Skyboxes and luxury suites have all but saturated the sports world, providing cushy retreats for corporate executives and big-ticket fans in football stadiums and basketball arenas, at golf championships and tennis tournaments.
Now the concept is coming to Broadway. When "Ragtime: The Musical" starts previews in December at the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Times Square, 50 tickets a performance, at $125 each, will be available for what the theater's developer describes as "VIP suite service."Those ticket holders will be able to make use of a private suite beneath the theater's lobby where they can check coats, sip free cocktails and make use of uncrowded restrooms. Their seats will be center stage, rows 6 to 12.
The $125 price is $50 higher than that for the best orchestra seats at "Ragtime," but it is not a Broadway record. Producers of other shows have offered more expensive promotions. At "Victor/Victoria," the musical that closed this summer, a limited number of seats were available for $145 in the first two rows, with some amenities thrown into the package.
Livent, the Ford Center's developer, runs similar suites in theaters in Toronto and in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is building one in a theater now under construction in Chicago. Garth Drabinsky, chairman of Livent, said the special service would offer patrons "an evening at the theater that was complete, from the moment they walked in to the moment they left."
In recent years, a number of Broadway producers, seeking to attract corporate executives and their often lavish entertainment budgets, have marketed "champagne boxes" with free drinks and other perks, or "preferred" seating in the front rows, at premium prices. But space constraints at most theaters made it impossible to offer amenities in a private environment.
"You've got a certain clientele that is used to being pampered," said John Scher, a producer of "Victor/Victoria," who said he had unsuccessfully tried to offer a similar hospitality suite in the hotel adjacent to the Marquis Theater during the show's two-year run.
"This is long overdue," Scher said. "There's a higher tier of theatergoers that is used to being pampered at the great restaurants in Manhattan, in the private boxes at the Garden, the Meadowlands. Even the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark has dining rooms next to the private boxes."
Drabinsky insisted that the $50 price difference for VIP tickets was justified by the perks associated with entry to the 850-square-foot basement room, which will be open before the show and during intermission, and will be staffed by three attendants.
But Paul Libin, vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters Corp., which owns five Broadway houses, called it a simple excuse to raise ticket prices. "No one has to pay $50 to hang up their coat and go to a bathroom in the basement," he said. "You're getting the best seats in the house, and you're paying a premium for it."
Others said that the advent of "business class" in the theater might take some business away from ticket brokers. "Business people already buy their tickets from brokers, because they can get better seats than you do from the box office," said Bernard Gersten, executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater. Drabinsky, he said, "is just cutting out the middleman."
Scher, who heads the Metropolitan Entertainment Group, said that the economics of Broadway, which are far less lucrative than those of professional sports, are forcing producers to search for every source of added income. "If there are any new theaters to be built in New York, every single one will try to create this kind of space," he said.
Whatever the result, Drabinsky said, the market for higher-priced seats, suites and perks appears to be a fertile one. Livent sold 2,000 VIP tickets - enough for 40 performances - last Wednesday, its first day of sales.
Nicholas Verbitsky, president of U.S. Radio Networks, a company that produces radio programming for 3,000 stations, ordered four tickets to a mid-February performance of "Ragtime." "To entertain a station owner or an advertising executive and his or her spouse, for four tickets it's $200 - that's money well spent," he said.