NYC Theater 101
by Erich Strom, 01/10/2011
- more in arts & entertainment/
With more than a hundred curtains going up every night all over town, New York City presents audiences with a dizzying array of theatergoing experiences, from blockbuster musicals to intimate monologues. Navigating all the choices involved in putting together a night (or afternoon) at the theater can be a challenge even for seasoned local cultural omnivores. To help you make the most of your theater experience in the City, we've compiled this insider's guide to ticket-buying, preshow dining, theater etiquette and even stargazing after the show. Read on for the complete scoop, and be sure to see our Broadway section for a full rundown of individual Broadway shows; links to Off-Broadway plays and other performances; and special deals on tickets.
Broadway, Off-Broadway and Beyond
Broadway—officially, the 40 theaters of 500 or more seats in the Times Square area—has become the home of big, splashy musicals and star vehicles, with prices to match ($100 to $140 for orchestra seats, and twice that for hard-to-get "premium" tickets). Meanwhile, the play can mostly be found Off-Broadway, where it's thriving under the auspices of a multitude of top-notch nonprofit theater companies. The setting is more intimate (100 to 499 seats) and less expensive ($40 to $90). While traditionally associated with downtown, Off-Broadway has a healthy presence in the Theatre District and elsewhere in Manhattan; likewise Off-Off-Broadway, whose small, scruffier spaces of fewer than 100 seats can also be found in Brooklyn and provide a laboratory for new voices and the theatrical vanguard (and tickets for as low as $15).
For long-running shows that regularly sell out, or come close (Wicked and The Lion King, at the moment), plan on getting seats weeks or even months in advance. For all tickets, hot or not, the going will be much easier from January through late March than during holidays and the busy summer and Christmas seasons. Midweek shows, particularly those on Tuesdays, are less crowded (and tickets are often $5 to $20 less expensive) than those performed Friday through Sunday. Saturday nights require booking the furthest ahead.
On the other hand, for shows without a lion, odds are good you won't need to pay full price, especially during the winter months. During this slower period, producers offer discounts of 25% to 50% through a variety of sources. As with the hits, it's best to buy in advance. And before buying, it's worth it to check a star's departure date.
On the day of the show, options may actually improve. Shows that avoid offering long-range discounts still often need to move tickets at the last minute. Enter the venerable Theatre Development Fund (TDF) TKTS Discount Booth in Times Square, where theater fans queue up for same-day discount tickets (discounts range from 20% to 50%). See what's available with TDF's free iPhone app, which gives a real-time feed from the TKTS big board. The iPhone-less can browse entertainment-link.com's day-by-day roundup for the previous week. Choose a few shows you'd like to see and get there early. As usual, selections will be wider and discounts deeper midweek. At TKTS's other two locations, at South Street Seaport and in Downtown Brooklyn, matinee tickets are sold a day in advance.
Student and Senior Specials
Senior citizens and students are among those eligible for a TDF membership, the City's best-kept bargain-ticket secret. For a $30 annual fee, members receive offers to hundreds of shows throughout the year, at prices ranging from $11 for Off-Off-Broadway to $39 for Broadway. There's also a national membership with a lower fee ($12). Most theaters offer a limited number of cheap same-day student rush tickets ($20 to $40). Some shows have a general rush, others a lottery rush, and some sell standing-room tickets for sold-out performances. Check individual shows' websites for details.
A host of first-rate restaurants serve traditional pretheater meals at reasonable prices. A three-course prix-fixe menu usually runs $35 for dinner or $20 for lunch. You'll be in good hands and sure to make your show. Let them know your curtain time; you can expect your reservation to be 90 minutes before that.
Restaurant Row (West 46th Street between Eight and Ninth Avenues) has plenty of good bets, including Southern food at lively B. Smith's, which offers a 20% discount with a ticket from one of its partner shows, or the pre-Bolshevik Russian splendor of FireBird. Chez Josephine, on West 42nd Street, is another fine option. Many of these restaurants keep their kitchens open late to accommodate postshow dining as well. The 7pm curtain, now almost the rule for Tuesday-night shows on Broadway, and spreading to Thursdays as well, makes eating after the show particularly appealing.
Stepping away from the world of the white tablecloth, you might grab a burger and beer at HB Burger, off Times Square. Or get a real insider experience at Cafe Edison, on West 47th. Immortalized in Neil Simon's play 45 Seconds From Broadway, the diner has long been a safe haven for theater folk to do business and kvetch. Try the matzo ball soup and the blintzes, and you'll see why it's fondly known as the Polish Tea Room.
Waiting by the stage door for an autograph abides as another hallowed Broadway tradition. If you want James Earl Jones' signature, be prepared: in addition to an autograph book or your Playbill, bring a good pen or Sharpie. Some actors enjoy signing autographs; others may be tired or late for an engagement. So have patience—and be polite and gracious.
After work, actors have been known to quaff a few at Joe Allen, on Restaurant Row, a prime theater hangout for more than 40 years. Al Pacino is a regular, as is Nathan Lane (though he might be at Bar Centrale, just upstairs). Kristin Chenoweth (recently of Promises, Promises) has been known to drop in, not to mention Bernadette Peters and her A Little Night Music costar Elaine Stritch, who was once engaged to Joe Allen himself.
If you should see a boldface name, keep in mind that interrupting someone's dinner is generally unwelcome, and at some postshow spots (famously, Sardi's) strictly verboten. Speaking of etiquette, there's much debate about proper attire for attending a Broadway show. Things tend to be more casual for matinees and midweek shows and dressier on Friday and Saturday nights. In our opinion, going to the theater constitutes something of a special event. We recommend leaving the blue jeans and sneakers behind.
A final note: New Yorkers stand on line (not "in line") to buy tickets, sure, but outside the theater, tickets in hand, we just…congregate. Why? Nobody knows. But feel free to break ranks and just stand there, like the locals do. And—oh, yes—enjoy the show.