As time passes, Broadway ticket prices seem to continually get higher and higher. For example, the top ticket price when the original production of Oklahoma! opened in 1940 was $4.40. Adjusted into 2015 dollars, that would be around $60, a far cry from today's ticket prices which top out at around $170 or even as much as $325 if fans spring for premium seating.
Charging more means Broadway continues to bring in record-setting grosses year after year, which is a great thing. It also means that Broadway shows become more difficult to afford for many would-be theatregoers.
By the 1990s, the rising ticket prices, together with gradual cultural shifts, had created an alarming drop in arts participation amongst Americans younger than 25. The National Endowment for the Arts released a study in 1996 that said as much. There began to be a lot of talk in the theatre industry about trying to make theatregoing "cool" again. This was going to require not only the right show, but also a new method of making tickets accessible and affordable to the youthful audience the industry wanted to get back. As it turned out, the industry got both with Jonathan Larson's now-legendary 1996 rock opera, Rent.
A modern re-telling of Puccini's opera La Bohéme, Rent featured a modern rock score and an edgy plot that struck a major chord with audiences, particularly young audiences. After being developed at New York Theatre Workshop, the show made a quick transfer to Broadway a few months later. Rent went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. To say it became a cultural phenomenon is somewhat of an understatement. Rent's top ticket price when it opened on Broadway was $67.50, a sum most of the show's younger fans couldn't afford. It also didn't exactly coincide with the show's energy; Rent chronicles and romanticizes the life of a group of destitute Bohemian artists living on the Lower East Side, most of whom can barely afford to eat, much less see a Broadway show. According to one of Rent's producers, Jeffrey Seller, the producing team decided that they wanted to keep the show accessible for people “in their 20s and 30s, artists, Bohemians—the people for whom [Jonathan Larson] wrote the show.” The method they came up with for achieving this was unprecedented on Broadway: rush tickets.
Discount ticketing wasn't a new concept to Broadway. Joseph Papp started offering free Shakespeare performances in New York in the 1950s, eventually settling in at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park where his Shakespeare in the Park series continues to offer free performances every summer. The Theatre Development Fund has worked on increasing access to live theatre from its inception, offering low-cost student tickets to The Great White Hope in 1968 and establishing the Times Square half-price TKTS booth in 1973. There had also been a few instances of student rush tickets on Broadway, for productions like Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, but those tickets were only available to people with valid student IDs and the tickets were all in the last few rows of the balcony. Rent’s producers wanted a more democratic option.
Two hours before every performance, the box office at the Nederlander would sell the first two rows of the center orchestra section for $20 a seat, first-come, first-served. Besides making the show available to people who couldn't afford full-price tickets, the program also had the effect of placing the most enthusiastic audience members closest to the stage. Unlike earlier discount programs, Rent's rush program became an event in and of itself, especially as the show’s popularity continued to climb. The long rush lines became a regular and nightly sight in front of the Nederlander Theatre. Super-fans, or "Rentheads" as they came to be known, would even camp out; it was not unusual to exit the theatre at the end of a performance and see the next evening's rush line already begun. Anyone who walked through Times Square knew what Rent was and that there were masses of people clamoring to get tickets. This allowed Rent to reach a whole new audience that no other Broadway shows were reaching.
About a year into the run, Rent's producers decided that the rush lines were getting out of hand; as Seller described, “On a Friday night, there’d be a line going West for the Friday night rush and then there’d be a line going East for the Saturday matinee rush. And people were sleeping over.”
The producers were worried about the safety of their fans. “We became worried that kids were going to get hurt and get into trouble in the middle of the night with what was still a pretty large contingent of low-lifes around there,” Seller said. In July 1997, it was announced that Rent's rush ticket line would become a lottery. Instead of selling the tickets first-come first-served, the box office held a drawing two hours before curtain time. The overnight lines stopped, but the lottery continued to draw large crowds. It was also still democratic; anyone who had $20 could come and enter the lottery and have a chance at seeing the show.
Nearly 20 years later, the rush and lottery programs that Rent pioneered have been adopted by countless other productions. Hamilton has received lots of attention for its extremely popular lottery, especially because the show's writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has taken to entertaining the lottery crowd with a special performance, often featuring stars from other Broadway shows.
More recently, lottery and rush ticketing have entered the digital age as well. Something Rotten sells $35 tickets to each performance via a digital lottery hosted on their website. Some shows, like Fun Home and On the Town, hold a digital lottery through TodayTix, an app for iOS and Android smartphones that also offers reduced-rate last-minute ticketing to a large array of shows both on and off Broadway. Whereas Rent's rush line got attention by placing large crowds of enthusiastic fans in front of the theatre, TodayTix is getting attention through Tweets and Facebook posts. It may take a little extra effort to see a Broadway show without paying a steep price tag, but as many participants in these rush and lotto programs can attest, that effort can be part of the fun. Rush and lottery crowds generally end up being a gathering of like-minded people — a community of theatre fans. Enthusiasm for something is always more fun when its shared with others. Live theatre is sometimes accused of having diminishing mainstream cultural relevance, which makes these communities all the more important. Rent's rush and lottery programs might just turn out to be its most important and enduring legacy to the industry. For producer Jeffrey Seller, it was his “proudest moment.”
(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)