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On Broadway, it's not just the curtain that's going up

New York theater tickets will hit a new high when the musical ``Jerome Robbins' Broadway'' opens in February - $55 for orchestra seats, best in the house. The public is wincing.

``For many people, buying tickets has become practically an investment decision,'' says Isabelle Stevenson, president of the American Theatre Wing, the organization that sponsors the respected Tony Awards. ``They spend more than $150 for a night out on Broadway. It wipes out the sheer joy of theatergoing.''

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Jane Alexander, the actress who recently starred in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's ``Night of the Iguana,'' says, ``As an actor, the high prices make you feel you have to be a performing seal to justify the costs.

``Theatergoing,'' she adds, ``has become a commodity rather than food for the soul. But then I think about those $40 and $50 prices and realize that I pay that much for a plumber to come and fix a faucet.''

Harvey Sabinson, a veteran theater publicist who is now executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, recalls that, when he entered the business in 1946, the first show he worked on charged $6.90 per ticket. ``But my New York Times cost 3 cents, and now it costs 35 cents. Think about it: At least theater tickets have not jumped to $70 - not yet.''

The prices of theater tickets have just about tripled since 1970, according to George Wachtel, director of research with the League of American Theatres and Producers. The consumer price index has risen at about the same rate, he points out. Yet, if anything, the price of labor-intensive theatrical productions might have been expected to outpace the CPI.

Current shows not expected to rise

Until the ``Robbins'' announcement was made Aug. 24, the top Broadway price for musicals, such as ``The Phantom of the Opera,'' ``Me and My Girl,'' and ``Les Mis'erables,'' was $50. These shows are not expected to raise prices, though musicals that follow the ``Robbins'' show probably will.

Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, which is producing ``Jerome Robbins' Broadway,'' says the new price scale is necessary because of an especially long pre-production and rehearsal time with a large cast. Non-musicals still have $40 to $50 top prices.

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In an interview, Mr. Schoenfeld, who co-manages the Shubert Organization, which owns 16 New York theaters and five in other cities and which produces or co-produces prestigious Broadway shows like ``Ain't Misbehavin','' ``Dream Girls,'' ``Children of a Lesser God,'' and ``Sunday in the Park with George,'' says it is a simple matter of economics:

72 weeks to recoup investment

``You invest so much money in a show, determine how long it's going to take you to recoup within reasonable limitations, and you try to achieve it with the scale of ticket prices.''

The ``Robbins'' show has a $7 million budget, weekly expenses of $420,000, and a theater with 1,500 seats, Schoenfeld says. ``If we scaled it at a $50 top, we would have recouped in about 72 to 74 weeks. By raising the top price to $55, we will recoup in about 63 weeks - about 20 weeks longer than you would expect to recoup. But we did not wish to raise the ticket prices higher.''

Those figures assume sellout audiences, he adds.

He has some basis for his hopes. According to the trade paper Variety, Broadway recently concluded its strongest first quarter in history. Total receipts as of Aug. 28 were running about 18 percent ahead of the corresponding period last year. The total number of tickets sold showed a 12 percent gain over the same quarter last year.

Experts attribute the increases to two factors:

An upswing in tourism in New York.

Many mass-appeal shows.

In light of the higher receipts, some people outside the theater business have suggested there is a theater owners' conspiracy to keep prices high.

Mr. Sabinson gives that idea no credence. ``Listen,'' he says, ``the desire on the part of everybody involved in theater is to keep the prices as low as possible. The trouble is the container; maybe if we had lots of 3,000-seat theaters, you could reduce the prices. But we don't have them.''

Ms. Stevenson, who produces a regular theater seminar for the Theatre Wing which is televised on many stations, says the industry isn't trying hard enough to find ways to reduce prices. She insists the answers are evasive to questions about why higher prices are needed. ```It depends upon so many elements,' they always say. Well, it has to stop at some point, or the Broadway theater will price itself out of existence. Maybe one day soon we can get everybody together and look at the situation honestly, before we commit mass suicide. Everybody simply has to take a deep breath and decide where we can make those essential cuts.''

What could bring prices down

Asked what could bring prices down, Schoenfeld says, ``Concessions from unions would help. Investment tax credits, such as motion pictures have had, would help. We would like some flexibility in developing the air rights over theaters and a change in the method of taxation in the city, which would reflect time when the theaters are dark. Theater owners are already reducing rental prices in cases of theaters not doing well. But as long as labor, scenery, costume, and advertising costs rise, we have no alternatives. We are not like sports; nobody builds us stadiums.''

Asked whether star salaries are raising the cost of tickets, Schoenfeld says, ``If somebody is a bona fide star, it means they are bringing people into the box office, and they are worth a disproportionate amount of money. We are trying to interest more stars in pooling arrangements, whereby they share in the net profits rather than take their percentage off the gross. But a star's share is generally a maximum 10 percent of the gross, and in certain instances it is that 10 percent which makes the economics of the show unwieldy.

Discounted tickets available

``For the past few years, in general, we have absorbed price increases from unions. But our people who work in the theater are no different than those who work any place else; when the cost of living rises, they want their salaries to keep up with it.''

Schoenfeld goes on to point out that theatergoers don't have to buy orchestra seats. They can go to the discount ticket booths or get balcony seats. But he notes that, in our inflationary times, ``everybody wants to sit in the more expensive orchestra, because saving $5 or $10 doesn't mean that much to them.''

Schoenfeld is optimistic about the future of Broadway theater. ``But it is a cyclical business,'' he adds, ``dependent mainly on creative forces - writing, staging, directing, acting. We cannot manufacture product. The Shubert Organization feels a responsibility to bring good product to the public, and often we produce or co-produce plays which are worthwhile but not necessarily great moneymakers. But we are not Fort Knox and have to make sound business judgments, because, if we don't, we would not be able to indulge the artistic side.''

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