Should Preview Tickets be Free?

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief

Next year the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, Carousel, is making its way back to Broadway starring Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry. It's not hard to imagine that there will be a lot of interest in this revival. 

I also imagine that tickets will be more than a bit challenging to get as well. But what if I told you there was a way to see it for free? What if I told you that all of its preview performances will be free? All you would have to do is enter a lottery for the chance to attend. Would you? I think you and a lot of other people would. 

Free tickets for preview performances. Seems pretty preposterous right? But doesn't it kind of make sense too?

Last year I attended a preview performance of a Broadway play. I understood that I was seeing a preview of the show but this was also less than a week before opening night. 

What I didn't expect was that I was basically seeing a costumed rehearsal on stage, for a show not nearly ready for an audience. There were multiple tech stoppages, calls for "line" and sound issues. Needless to say I was pretty shocked and angered. 

The following week, when reading about the show's ticket sales, I was even more surprised to learn that the cost of my ticket was exactly the same as the cost after the show began its run. So my fellow audience members, who had just watched a train-wreck of a performance, paid the same amount of money ($55+) as future audiences would have for the run of the show. 

Seems a bit unfair. 

Now while my experience is a rarity on Broadway stages, the price of preview tickets is not. In many cases, the price of a ticket will be the same as it would once the show opens, especially when it comes to the bigger shows. My friend, who has seen Hello Dolly! twice, told me that he paid the same triple digit price for a ticket last week as he did when the show was in previews. 

I understand that everyone needs to get paid and that shows cost money to produce, but charging audiences that much money to essentially be "guinea pigs" seems a bit too much to ask. 

Preview performances, especially early on, can be rife with technical or line issues. The tech issues of productions like Titanic, Mary Poppins and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are stuff of legend. While refunds were issued in some cases, audiences were still initially charged full ticket prices. 

The other part is that when a show is in previews, it can still be changed. Scripts can be rewritten, songs can be added/cut, roles could be recast. Essentially the show a preview audience may see will not be the same show audiences see a few week later.

So wouldn't it make sense to make preview performance tickets available by lottery only? Have them be completely free? It would solve a lot of issues. 

First of all, the general mood of the audience would be more positive because they're seeing a Broadway show for free. Also, given the risk of something going array during the show, the audience is well aware that it could have happened, paid nothing to see it and therefore removes any possibility of demanding refunds and spreading bad word of mouth. 

Now imagine if everything goes right. You've got a crowd of 1,200 or so people coming from a show they love which was free for them. Think of the word of mouth then. It would also give folks who have trouble affording Broadway tickets a chance to see one without shelling out much needed funds. On the business side, it could give a boost in attendance and interest in shows, especially plays and Off-Broadway material that could use some. 

How would you do it? Run it like a lottery. The Walter Kerr Theatre seats 975. Pick 975 people from the lottery pool, utilize event check in technology to remove the possibility of those tickets being re-sold and you've probably got a sold out house for every preview. 

Now of course I know the chances of this happening are nearly impossible. The financial cost in addition to clearing it with the unions would be a headache enough. But in most cases we're talking about a couple weeks worth of performances. The salaries needed could come from initial investments and capital raised. 

But if Broadway producers and organizations were truly thinking about making it easier for people to see their shows not to mention spread positive buzz, make your preview run completely free.