After a long year and a half without live theater, Broadway finally reopened this fall. While many hoped less tourism, numerous COVID restrictions and the rise in streamable shows would cause a drop in ticket prices, this has not been the case so far. As theater begins its highly anticipated return, it is long past time for us to raise the curtain on the rampant elitism of Broadway. Despite many of its musicals and plays telling stories of inequity, the institution has failed at increasing its accessibility.
Broadway show tickets are notoriously expensive. In the 2018-2019 season, the average audience member paid $145.60 per ticket. While this number is high enough on its own, many also have to account for the cost of traveling to New York City. That same season, 65% of theatergoers came from outside the New York City metropolitan area, which means they had to incur these additional costs to see a show. While many of these people likely don’t travel to New York solely to see a show, the cost of travel is still a barrier. Additionally, these travelers will also have less choice on the day they buy tickets. While ticket costs decrease as the day of the performance nears, tourists tend to buy tickets far in advance so that they can ensure that they will be able to see a given show while they are in New York. Additionally, since the wealthy are paying at these prices, they thereby reinforce the price increase since producers set prices based on the maximum price that will sell. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is turning Broadway into a luxury reserved only for the affluent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had consequential effects on how Broadway will operate in the future. Broadway was shut down March 12, 2020 and did not start to reopen until August 2021. The industry suffered greatly as a result. Even though Broadway was closed, there was still one way that certain shows could be seen during the last 18 months: streaming services. Streaming services allowed people to enjoy shows from the comfort and safety of their own homes, as well as provided a source of revenue for the productions that were shut down. As Broadway reopens, the remaining restrictions and the decrease in tourism will hopefully cause the streaming of shows to remain.
The rise of streaming services may also play a crucial role in making Broadway shows more accessible. In July 2020, “Hamilton” was released on Disney+. At the time, Disney+ was offering a free trial, which allowed a broader audience the ability to watch it. More recently, “Come From Away” and “Diana the Musical” were released on Apple TV+ and Netflix, respectively. While these streaming services usually have a fee (unless they are offering a free trial), they are still significantly cheaper than a Broadway ticket. These particular shows were filmed as live stage performances, as opposed to film adaptations, in an attempt to give viewers as close to a real theater experience as possible. While the recorded shows bring the music and story to a broader audience, the change in format takes away part of the effect. A quintessential part of the Broadway experience is the walk through Times Square that takes you to the theater, where you excitedly wait for the lights to go down and the curtain to rise. When seeing a live performance, you are truly immersed in the experience without distractions. On the other hand, when streaming a musical, there is much less excitement, and you don’t get to be fully immersed in the experience due to distractions at home. When compared to the cost of seeing a show live, the cost of streaming a show is significantly more affordable and will help make Broadway accessible to a larger audience; however, this does come with some drawbacks.
While streaming has helped Broadway progress toward being less cost-prohibitive, most musicals and plays are still only available in a live theater. Broadway productions must continue to use streaming services as an asset even after the pandemic and make more shows available online. The unique experience of seeing a live show cannot fully be replaced, so there will always be many who are willing to buy expensive tickets that produce revenue for the production. By embracing this new medium of streamable shows, prompted by the pandemic, Broadway can make performances affordable for everyone, not just the wealthy.