photo by Mig Gilbert
On my first visit to New York City, I was determined to see as many Broadway shows as humanly possible.
Luckily, my high school theater teacher had organized the trip, so the itinerary came front-loaded with two plays and a musical, plus a bonus off-Broadway experience. However, we had free time during the day on both Saturday and Wednesday, which meant my classmates and I descended on Times Square in an attempt to get the best possible matinee bargains.
These days, I live in New York, so I seldom face that sort of intense time pressure. But I still try to see as much theater as I can without breaking my budget. As Larry Elkin recently observed in this space, tickets to a Broadway show can now easily run hundreds of dollars apiece. But if you have flexibility, persistence and sometimes a bit of luck on your side, you can see top-tier shows for much less.
Next week, for example, one of New York’s best theater deals returns for the summer: The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. Every year for nearly six decades, the Delacorte Theater in Central Park has offered some of the best productions in the city, with tickets running a very reasonable $0 per seat. If you have the time and the inclination to sit in the park for long stretches, theater staff distributes tickets each performance day at noon, though many people arrive when the park opens at 6 a.m. (or, for very popular productions, earlier). The Public also distributes a limited number of tickets at its downtown location and, for certain performances, in the outer boroughs. But the easiest way to try for a ticket – though also the one with the worst odds – is the digital lottery.
Shakespeare in the Park’s lottery was once conducted by email, but these days it lives on the TodayTix app. Hopeful theatergoers can enter the lottery on the app between midnight and noon, and use it to confirm their interest if they win. Winners pick up their tickets at the box office and enjoy that evening’s show.
Ticket lotteries aren’t only for the park. Every “Hamilton” fan who follows the show on social media knows about “Ham4Ham,” the lottery that offers a chance to win $10 tickets to the megahit. But while “Hamilton” popularized the idea of the Broadway show lottery with social-media-ready performances and its audience’s outsize enthusiasm, the idea of discounted same-day tickets has been part of Broadway since “Rent” pioneered the idea in 1996.
Here is a quick primer on the most common ways Broadway (and off-Broadway) shows offer day-of tickets at a discount. “Rush” tickets are sold at a show’s box office the day of the show. As with Shakespeare in the Park, lines can be long, especially for popular shows, so showing up early gives you the best chance of securing one of these limited tickets, which usually run between $30 and $40. Some shows offer “student rush:” The idea is the same, but tickets are only available to students with ID. (Though student rush is less popular than it once was, it was a huge benefit for me when I attended college in Westchester County, New York.)
Lotteries, on the other hand, are what they sound like. Hopeful theater fans arrive at a predetermined time – usually a couple of hours before the show – to put their names in a bucket and cross their fingers. A limited number of names are drawn for an opportunity to buy discounted tickets, again usually in the $30 to $40 range, generally for very good seats.
Increasingly, many shows offer digital lotteries. Some, like Shakespeare in the Park, work through TodayTix; others use the Broadway Direct website. The idea is the same as an in-person lottery, but for those who don’t have the ability to make it to midtown Manhattan a few hours before showtime, digital lotteries are a boon. They also make it easier to enter multiple lotteries on the same day, which can be great for those visiting New York who are interested in more than one show. Your odds get even better if you visit during a slow tourism period or can try for weekday matinees.
Some shows also offer discounted “standing room” tickets the day of a show. As the name implies, these tickets don’t get you a seat; instead, they usually get you a place to lean against a rail or ledge to watch the show. Not every theater can accommodate this type of audience member, though, and often these tickets are only available for sold-out performances.
For those who prefer to sit and don’t feel particularly lucky, the Theatre Development Fund’s TKTS booth is a longstanding alternative for same-day tickets. The main booth is located in Times Square, with two secondary locations in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. All four locations sell discounted tickets to shows that have not sold out that day’s performances. The tickets generally will not be as cheap as rush or lottery tickets – discounts range from 25 to 50 percent off face value, but even half-off a $180 ticket is still $90. On the other hand, TKTS always offers a variety of shows, along with an app that lets you see the day’s offerings before getting in line, making it a one-stop solution. If you try for rush tickets to a particular show and they run out before you reach the box office, you are simply out of luck; at TKTS, you can always switch to your second choice, so the time you spend waiting in line will not be wasted.
Some discount options let you plan farther ahead. For instance, in addition to entering lotteries, you can use TodayTix to buy tickets to shows directly, sometimes at a discount. While these tickets used to be restricted to the coming week, the app recently rolled out the ability to buy tickets up to 30 days in advance. A few competitor apps and websites, notably Broadway Box, offer similar services.
Younger audience members, even if they are not students, have access to several excellent – and free – discount programs. For example, patrons under 35 can join Roundabout Theatre’s Hiptix or Lincoln Center’s LincTix. (I am a member of both, though I’ve aged out of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 30 Under 30 program, also a good deal.) These programs offer a limited number of discounted seats to certain shows, which can be purchased well in advance. If you qualify, these programs offer some of the best theater deals in New York; for instance, due to some planning ahead and my LincTix membership, I will be seeing the critically praised “Oslo” on Memorial Day weekend for only $35. Senior discounts are rare for Broadway shows, but some off-Broadway companies offer them.
If you see a lot of theater, you may also want to look into paid memberships that can get you better access or discounts to productions mounted by a certain company, such as Roundabout or MTC. Those who are eligible can also join TDF, which offers students, educators, arts professionals and others access to a variety of discounted Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
For theater fans outside New York, many of these techniques work elsewhere too. Keep your eye out for lotteries, rush tickets and memberships for both touring and local productions. Even TodayTix has expanded to nine other metro areas as of this writing. If you can be flexible on which show you see, when you see it or both, you have a lot of options for keeping ticket prices reasonable, even for world-class performances. I’ve used nearly every technique I mentioned here, and I’ve seen a lot of great shows.
As for my trip to New York back in the early 2000s, I managed to nab discounted tickets at the TKTS booth to “Proof” and rush tickets to “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” – the 2001 and 2002 Tony Award winners for Best Play, respectively. Not bad for a first try. Happy playgoing.