Theater Journal for Dec. 2, 2001

When You Find A Fool

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2001)

As if there weren't enough controversies whirling around us these days, the producers of The Producers have seen fit to raise the price of select orchestra seats to a mind blowing $485 each – an increase of more than 450%. Not surprisingly,theater buffs have been screaming bloody murder, pointing out that suchoutrageous prices make Broadway less accessible to all but the expense-accounted few. While I certainly concur with the logic behind these objections, I must take issue with them. In fact, I can't help recalling a bit of schoolyard wisdom that a classmate taught me way back in the last century – "When you find a fool, bump his head!"

Yes, it is a cynical (if not downright nasty) concept, but it is a fact of life. It's just the flip side of the old Roman adage "Caveat Emptor" – or "Buyer Beware." Foolish customers have no one to blame but themselves when someone takes shrewd advantage of them. This applies in most every kind of financial transaction. How many current TV ads make fun of those who have paid too much for anything from cars to stock transactions? Well, shrewd business people have always fleeced the public whenever possible. You know those music CD's you pay $18-25 for? Well, they are produced for less than $2 a piece, and that's counting the artists fees. And you probably don't even want to think about the wild mark-ups you pay on computer products, designer underwear, shampoo – you name it, someone is probably making you pay through the nose for it.

With sports teams charging hundreds (sometimes thousands!) of dollars for prime arena seats, why should Broadway producers keep acting like poor relatives? After all, the professional theater is a legitimate business, not a charity. You say no show is worth $485? I heartily agree! But by the same token, I don't believe any sports event – least of all one that is televised for free – has any business charging hundreds of bucks a seat either. But if enough of the public is willing to pay too much, why should anyone be blamed for letting do exactly that?

However hard times are right now, there still seem to be plenty of fat cats ready and willing to pay through the nose for seats to a hit show. Illegal scalpers have been getting over $1000 each for seat to The Producers – so why shouldn't the folks behind the show reclaim a piece of the action? Much as I abhor such obscene ticket prices, I cannot fault anyone for charging what the market will bear for their product. That is one of the basic principals of capitalism. Some say The Producers' producers were already making plenty on their mega-hit. Well, as Bill Gates will tell you, making plenty is no excuse for not making plenty more. Are there bozos out there dumb enough to pay $485 for your $100 product? If so, by all means charge it!

The primary problem here is not greedy producers – it is stupid ticket buyers. They created a market that the producers would have been foolish to ignore. If there weren't a fair number of customers willing to pay repulsive prices, you can bet your bottom dollar that ticket charges would plummet in no time – and that includes the still outrageous $100 a seat The Producers was charging to begin with.

If it is any comfort, the day of reckoning for all this may be closer than anyone wants to admit. After all, Lane and Broderick can't stay in their roles forever, and America's second Bush recession is already in full swing. Some insist that with 14 Tonys, The Producers will run no matter who is in it or what the economy does. Well, special announcement – musical comedy is not like those anonymous European mega-musicals that audiences embrace no matter who is in the cast. Without exactly the right kind of stellar talents in the leads, the appeal of The Producers will fade faster than the charms of an overworked prostitute. No hit has ever been recession proof – certainly not to the tune of $485 a seat.

So let Mel Brooks and his partners charge whatever the jerks will pay! "When you find a fool, bump his head" – that's show biz. (Heck, when you get right down to it, that's any biz.) Once the stars move on and the recession sets in, the jerks and their expense accounts are almost sure to disappear – and the $485 price along with them. That's show biz, too.

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