Why are Broadway tickets so expensive right now? It’s not just inflation.

It’s a perennial question for New Yorkers and tourists alike: Why does Broadway feel so expensive?

If Broadway feels more expensive than ever before, that’s because it is. Despite crowds that haven’t rebounded to pre-COVID levels, the average ticket price for a Broadway show reached an all time high: $128 in the most recent full season, according to data from the Broadway League, an industry trade group. That average has increased steadily since 1980, outpacing inflation greatly since then.

In October 2023, when “Merrily We Roll Along” officially opened on Broadway, the average ticket cost around $230, according to Broadway League data. Two months later, premium seats were priced as high as $899, according to Broadway Journal, a trade publication.

“Hamilton” opened nearly 10 years ago and today the average ticket costs around $186, though some go for as much as $400. And a family of four hoping to see “MJ,” the musical about Michael Jackson, can expect to pay nearly $600 total for the privilege.

But it’s not just the hit shows commanding triple-digit prices.

Online forums are filled with people bemoaning high prices or offering tips to find better deals. There’s a “Ticket Prices Rant” on reddit, and another discussion that begins “Is American Theatre expensive or am I just poor?”

It’s a concern among local Broadway fans, too.

“I’m early in my career and I don’t make a ton of money,” said Gabi Prostko, a 23-year-old native New Yorker and Broadway fan. “I can’t drop $200 on a night out very easily.”

Prostko said she has paid full-price for tickets only twice in the past four years. Instead, she has mastered the intricate system for Broadway lotteries that offers last-minute seats for discounted prices.

Industry professionals say soaring ticket prices are due to various reasons, including rising production costs, a changing industry and the rise of celebrity headliners. Many of the shifts they cited have been in the making for decades, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has changed attendance patterns, and also contributed to the rising costs of tickets.

41 Broadway theaters

One factor in the average price increase is simple supply and demand. The 41 theaters that make up Broadway have a fixed number of seats, so supply cannot increase.

Demand is more complicated. According to Broadway League data, attendance remains about 17% lower than its pre-pandemic highs. One way productions can keep revenue steady is by raising prices on the fewer tickets they do sell.

Prices have also increased because of the fact that some people are willing to pay more for the best seats to popular shows.

While fans like Prostko can’t afford to regularly pay premium prices, there is still a market for the highest priced tickets. Economists call this “price differentiation,” where sellers can profit from customers who are willing to pay more by increasing prices for enhanced offerings, like seats in the front and center or for Saturday evening shows.

This allows producers to maximize their revenue even though overall attendance is lower.

In 2017, for example, people paid $849 to see “Hamilton” during the busy Christmas season. And tickets to the revival of “Cabaret,” which opens in previews this week and stars Eddie Redmayne, are going for as high as $399.

“There is no limit to what rich people will pay to see Broadway,” said Rosie Brownlow-Calkin, an assistant professor of acting at the University of Nevada who has written extensively about the economics of the industry.

‘The ticket buying pattern has completely changed.’

Another reason ticket prices keep climbing? Blame the additional pressure from changing attendance patterns, said Hal Luftig, the Tony-winning producer of “Kinky Boots” and “Angels in America.”

Before the pandemic, he said, most shows had large advance sales, meaning tickets that sold weeks or months ahead of the actual performance date. Now the ticket-buying pattern has completely changed, he said, with far more week-of or day-of purchases, possibly due to consumers’ uncertainty and desire for flexibility.

“When a producer has a strong advance, it calms us down and we know what we can spend,” Luftig said. “You may lose a little money one week but look at the advance sales report and know, okay, next week I’m going to make some money. Where we are now, you can lose some money, and you’re not sure if next week is going to make money.”

Some productions are raising ticket prices to account for the uncertainty around revenue from advance sales.

Dynamic pricing is also a factor, said Deeksha Gaur, executive director of the Theatre Development Fund, which sells discounted tickets through the popular TKTS booths in Times Square and elsewhere. Akin to the “surge pricing” that consumers are familiar with for airline tickets or services like Uber, Broadway adopted a strategy that adjusts prices based on available supply in the late 2000s.

With tickets being purchased increasingly later, Luftig said, there is more price volatility, which can push prices higher due to a surge of last-minute demand.

‘We are seeing more and more shows not be able to just break even.’

An oft-repeated line in the industry is that Broadway is expensive to see because it’s expensive to produce. One thing everyone agrees on: launching a show and keeping it running has gotten more expensive in recent years.

