Attention Must Be Paid, But For $800?

A Financial Detective Story about Staging "Death of a Salesman" in 1949 and 2012 by Peter Wayner

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Q:You call this a financial detective story? Is it a story? What were you trying to find?
A:It's a story but it's a non-fiction one. I found myself wondering just how Broadway tickets and really everything else got so expensive. Everyone wonders that when they see the price. Everyone thinks everything was so much cheaper way back when. I wanted to connect the dots, do some reporting, and figure out where the money was going.
Q:How did you end up focusing on "Death of a Salesman"?
A:There was a great op-ed piece in the NY Times that was shaking a fist at the high prices for the new 2012 production. The author wanted to use the high prices of the new version as the starting spot to rail against everything wrong with the economy. I started talking with an editor in the business section at the Times about the essay and what it said about inflation and the middle-class. Then we started exploring a short piece explaining just where the cash was going.
Q:And then?
A:It got too big for the newspaper. One of the sources happened to be a professor at the University of Wisconsin. He said casually, you know, that Kermit Bloomgarden's papers are in the archives over here. Perhaps you could find answers there. And I called up someone at the archives and found too many details.
Q:Like what?
A:Like how little it cost. One Broadway producer joked with me that the original play probably cost less to put together than a single newspaper or TV ad today. And he was right. It was a stunning comparison.
Q: And to what did you compare this?
A:A source sent me the records from the 2012 production and I could start connecting the dots. I could see how much was spent on sets in 1949 and how much in 2012. The spreadsheets didn't line up exactly, but you could come fairly close.
Q:Where did the money go?
A:Oh, that's a tough one to answer and I spend several long sections on it. I get down into the details like the money spent on hair stylists because it's kind of fun to look at the details for a few pages. Everything is more expensive now, but some things are more expensive than others. Food is more expensive but real estate is dramatically more expensive. Salaries are somewhere in between.
Q:Did real estate go up more than inflation?
A:The Consumer Price Index is just an average and it tends to obscure the big leaps in some parts of the economy. Renting an apartment in New York is much, much more expensive in 2012 than 1949. Other things like food aren't so bad. But even there, there are changes. I devote one section to chasing down comparison points. I was able to find some old menus from the Waldorf-Astoria from 1949.
Q:And you compared it to eating there today?
A:Yes. And it's possible to get close but even then, there are differences. Some of the same fish isn't readily available because it's been overfished. Even when you're comparing an old, stable business like the Waldorf, there are differences.
Q:All of these prices affect the stage?
A:Sure. The actors and stagehands must eat. They need a place to live. If the theaters aren't bringing in enough revenue, they could be converted into hotels or apartments. The 1949 version was staged in the Morosco, a theater that was torn down and replaced by the Marriott Marquis.
Q:Were you surprised by anything?
A:Yes. When I started crunching the numbers, I found that the math wasn't as bad as it sounds. Our emotions get hot when we hear about the outrageous prices like $1000 but these are prices from concierges or ticket brokers or sites like StubHub. People on expense accounts who want to treat a special client pay those prices. In the early weeks, the average ticket sold was well under $100. They were discounting pretty heavily before it became a runaway hit. If you pay attention and watch, you can save quite a bit.
Q:You call this a "short, well-focused book". Why?
A:Because it's short. Less than 10,000 words. It's a long magazine article or a short book, but it has more of a beginning, middle and end like a book. There are sections about inflation, Kermit Bloomgarden, and more that read like short chapters. It doesn't have any of the padding that authors are often forced to include if they want to produce something that justifies all of the printing and distribution costs of a paper book.
Q:Those don't matter any more in the age of digital books?
A:Exactly. There are good opportunities. I can write something simpler and price it accordingly.
Q:Could Broadway do that?
A:I guess and they do that at times. They show snippets on shows like the Tony awards. We're already seeing plenty of singing and dancing snippets on YouTube, but it's hard to do that in a Broadway theater. There's so much effort in getting there and finding your seats. By the time you do that, you might as well stay for a couple of hours. And then by the time you stay for a couple of hours, you might as well get some slick sets with great lighting. And by the time you do that, you might as well get some stars.
Q:That's where the money goes?
A:It's a bit more complicated than that, but that's a big part of it. Everything is fancier because a night at the theater isn't what it used to be. It's a special event now. In 1949, tv wasn't much competition. In many ways, TV and theater swapped places. One was the luxury item and the other was a standard part of entertainment. Now they've changed roles.
Q:And so it's more expensive?
A:It is because it can be. If it becomes more of a luxury item, people up and down the economic spectrum are more willing to splurge and they want everything to be better. It's a feedback loop. The producers understand that. They know that they can get average entertainment at home for free so they have to make something special to fill the seats.
Q:And so there's hope for the middle class?
A:Oh yes. The rich 1%ers might be nabbing all of the fancy seats but there are plenty at less outrageous prices left over for people who are willing to splurge just a bit on a night out. They still sound outrageous, but one of the things that I found is that everything else sounds outrageous too and compared to other things like going to the movies or eating a diner, Broadway isn't too out of line.