You can traipse the entire Metropolitan Museum of Art, attend a Yankees game, and ascend to the top of the Empire State Building, but you can’t really say you’ve done New York until you spend an evening at the theater. It’s an essential element in a NYC vacation, like going to the beach in Hawaii or slurping pasta in Italy. And though every 3 years or so some major critic issues an obituary declaring New York theater is dead, somehow the corpse continues to rise from its glittering grave, producing Pulitzer Prize–winning plays, fine new musicals, and theatrical events of all sorts that just may, when done well, shift your perspective an iota, give you a peephole into another culture, or perhaps illuminate, for 2 fleeting hours, the human condition.
Let’s start with a trade secret that no one in the theater industry wants you to know: Only suckers and out-of-towners pay full price for most Broadway and Off-Broadway shows (see the box below for an explanation of the difference between the types of theater). I’d say that, on average, only five or six shows per year get away with charging full price for their seats eight shows per week. For the other 60-or-so productions, discounts are the norm, not the exception. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. And don't believe anyone who says they can get you a discounted seat at Hamilton.
Broadway shows tend to be performed in the Times Square area (the one exception being the shows at Lincoln Center). They cost, without a discount, between $99 for a balcony seat (as little as $65 at some plays), to $179 for an orchestra seat, all the way up to $400 for a so-called “premium” seat at certain musicals.
Ticket-Buying Strategies: Online
Booking tickets before you arrive in New York City is the most time-effective strategy. You’re able to schedule your time in advance, get early dinner reservations, and not waste any of your previous vacation hours standing in line at box offices or ticket brokers. To do so at a discount, try Theatermania.com, BroadwayBox.com, or the app TodayTix. In general, discounts will range from 35% to 50% off, though a handling fee will be tacked onto the cost of your ticket, varying by venue (it can come to as much as $10). With the first two companies you buy your tickets through Ticketmaster, but with a discount code that saves you money. Then the theater tickets are either mailed to you or held at the box office. With TodayTix (which does offer advance tickets, despite the name) you meet a "ticket concierge" who will be standing somewhere in the vicinity of your theater 30 minutes before the performance starts.
For the big hits, shows like Book of Mormon or Hamilton, you can use the sites above (though they won’t be able to provide you with a discount), or you can deal directly with Telecharge (www.telecharge.com; [tel] 212/239-6200) or Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com; [tel] 212/307-4100), both of which handle Broadway and Off-Broadway shows and most concerts. For impossible to get tickets like Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen, you might be able to snag a seat through SeatGeek (www.seatgeek.com), but you'll pay top dollar. Usually, if you plan far enough ahead, it’s possible to get tickets to even the most popular shows through the sources listed here.
Ticket-Buying Strategies: In Person
Tickets are sold directly at theater box offices, and by using them, you don’t have to pay the service charge (though you rarely get a discount this way, unless you have a code from one of the websites above). However, by going to the box office, you may be able to score better seats. Often, on the day of performance, the “house seats” that are reserved for the use of the cast and crew (who pass them along to family members, friends, and investors), are sold to the general public. And these are primo seats, in the center and near the stage. Some shows will also have lotteries; if you have a particular show in mind, check it's website to see if its offering a lottery.
Last but certainly far from least is the discount-ticket TKTS Booth. Its main branch is located on 46th Street, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue (Monday and Wednesday−Saturday 3−8pm, Tuesday 2−7pm, and, for matinees only, Wednesday and, Saturday 10am–2pm,, and Sunday 10am11am−2pm). It also has a Brooklyn outlet (1 MetroTech Center, at the corner of Jay Street and Myrtle Avenue Promenade; Tuesday−Saturday 11am−6pm); one at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan (corner of Front and John streets.; Monday−Saturday 11am−6pm, Sunday 11am−4pm) and one indoors at the David Rubinstein Atrium on Broadway at 62nd St. (the official address is 61 W. 62nd St.; Tues–Sat noon–7pm). TKTS often presents a greater breadth of shows than do the online discounters, but you pay for that choice with your time (during busy periods the wait in line can be up to an hour). Those who do brave the line are often rewarded with $45 seats to Off-Broadway plays and $75 seats at big Broadway musicals.
But there are ways to “game” the TKTS line, including:
* Go to the TKTS on the Upper West Side or at the South Street Seaport. You’ll rarely wait longer than 20 minutes at either outlet, and at both, you can purchase matinee tickets the day before a show (at the Times Square booth, ticket purchases are day-of-show only). The only downside at these two outlets: No day-of-matinee tickets are sold.
* Keep your ticket stubs if you go to more than one show in a week. The staff at TKTS will let you jump to the front of the line if you can show a ticket stub purchased within 7 days from TKTS.