For example, electricity in the New York metro area costs 25% more than it did before the pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Lumber is way up since the pandemic,” Brownlow-Calkin said. “And then labor is way up, in part because of concerns about health and well-being and equity,” she said, referring to concessions won by labor unions coming out of the pandemic such as increased safety regulations, diversity provisions, and paid sick leave.

“The margins for a Broadway show are razor thin,” said Heather Shields, a theater producer and co-founder of “The Business of Broadway,” a trade group that seeks to increase knowledge of the industry’s economics among theater makers and creatives.

“When we look at big musicals, it’s not at all rare to need to make a million dollars a week in order to meet those financial obligations,” Shields said. “We are seeing more and more shows not be able to just break even.”

The celebrity effect

It’s become common for Broadway shows to feature Hollywood stars: Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Lea Michele, Emma Stone and Denzel Washington have all headlined productions.

Reports indicate that celebrities like Nathan Lane, Hugh Jackman and others can earn six figures per week, especially as they tend to negotiate a percentage of box office receipts as part of their compensation.

This boosts both attendance and prices: weeks with a celebrity actor are associated with a $250,000 increase in Broadway revenue, according to a 2022 article in the peer-reviewed “Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management.”

However, that increase can be offset by the high payouts celebrities require, according to Shields.

“Many of these star-driven vehicles are not the cash cows that one might think,” Shields said. “Because those stars see a great deal of the upside of those ticket sales.”

In the 2016-17 season, for example, the Tony-award winning revival of “Hello, Dolly!” starring Bette Midler earned $126 million in gross receipts, but returned only about 5% of that in net profits, according to Broadway Journal.

Sales fell after Midler left the production, and it closed eight months later.

Despite all these factors, insiders contend that the rise in prices isn’t about covering costs alone.

“The real reason tickets are up is because of profits,” Brownlow-Calkin said, referring to the commercial enterprise of producers and their investors.

Carl Mulert, business agent for Local United Scenic Artists 829, which represents production designers and craftspeople, echoes the sentiment.

Broadway is expensive because it can be, according to Mulert. “It’s called commercial theater for a reason,” he said. “Commercial producers are trying to get a return on their investment.”

Moving to a hit-driven business

Hits like “Hamilton” often commence a years-long run, whereas shows that underperform close early and disappear, like recent productions of “Camelot,” which closed after a few months, and “Is This A Room,” which ended its run weeks after opening.

According to Brownlow-Calkin, the middle ground between hits and flops is also being squeezed. It mirrors a change that is also happening in the movie industry, where producers have increasingly focused on blockbuster franchises.

She cited recent examples on Broadway like “How to Dance in Ohio” and “The Prom,” which were not based on known songs or brands and had no celebrities; were creative and appreciated but not critical darlings. Both shows closed relatively early with “The Prom” failing to recoup its initial investment, according to Deadline.

Brownlow-Calkin said shows like those are becoming even more rare: “People are less likely to take risks.”

Instead, she said, producers are more likely to pour large sums into productions where they hope for a large payoff. She mentioned the increasing number of jukebox musicals, which aim to draft off the popularity of existing songbooks from artists like The Four Seasons or Tina Turner.

Yet even that approach isn’t a guarantee of success, Brownlow-Calkin said, citing the current Neil Diamond musical “A Beautiful Noise.”

“That’s pulling in somewhere above $500,000 a week,” Brownlow-Calkin said. “That kind of spells doom. At $500,000 you are barely making money and not gonna last that long.”

Cheaper options

Although Broadway tickets are expensive, some relatively affordable options exist.

Individual theaters’ newsletters often highlight promotions or discounts as well as access to previews. (Here’s a list if you’d like to get on more of those email lists.)

Nearly 10% of the tickets sold for Broadway shows are purchased through the Theater Development Fund, a nonprofit that works to make theater accessible and affordable through memberships and its popular TKTS tickets booth.

The average price for theatergoers willing to stand in line at a TKTS booth for tickets was $85 in 2022-23, according to a TDF spokesperson.

Theaters and shows also sponsor lotteries and rush programs. The musicals “Six” and “Hadestown,” for example, are currently running lotteries, with tickets around $45.

“I was very fortunate that I got to go to theater as a young child when there were inexpensive tickets,” said producer Hal Luftig. “That is kind of still true today. You just have to work a little harder for them.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Bette Midler’s last name.

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