come to the conclusion that for the high ticket prices on Broadway, we'd prefer the Metropolitan Opera which is always a worth your investment. We adored Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier this last week. Beautiful music and a really fun opera. Renee Flemming and Susan Graham were impeccable, as were the costumes and ever beautiful productions at the Met. Even the audience shares your reverence for the finer things. Enjoyable all around!

  13. Mrs. M: Thanks and good comment. South Pacific was the last show we saw before ALNM, and Boy and I were not at all offended by that experience in the way we were at ALNM. We loved South Pacific, which I think must have benefitted from running at Lincoln Center, and which now that I read your comment is likely the remaining outpost of public venue civility in the city (perhaps Carnegie Hall, too?). I have always thoght of myself as more of a Broadway musicals kind of guy than an opera/serious music/ballet fellow. I will most definitely give the Met, a place I haven't been in years, a try -- thanks for the suggestion.

  14. Do you think this new trend towards casting A-list film stars like Zeta Jones in the theatre allows the management to rest on their laurels, try less hard?
    The way the Gadarene Swine herd towards these so-called luminaries means they can be be treated as commodities - sadly at the expense of regular theatre goers and aesthetes like yourselves. I found your account of what should have been a magical theatre visit totally depressing.
    On Sunday we went as a family to the pantomime at London's Hackney Empire Theatre, which is just about to go dark through lack of funds, and were received with grace and enthusiasm by the staff. The production values were superb and it was a natural and happy experience for everyone there.

  15. Here on the west coast I attended a performance of a play by Berkeley Rep that was so offensive that there were no intermissions so no one could escape! Honestly, I have to laugh at the audacity of the the whole production. There was just no way to get the heck out. And yes, because it was Berkeley and we are all getting older I refuse to believe that all the people next to me didn't want to exit screaming!

  16. Hi Reggie,
    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I rushed over. What an unfortunate night you had : ( I LOVE A Little Night Music and Ted and I looked into tickets for the holidays, but they were just too darn expensive. (And that was a first for us.) I was slightly heart broken. Maybe we'll make it some day. I think producers think if they get a movie star (Catherine Zeta Jones) they can charge what ever they want. But honestly how high can these prices go? I think it's really too bad.

  17. "Does anyone make an effort anymore?" I think you summed it up quite nicely with that sentence. My grandmother wore heels to the market and would not open the front door to reach for the mail without lipstick. These are values she instilled in "her girls" as she fondly called us. The other day I was having lunch in a nice restaurant and there was a college age girl at the next table in what appeared to me to be her pajamas. Hopefully, you were able to focus on the show and had an enjoyable evening .

  18. Reggie, thank you for saving me $277.00.
    Your description of the whole experience rings painfully true.
    I am old enough to have seen the original production of A Little Night Music at its tryout in Boston when for around $12 one got Hermione and Glynis and the whole evening couldn't have been more civilized and
    delightful. Night Music remains my favourite of all the Sondheim musicals, to the extent that I rather wanted to see this latest version of it, but not now.

  19. As a follow-up, I wanted to tell you that we got to the City this past (impossibly rainy) weekend, and saw both "ALNM" (original cast) and "South Pacific". Since our inheritances were long ago squandered, we had to choose from discounted shows available at the TKTS booth, and got into both shows for around $80.

    I imagine I would have expected more if I'd paid the staggering full price you did, but I didn't mind ALNM as much as you did. The theatre was packed to the gills and crowd control was lacking, but it was alright. The show isn't a favorite, but it was great to see Angela Lansbury in perhaps her last stage role.

    South Pacific was glorious and fun.

    P in Phoenix

  20. Two hundred and seventy-seven dollars a ticket! I am still holding my breath!


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