* Don’t go early. Tickets are released from the theaters to the booths throughout the day, so you don’t necessarily increase your chances of getting the show you want by going early in the day, or waiting in line before the booth opens. Instead, go when it’s most convenient for you.
* Go to the theater on a Monday or Tuesday night, the slowest nights of the week. You’ll encounter almost no line and will have a much bigger selection than usual (at least on Tuesday; on Monday many shows are dark.)
* Pick a play instead of a musical. TKTS has one dedicated window for plays only, and its line is always shorter.
Warning: Do not buy from the scalpers who roam up and down the line at TKTS. A few may be legitimate—say, a couple from the [’]burbs whose companions couldn’t make it for the evening—but they could be swindlers passing off fakes for big money. It’s not a risk worth taking.
Here are a few additional methods of garnering discounts or getting into sold-out shows:
Rush tickets: A number of Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters have taken to offering “rush tickets” for the first row of seats on the day of a show. The average price is $30 to $40 for these neck-benders (it’s preferable to be a couple of rows back—the sightlines are better and there’s less danger of being spit on by performers). Sometimes these seats are only available to students, while in other cases any member of the public can get them (call the theater in advance to ask). In the past, these seats were given out on a first-come, first-served basis, but recently a number of the theaters have adopted a more humane lottery.
Standing room: Some sold-out shows offer “standing room” tickets on the day of the show only, to about 10 people per show (depending on the size of the theater). They are sold at 10am when the box office opens; for the really popular shows a line will form an hour earlier for these “standing spots” at the back of the house. The cost of these non-seats are $27 to $30. An excellent website called Broadway For Broke People (www.broadwayforbrokepeople.com) lists all of the shows that do standing room, along with those that hold lotteries.
Student and youth discounts: Although Broadway theaters won’t care how old you are or what you do, a number of the Off-Broadway houses do sell specially priced seats (sometimes for as little as $25) to students and those under 30. While some do this on the day of show only, others allow these theatergoers to purchase in advance with the correct identification. Among the theaters that usually discount in this way are the New York Theater Workshop, the Pearl Theater Company, and The Roundabout Theater Company. You’ll also occasionally find $5 tickets to Off-Broadway shows and the NY City Ballet for teenagers (and their chaperones) at High Five (www.high5tix.org).
CHOOSING THE RIGHT SHOW TO SEE
I’ll admit it: I’m a walker. If I accidentally pick an awful show, I leave at intermission rather than fork out extra money to the babysitter so that I can sit through something dull. It doesn’t happen that often because over the years, I’ve formulated the following rules to help me choose which shows to see.
Skip the long-running Broadway musicals: There should be an expiration date on Broadway musicals, just as there is on milk. After about 2 years, they turn sour.
Here’s why: The first cast usually leaves around the 1-year mark, and then a second cast is announced to much fanfare. When it comes to the third go-round, big-name actors aren’t willing to take over the roles, so they get lesser-known pros in the parts. These second-tier actors aren’t any less talented, but because they have no clout they never get to rehearse with the director and put their own mark on the role. Instead, they are “put in” by a stage manager, and are expected to re-create what the previous actor did; that can lead to wooden performances. The chorus, which usually stays with the show for a few years, simply becomes bored and starts sleepwalking through their performances. That’s why you’ll often see a better show if you go to a newer one.
You can find out how long a show has been on by calling the theater; asking the folks at the TKTS booth; looking at Telecharge.com (which lists when shows opened); or checking The New Yorker magazine, which lists “long-running” shows separately in its theater section.
Beware the “un-nominated” Broadway shows: It doesn’t matter which shows win a Tony Award—that’s pretty much a crapshoot. But the nominating committee, which is made up of distinguished theater professionals—actors, writers, producers, and the like—is savvy about theater and usually does a good job rewarding the most interesting shows with nominations in late May. If a new play, musical, or revival can’t manage to get a nod (and in some years there’s very little competition), take it as a sign that your theater dollars may be better spent elsewhere. Each show that gets nominations will trumpet that fact in their ads (but don’t punish the Off-Broadway shows, as only Broadway shows are eligible for the Tonys). A good source for this type of information is the Telecharge.com site, which lists nominations and awards for each show.
Do some research before you buy: The web is a treasure trove of information, including past reviews of shows. Instead of going blindly to the TKTS line (see above), surf www.nytimes.com, www.timeout.com/newyork, or www.nymag.com before you get to New York and pick a show that’s garnered a fair number of good reviews. While the reviewers aren’t always right (and lately, I think the New York Times critics have been really off in their recommendations), at least by reading up you’ll have a better idea of what the shows are about.
Avoid “jukebox” musicals: Mamma Mia set off a frenzy of shows that simply take the catalogue of some famous pop composer and then string songs together with a silly, inorganic story. In most cases you’ll hear better renditions of these songs at your local theme park—don’t go!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.