Eight times a week for almost 12 years, tourists and New Yorkers have gathered at the Gershwin Theatre, praying that Joell Soto will call their name. Soto runs the Wicked lottery — the only opportunity for discount tickets to the mega-hit musical. Wicked is one of a handful of shows on Broadway to offer a lottery, which are not just opportunities to see sold-out shows on for a low cost; they've also become a form of entertainment in themselves.
"I think of mine as its own little 35-minute Broadway show," says Chris Catalano, who has been running The Book of Mormon's lottery since the Tony Award-winning musical opened in 2011. "I get to throw in adlibs here and there, but for the most part the script stays the same." He is an actor with a standup and improv comedy background, so he puts that to use developing a patter. The way he sees it, Broadway shows are the same every night and people see those repeatedly.
By sticking to a basic script, he ensures that he says all the rules correctly, so that no one can say, for example, that they didn't know they had to have an ID. "Rather than just saying you need a photo ID, I'll tell people you have to have a picture of you that has your name next to it that is issued by someone that is not you. It's just about the phrasing and keeping it fun," he says.
Soto's approach is to be as simple and straightforward as possible and to operate on a friendly basis. "It's an hour out of my day per show, but given that small window of time, it potentially could make a couple of people really happy," he says. "Even if people don't win, generally they are in a good mood and appreciate the procedure. And thankfully, if they don't win the first time, they do come back and try again. I like to think that even if you don't walk away with the prize, you still want to come back and you still walk away enjoying the experience."
The trend of entertaining lottery participants who might go home without winning tickets has caught on. Hamilton's popular #Ham4Ham show happens during the second lottery of a two-show day and one random day during the week. "Lin-Manuel Miranda felt he wanted to connect with the people entering the lottery on a daily basis," says Brig Berney, Hamilton's company manager. During previews when the cast was rehearsing during the day, Miranda would bring one or a couple of them out to sing, rap or dance. Now it's expanded to include guests from other shows like Spring Awakening, Fun Home and The King and I. "It's genius because they're getting a show even if they don't get to see Hamilton. They're getting an experience with him that only the people here get live," says Berney.
This is a long way from the first ticket lottery, at Rent. When the groundbreaking musical opened in 1996, there was a rush line, but it got so out of hand that kids were camping out in Times Square. The producers (including Jeffrey Seller, who also produces Hamilton and has a lottery at all his shows) came up with a system to make it more fair and safe. Soto, who got into the business through a family member (he also works as a house staff member for another theatre), helped run that one as well and says that no one remembers the exact date, but he thinks it was sometime in 1998. When Soto's supervisor at the Nederlander went over to Wicked, he brought Soto along to do the lottery. At Rent, three people ran the lottery, but at Wicked, Soto is a one-man show. He only misses a few shows a year and is never late. And he's still only seen Wicked once, on opening night.
Almost 12 years later, Wicked still draws huge crowds. "Maybe one day the interest isn't there and I don't have a job, but I've noticed the buzz and the appeal thankfully is still there," Soto says. During the busy times like school holidays, a couple of hundred people entering is the norm. The most entries were on Idina Menzel's last show and on Kristin Chenoweth's — between 500-600 people for each. "I know specifically because for those dates I actually set up two tables outside the theatre," Soto recalls. "Normally I have one folding table in a doorway and a chair and I can just do my thing. We had people almost lining up around the block. And it took me an hour instead of a half hour."
The record for The Book of Mormon is 788 people during the first year of the show. And it still averages more than 200 people per lottery. Hamilton, which sells 21 front-row tickets for only $10, averages between 350 and 750 a night. They've stopped counting, but at the first preview, there were 704 entries.
All three attract a varied demographic. "It's not a student thing. Anybody of any age and from anywhere in the world can be a part of it," says Berney. Hamilton is still new, but some fans at Wicked and The Book of Mormon have been attending for years. "The one thing I really enjoyed from the very beginning is watching parents who started taking their children young and then strangely watching their kids come back. And next thing you know their kids are taller than me," Soto says.
Catalano has also gotten to know the regulars. For example, John, a man who Catalano guesses is in his mid 50s, who comes almost every Saturday to the standing-room line and brings a new friend with him every time. Then there is a doorman who works at a hotel near the theatre who would always come on his break to play. His boss gave him permission to take the rest of the day off if he ever won.
"It took him 50 times. He might be the unluckiest person. When we go through the barrel checking for duplicates at the end of the lottery, no kidding, his name would be the last name out of the barrel more often than not," Catalano says. "He did finally win. He loved the show. He's already been back a couple of times since then because he wants to see it again."
Another lottery frequenter came one Halloween dressed as "lottery dude," the character that Catalano has developed for himself. "It's just my persona while I'm at work, which is super friendly, super helpful, hilariously funny. So I started using that as partially as promotion for myself," he says (he is @lotterydude on Twitter). "Apparently that was enough to warrant a Halloween costume which was all at once flattering and a little scary."
Lotteries are continuing to evolve. The revival of Spring Awakening, performed in American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English, just announced the first ASL lottery. But some things never change.
"It's a pretty standard set up," Soto says. "All you need to do is show up. If you win, you need cash and ID."