Saturday, May 28, 2016
The Hamilton Ticket Problem
If someone had told me five years ago that the hottest ticket on Broadway today would be a hip hop musical about the first U.S. secretary of the treasury, I would have laughed out loud.
But that is what happened. I have seen Hamilton, and it is great. I think everyone should see it.
In fact, just about everyone wants to see it. A few months ago I read a commentary by a New York professional who felt not just out of the loop but personally ashamed when forced to admit to associates that she had not yet seen Hamilton. The sentiment seemed a bit over the top -- oh, the agonies of the upper middle class! -- but the wish to see the play is widespread and keen.
Hamilton opened at the Richard Rodgers Theater last August. The theater has 1,319 seats, and every single one of them is sold out for every performance through January 2017.
When you combine huge demand with virtually no supply, interesting things happen. Here are some of them.
By September last year, people were arriving at the Richard Rodgers Theater with credible looking tickets that turned out to be forgeries when run through the entrance scanning machine.
In October, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator and star, posted this warning on Twitter:
I have friends who have been scammed on Craig and his so-called List.
Don’t buy Hamilton tickets off there please.
By December, it was reported that people with counterfeit tickets, or with copies of actual tickets that had been "lost," were being turned away at almost every performance.
In February, a Manhattan man responded to a Craigslist offer of two Hamilton tickets, which he purchased at a meeting on a street corner for $300 cash. Naturally the tickets were denied at the theater. The man's wife went to Manhattan's 17th Police Precinct and made an issue of the case. She also offered to set up a sting to catch the fellow who had taken their money. The police agreed, the phony ticket seller was arrested and the police found two additional bogus Hamilton tickets in one of his pockets. Later the Manhattan district attorney announced that the bad guy, who was on parole for weapons and drug convictions, had been indicted on 10 charges.
This made for a feel-good story that was reported by news outlets across the country and even in parts of Europe. Unfortunately, it was almost certainly a one-off.
I just looked on Craigslist and found two offers of center orchestra Hamilton seats for $220 and $350 each. I'm pretty sure that anyone who buys those tickets is going to be refused admission to the theater.
In fact, Craigslist is not the only source for fake tickets.
A couple weeks ago, a California billionaire who also appears on the CNBC Shark Tank show was surprised to find that the Hamilton tickets he had purchased on StubHub were fake. He threw the usual rich-guy hissy fit -- "Do you know who I am!" -- but still was not allowed into the theater. (StubHub probably refunded the guy's money, but he surely would have preferred to see the show.)
Hamilton ticket buyers are urged by everyone from the show's promoters to the NYPD to purchase tickets only from reputable sellers. But this introduces another problem.
Hamilton tickets, when you can find them, are priced from $67 to $177 (and $549 for "premium" seats), plus facility fees and markups by Ticketmaster.com, which handles the transactions.
(People hate Ticketmaster, by the way. Consumer sites are filled with complaints about bait-and-switch seat locations and 30-minute wait times to speak to employees who refuse to fix problems. Personally, I think the company's fees are unusually steep.)
After Hamilton opened and drew rave reviews, its run was extended two times and months' worth of tickets were released in two batches.
In one case, it was estimated that "bots," computerized telephone buying programs, purchased as many as 20,000 tickets, presumably for resale at much higher prices. (People who attend Bruce Springsteen concerts have complained for years about rigged ticket purchases like these, but it seems to be a new problem on Broadway.)
One person who traveled to the theater's ticket office observed a similar action on the ground.
One day last October, a new block of Hamilton tickets went on sale; I was there on
line a half-hour before the box office opened. I got TO the box office THREE HOURS
LATER. Why? Because the front of the line -- about 90 people in all that day --
consisted entirely of young people (age 16-20) who were working for scalpers. The
scalpers made no attempt to conceal what they were doing; I watched them peel off
$100 bills from a large wad. They give the $$ to one of the young people, told the kid
how many tickets to buy and in which location of the theater, then the scalpers stood
outside the theater door to take possession of those tickets as soon as the kid finished
at the box office.
I just looked on StubHub, which is regarded as a reputable reseller, and found tickets to the Saturday matinee performance priced between $450 and $850 per seat.
And Ticketmaster offers a resale programs whose tickets will not be turned away at the theater door. Its prices for the Saturday matinee were higher, however -- $625 to $3,429 a seat.
The people who invested early in Hamilton have made out very, very well. Lin-Manuel Miranda is getting plenty of money for originating and developing this show. Recently, it has been reported that cast members will share in the profits of this enterprise. All of this is fine with me. We should hope for more such projects.
I find it more difficult to justify the scalpers' profits, including those of the legal scalpers on StubHub and Ticketmaster. They exist only to maintain the integrity of the tickets they sell and to harvest the highest possible prices for access to a play whose success owes nothing to them.
In fact, there is a developing resentment among the proles -- black families and low-income high school students, among others -- about the exorbitant cost of access to a piece of art that validates their ancestors' participation in the founding of our country.
Over time, of course, even everyday people will get a chance to see Hamilton. At this point, ironically, it has become a feel-good entertainment for celebrities and rich people who need its message least.
Every Hamilton performance is preceded by a raffle of 21 first-row seats. Winners pay $10 each to see the show. Given the interest in the play, the odds of winning one of these raffles are not good, but the gesture is a nice one.
New productions of Hamilton are planned next year -- Chicago and San Francisco in March, Los Angeles in August. There also is talk of a London opening.
The Hamilton soundtrack is available on Amazon Prime, as an MP3 album, an audio CD, and even on vinyl. It's worth a listen before or after you see the play.