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BWW Reviews: ATTENTION MUST BE PAID, BUT FOR $800? by Peter Wayner

It happens to everyone who works in the theatre, especially those who work on Broadway. Someone who thinks nothing of shelling out $20 for a 3D movie or $400 for a new phone will demand of you: "Why are theater tickets so expensive?" Journalist Peter Wayner has given you a terrific little book with all the ammunition you need.

In Attention Must Be Paid, But For $800? Wayner compares the original 1949 production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman with the 2012 Broadway revival. It begins as a response to Lee Siegel's scathing New York Times op-ed on that revival as a cynical rebuke of Miller's everyman themes. He felt it exemplified all that is wrong with our economy, by charging the audience over $800 per ticket.

A lively piece of investigative journalism, with a healthy dose of sarcasm, Wayner's book debunks the criticism and lays out the truth as only someone who loves theatre - and numbers - could.

Wayner does not dismiss honest concern about the accessibility of live theatre. That's an important consideration worth debating. But he manages to take the sensationalism out of the headline while considering inflation and changes in society, exposing the flaws in the Consumer Price Index, and proving that Siegel's assertions had no basis in cold, hard facts.

He explains that even with group sales and other discounts, the average ticket price for the limited run did indeed rise (from $85.73 to $147.44), but puts it in the context of "dynamic pricing" - charging more for premium seats on dates and times that are most in demand - a tactic used by professional sports teams everywhere. Wayner even manages to justify this practice as a hedge against ticket scalpers - the ones who actually demand (and frequently get) over $1,000 per ticket. Even with dynamic pricing, face values for the top tickets were a fraction of that amount.

That's an important point: the producers aren't selling tickets for $800+. The "re-sellers" are doing that. Try buying tickets for the men's final at the US Open or the 7th game of the World Series, and see what people are charging on Stub Hub. Supply and demand? Sure. But is that the producer's fault?

Attention Must Be Paid, But For $800? goes in deeper, shining a spotlight on production budgets, again comparing the revival to the original production. Is the star system to blame? Are unions to blame? What about the real estate market? Wayner takes on each potential villain with flare, proving the origins and justification of each line item.

There are several groups of people who would enjoy this slim paperback: anyone interested in theatre (particularly Broadway) history, numbers geeks, and the aforementioned theatre professionals.

As a poor grad student, I saw 7 shows in 8 days on spring break in New York: one of the shows was A Chorus Line, where the only ticket I could get was a $5 standing room ticket. I suppose those days are long gone, but Wayner's book proves that there are clear reasons behind the prices charged for Broadway shows.

Now, about the $8 ginger ale in the lobby...

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