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Question: When going to shows on Broadway I have noticed seating in the double digits such as AA and BB. Why is it that they exist before the normal single-digit lettering begins? I could only think that it had to do with the stage configuration and that those seats were movable. Thank you! — Nicholas Ligon, Schenectady, NY
Nearly everyone who's ever gone to a Broadway show has had this experience. You've got primo seats, in row A, B or C. You're thinking you're in the front, just under the lip of the stage. What a treat. Then you walk down the aisle, find your seat, and you've been robbed! In front of you are some mysterious extraneous rows with names like "AA" and "BB." Where'd they come from?
Well, they came from the orchestra pit. Or, rather, the removal of the orchestra pit. "Those are the orchestra pit rows," said Mary Brelid, director of theatre operations at the Shubert Organization, which owns and operates a dozen and a half Broadway theatres. "When the theatre is using the pit, those rows are taken out. When they're not using it, we can put them back in." The productions that don't need the pit are either plays or — as is becoming more common these days — musicals that choose to place their orchestra on stage. Chicago and Catch Me If You Can are examples of this phenomenon. The addition of these rows can add an extra 27 to 28 seats to the auditorium. "It varies from theatre to theatre," said Brelid. This, however, is not an option with every theatre the Shuberts own. "Of our 17 theatres, all but two have 'pit seating.' Only the Broadway and the Majestic have permanent orchestra pits." The Majestic, built in 1927, has long been home to The Phantom of the Opera. The Broadway Theatre, built in 1924, is currently inhabited by Sister Act. Since both are among the biggest Broadway theatres, they probably don't miss the extra seats.
Among the currently running shows that have double-lettered rows at the front of the orchestra seating are How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Hirschfeld; Chicago at the Ambassador; The Importance of Being Earnest at the American Airlines; Arcadia at the Ethel Barrymore; and The Book of Mormon at the O'Neill.
But why are the double letters at the front? Why not just remove and replace rows A and B? "I guess we could have had AA and BB in the back of the theatre," mused Brelid, "but we did it this way." Other theatre owners do it differently. At the Lunt-Fontanne, the Minskoff and the Marquis, all Nederlander-owned houses, those double-lettered rows are at the back. And at the Palace Theatre, another Nederlander property, you will find row AA at the front and row ZZ at the back. Confusing, no?
Who goes the furthest with the double-lettered rows? Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre, which boast rows AA through EE. And here's a detail to savor: at the Nederlander-owned Brooks Atkinson, currently home to Rain, the first row is "AAA." Go figure.