Thursday, July 10, 2014

Giving My (Thoughts in) Regards to Broadway, plus a few other New York Trip Tips

I ❤ NY.

Not incidentally due to how much I love live theater.

So I was a bit tickled when my friend Dave, who will be in New York in early August with two other friends, asked me for suggestions of shows they might see.

But also a bit wistful.

I have been to New York City 16 times--including 11 in this century's first decade--always for pleasure, never business, and have seen 37 musicals and plays on Broadway.

But I haven't taken a trip to the Big Apple since 2011.

Now before you start shedding crocodile tears for me, I should note that I was in Manhattan for a few hours earlier this year, between flights of another trip that required flying into Newark Airport and out of JFK. Winding up near Port Authority around 1pm on a Wednesday, I almost certainly would have headed to the Times Square TKTS booth and picked up a ticket for a matinee--conceivably for Rocky, the musical--if I could have left my suitcase somewhere for a few hours (believe me I looked and asked).

By the time I got to JFK and checked my luggage, Broadway was moot, although I did have time to take the subway back to lower Manhattan and explore the 9/11 Memorial, which was quite moving and worthwhile (the museum wasn't yet open, but now is). Seeing historic St. Paul's Chapel, which survived that terrible day and now honors the victims & responders, was also well-worth my limited time.

So along with many other reasons I can't presently justify a trip to New York, relatively speaking I was just there.

But when the Tony Awards were held in early June of this year, I can't say I didn't pensively note that for the first time since 2000, I hadn't seen any of the Best New Musical nominees before the Tonys or knew that I would rather soon after (whether on Broadway, in London's West End, on a Broadway in Chicago tour stop or during a pre-Broadway run in Chicago or elsewhere).

Which somewhat complicates my answer to Dave.

For while I have seen, in some professional staging, 15 of the shows currently running on Broadway--and which still will be when Dave, Tom get there--I haven't seen any of the newer ones.

And with Dave having seen just 1 of the 15 I have (Wicked), I don't know if I should recommend an older show, just in terms of pure quality, rather than something newer and theoretically hotter (though The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon and The Phantom of the Opera remain among Broadway's top grossing shows).

Also factoring in is the cost and ease of getting tickets.

Especially during the summer season, when many tourists go to New York, it seems like about a dozen shows are drawing capacity crowds to every performance.

So while I could easily say that Dave (and Tom, with whose tastes I'm less familiar) should see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical because I know he loves the music, or A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder because it just won the Tony and seems fun or even The Lion King because it is simply fantastic--my mom has never had a more effusive reaction to any show she's seen--getting a ticket even at face value (at least $100 beyond the balcony, though in some cases not even) will likely be rather difficult.

This is especially likely given that--as they will be going to New York primarily to see both a Mets and Yankees game--their only available theater slot is Saturday night (or perhaps Sunday night, but almost nothing runs then).

So I think it imperative to pause here and cite six primary avenues for seeking Broadway tickets (there are many more, between brokers and discounters, but these cover the main bases best, to my familiarity):

1) - for full-price tickets in advance. Per the above, the riddle here is that even if there is a show you're willing to pay full-price for, chances are good that tickets may not be available "thru the box office," especially for a Saturday night less than a month off. But before committing to one of the discount or aftermarket routes below, realize that if you're willing to sit in the nosebleed seats--as I often have--some or all balcony seats for shows with tickets available through (which sometimes redirects to Ticketmaster but lists all shows) can cost a good bit less than "discount tickets," whose allotment is typically unsold Orchestra (aka up-close) seats.

2) TKTS - for discounted day-of-show tickets, purchased in person. There are actually 3 TKTS booth locations in New York, but especially for Dave's purposes, the Times Square booth (located "under the red steps" in Father Duffy Square at Broadway and 47th Street) is the main one. For 8:00pm Saturday evening performances, the booth opens at 3:00 and usually requires waiting in a long line (though will continue to sell tickets for any listed show, as they remain available, up to curtain time). What's nice is that you can now view the shows listed on TKTS for a given day online or via the TKTS smartphone app. Even though you can only buy tickets in person (with cash or credit) for same-day performances, you can check what's listed before heading to the booth, or even in advance to get a gauge for shows that are often discounted, or perhaps are listed on a Saturday or two prior to your date (and conceivably will be again, though not for certain).

