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This question comes from Betsy Lee of New York, NY.
Answer: Let's first discuss the thinking behind the day-of-show discounted seats policy of Rent, which helped pioneer this idea when it began on Broadway in 1996. According to producer Jeffrey Seller, "The root of the idea was, let's make it affordable for everyone. Let's take a little from the rich and give it to the poor."
The first innovative element of the Rent policy was the idea to put the cheaper seats in the first two rows of the orchestra (34 seats in all). "Let's put what will hopefully be our most enthusiastic audience members in the front, and let the wave start there and work its way to the back," he says.
The second element was that while student prices had been done in the past — with Miss Saigon, for instance — Seller says, "We didn't want to make it just students. When we [Seller and producing partner Kevin McCollum] moved to the city as 22-year-olds, we weren't students any more, but we didn't have any money." The cheap seats were open to anyone, as long as you put in the time.
The show started out with a first-come, first-serve policy. But, Seller says, "By the second year of the first-come, first-serve, it was 'Lord of the Fleas.' There was a whole hierarchy of who stood in line, who stood for you. The kids who stood in line were starting to manage the line."
The producers then introduced the third innovative element: the lottery system, which has been used on many shows since, including Hairspray and Wicked. The lottery, Seller notes, "makes it completely democratic, and eliminates the idea of people having to stand in line for eight hours."
Seller has used the same lottery policy for all of his shows, including Avenue Q and In the Heights. But some shows, of course, decide to use other policies.
As a producer and as vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, Jordan Roth has seen lots of different methods. So what goes into the decision? "It's a fair amount of trial and error," he says, "and it's an effort to please the most amount of people."
Some shows use student rush. "If you're particularly trying to cultivate a younger audience for a specific show, that might lead you more towards student rush policy," Roth says. For some shows, student rush seats are available starting when the box office opens in the morning. For others, it's not available until a couple hours or so before curtain. "If shows do a lot of day-of business," Roth says, "they might want to give themselves a full day to sell tickets to day-of purchasers and then make the rush [seats] available later in the evening." Tickets for young people are sometimes available before the day of the show — at shows produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company (via its Hiptix program, available to theatergoers ages 18-35) and Lincoln Center Theater (StudenTix, available to students), for instance.
To institute a lottery, there has to be high demand for cheap seats, as was the case with Rent. It's hard to imagine rabid William Inge fans flocking to the Biltmore at 6 PM to win $30 tickets for Come Back, Little Sheba, but regular student rush tickets are available just by showing up to the box office on the day of the performance.
As for the seat locations, sometimes having young, enthusiastic fans close up helps enhance the experience of the entire audience, as with Rent and Roth's The Rocky Horror Show. For some shows, rush tickets could be anywhere — it depends on availability.
Sometimes the location is determined by the theatre and how the show fits into the space. "You might imagine where some seats are really close up," Roth says, "and because of the specifics of the set, [some people] wouldn't want to be close up, but that would be exciting for certain audiences, perhaps audiences that have seen it multiple times."
Standing room is another option and is sometimes used in addition to a rush policy. "Oftentimes you won't sell standing room unless you're sold out," Roth says. On other shows, such as Spamalot, standing room is available no matter what.
For all the rules on how to get last-minute discounted seats to Broadway shows, go to Playbill.com's Broadway Rush and Standing Room Only policies page.