NYC Theater 101
by Erich Strom, 01/10/2011 [Updated 10/20/2015]
- 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 with 500 or more seats in the Times Square area—has become the home of big, splashy musicals and star vehicles, with prices to match: $130 to $170 for orchestra seats, and twice that for "premium" tickets. Meanwhile, so-called straight plays (dramas without music) can mostly be found Off-Broadway, thriving under the auspices of a multitude of top-notch nonprofit theater companies. The setting is more intimate (100 to 499 seats) and the tickets less expensive ($25 to $100). 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 (fewer than 100 seats), scruffier spaces can also be found in Brooklyn and serve as a laboratory for new voices and the theatrical vanguard, with tickets as low as $15.
For long-running or über-hot shows that regularly sell out (Hamilton and The Book of Mormon, currently), plan on purchasing tickets weeks or even months in advance. For all tickets, hot or not, availability is much easier from January through late March than during holidays and the busy summer and Christmas seasons (when tickets often have a $5–$15 premium). Midweek shows, particularly those on Tuesdays, are less crowded than those performed Friday through Sunday. Saturday nights require booking the furthest ahead.
For many shows, the 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, your options may actually improve. Shows that avoid offering long-range discounts often need to move tickets at the last minute via the TKTS Discount Booth (run by the Theatre Development Fund, or TDF) in Times Square, where same-day discounts range from 20% to 50%. To see what's available you can download TKTS's free iPhone app, which provides a real-time feed from their big board in Times Square. 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 dozens of shows throughout the year, at prices ranging from $9 for Off-Off-Broadway to $47 for Broadway. There's also a national membership with a lower fee of $12. Most theaters offer a limited number of cheap same-day rush tickets from $10 (for Hamilton, natch) to $40. Some shows have a general rush, others a lottery rush, some are for students only and a few 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 $30 to $40 for dinner or around $20 for lunch. You'll be in good hands and sure to make your show. Just let them know your curtain time; you can expect your reservation to be 90 minutes before that.
Restaurant Row (West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) has plenty of good bets like Barbetta, Orso—refined and rustic Italian spots, respectively—and the Latin-flavored La Pulperia. Chez Josephine, a French spot on West 42nd Street, is a fine option for dinner with live piano accompaniment. Many of these restaurants keep their kitchens open late to accommodate postshow dining as well. The 7pm curtain, now almost the rule for midweek shows on Broadway, makes eating after the show particularly appealing.
Waiting by the stage door for an autograph postshow is another hallowed Broadway tradition. But if you want a star's 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 knock back 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 the upscale Bar Centrale, just next door). Kristin Chenoweth, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bernadette Peters have been known to drop in.
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, with 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!