3) - for discounted tickets in advance. I was quite pleased when I came across this website a few years ago, as it offers discounted tickets to several of the same under-selling shows that wind up at TKTS, but purchasable online and in advance. Discounts usually aren't quite as steep as at TKTS, but I like the convenience of A) knowing I have secured show tickets before getting to New York and B) not having to wait in line at the TKTS booth, freeing my days for visiting museums, going to Central Park or doing a million other things in New York City.

4) At the Theater - for full-price, same-day or advance tickets with no added fees. Realizing that Dave & friends may not be certain of what they want to see ahead of time--at least among shows with likely availability--or interrupt other plans by standing in line at the TKTS booth, given that they're staying in Midtown they could just see a marquee that intrigues them and ask at the theater box office if any tickets are available, right up until show time. They won't save what they would on comparable tickets from TKTS, but may find a balcony bargain and/or would avoid surcharges, so this might not be a bad idea.

5) Your Hotel Concierge - for tickets at a premium, but often available for "sold out" shows. Virtually every hotel in New York has a concierge, or even just receptionists who have avenues to procuring tickets, even very tough ones. Especially if you are indiscriminate about what you might pay, this may well be the easiest route to getting a ducat to a show for that evening.

5) - for aftermarket (aka Scalper) tickets, with prices fluctuating with demand. Some people seem to think ticket brokers, scalpers and sites like StubHub are evil. Without naively ignoring the truth that those who purchase tickets simply to sell them at a premium drastically deplete the volume of "face value" tickets, perhaps even duplicitously, I have found StubHub to provide a valuable option when tickets to something I really want to see aren't otherwise available. Sometimes prices are way too high, but I've often bought tickets sold on StubHub for substantially less than face value. So it certainly could be worth checking for popular Broadway shows.

Looking into various options for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, I found that it was not listed on TKTS for either the matinee or evening performance on Wednesday, July 9, so likely won't be there for the evening show on Saturday, August 2. It is also not discounted on

A bit surprisingly, through for August 2 at 8pm, there are seats currently available in the balcony (aka Mezzanine, the highest level in that theater), but they start at $99 + fees and only a few of these are left. A good selection of other face value tickets are presently available for $125 to $169 per ticket, plus fees (seemingly only about $8), including on the lower level.

This certainly isn't cheap, but not out of line for good seats to a big name concert or a popular Las Vegas show.

On StubHub, for that performance of Beautiful, which isn't yet sold out, there are a few Mezzanine seats starting at $138, but all the rest of the listings are $240 and up.
If I were going to New York at the same time, I would likely buy the $99 Mezzanine tickets for Beautiful through Telecharge, if they remained available. So, Dave, if interested in these, act fast. Or ask me to handle the transaction.
But, of course, there are a few caveats to this. First, I don't mind sitting at the top of the balcony as you can generally see and hear well enough to justify the savings, but spending over $100 to sit in the back rows of the theater may not seem like that much of a bargain, especially to those who aren't equivalent theater buffs.

Photo by Seth Arkin
Also, although I often fit in baseball games, rock concerts, jazz clubs, multiple museums, famed
buildings, other attractions, notable restaurants, Central Park, several happily meandering walks and a few winks into trips to the city that never sleeps, at this point Broadway theater is largely why I repeatedly return to New York.

So not only am I willing to pay a pretty penny for it--and/or scout deals well in advance--but on a 4-day weekend trip, I have typically will see 3, 4 or 5 shows on Broadway.

Hence, to say that I would probably opt to see Beautiful doesn't mean that it would necessarily be my first choice if I only had time for one show.

Or even my top pick to recommend to my friends.

While I imagine Dave would like the music of Beautiful, and think it's awesome that suburban Chicago actress Jessie Mueller stars as Carole King and recently won a Tony for her performance, despite doing good box office, the musical--employing pre-existing songs in service to King's biography--has garnered only middling reviews.

It's also not hard to imagine that a decent touring version--albeit likely sans Mueller--will hit Chicago within a year or two.

So combining a confluence of factors--what I've seen, what I'd choose to see, what I know of Dave's tastes and predilections, perceived availability, cost and convenience of getting tickets, etc.--here are, in preference order, the Broadway shows I would recommend he, Tom and Fred (or any New York visitors with similar circumstances) seek out and see in New York in early August 2014:

1. Cabaret - I think Kander & Ebb's musical about a ribald club in Berlin amidst the rise of Nazism is one of the best shows ever created, musically, thematically, narratively and more. And the Sam Mendes-directed revival which starred Alan Cumming as the Emcee--in London in 1993 and on Broadway in 1998--revamped and revitalized an already brilliant musical. This production, with Cumming (now more famous as Eli Gold in The Good Wife) and movie star Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles, has been reprised. Even though I've seen Cabaret numerous times, Cumming would make me want to go again. And with Dave only having seen the 1972 movie, I think he and his pals would really like it. Plus, 40% off tickets have been appearing on TKTS, even for Saturday evening performances.

2. Rocky - Reviews for this "Sly"-ly inspired musical have been surprisingly stellar, more so for it's stunning fight choreography than its score. Dave, Fred and Tom are movies and sports buffs, and to my awareness, not overly caring about the quality of show tunes. I doubt the elaborate Broadway staging will be replicated on the same scale if and when the show tours, so to take advantage of 50% off TKTS or some nice Broadway Box discounts could well make Rocky a winner.

3. Kinky Boots - I raved about this England-set show about unique new ideas--in this case, structurally sound footwear for drag queens--having great economic impact upon seeing the first preview performance of its pre-Broadway run in Chicago. It went on to win the Tony in 2013, with a superb original score written by Cyndi Lauper. TKTS availability seems likely, though 30% seems to be the standard discount. (I should note that it has been announced that a Kinky Boots tour will play Chicago next summer.)

4. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical - I addressed this one above. Should well be enjoyable but I doubt it being better than Cabaret, Kinky Boots or even some of the following.

5. Matilda - Based on a Roald Dahl book, this musical about schoolkids who rambunctiously fight oppressive is really wonderful with a terrific rock score. I loved it in London; it seems to have gotten similarly stellar press in New York. Discount TKTS seem a good possibility.

6. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill - This isn't officially a musical but a play with music, about the great Billie Holiday, starring the sublime Audra McDonald. Usually on TKTS.

7. The Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables - Dave hasn't seen either of these classics on stage, but really should. Phantom is still haunting Broadway in its original run--since 1988--while Les Miz is back with a new production. TKTS possible for the latter, not the former.

8. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - This just won the 2014 Tony Award for best new musical and seems to have a cheeky premise Dave may enjoy. Without having seen or heard it beyond the Tony telecast number, I can't call it essential, and while it seems TKTS aren't an impossibility, it's unlikely for Saturday night.

9. Mamma Mia - Always fun, and Dave hasn't seen it despite liking ABBA. TKTS possible.

10. Bullets Over Broadway - Based on the Woody Allen movie and starring Zach Braff of Scrubs and Garden State, but not greatly reviewed. Should be on TKTS.

11. Hedwig and then Angry Inch - I'm not too familiar with this rock musical, despite the current run being a revival. Star Neil Patrick Harris was impressive enough on the Tonys to intrigue, but it will be hard to score tickets.

12. Once - A Tony winning musical based on the movie of the same name. Not a bad option, and likely on TKTS, but its relatively sparse scenery means comparable productions could be seen elsewhere. (The tour already played Chicago; I liked the show but not as much as I expected). TKTS possible.

13. Violet or If/Then - The reviews I've seen have been better for the former than latter, but neither seems to be called sensational. But their respective leading ladies--Sutton Foster and Idina Menzel--are. TKTS likely.

14. Chicago - Another great Kander & Ebb classic, but Cabaret is better. TKTS likely. 

15. Other Broadway options: Aladdin, The Lion King, Rock of Ages, Pippin, Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon (Dave's seen the last two), Motown (currently playing in Chicago)

And a popular Off-Broadway possibility: Here Lies Love - With music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, this show is said to be a whole lot of fun. But it requires you to dance on stage with the cast for the full 90 minutes, which I wouldn't do and neither would Dave. There are a few seats but I think you have to insist that you can't stand. And the theater's location in the Village (or near it), rather than near Times Square, also makes this an unlikely pick for a single Saturday night slot. But it seems to commonly be on TKTS.

Helpful resources for show listings, reviews, theater addresses and more:
New York Theater Guide
New York Times Theater Section
NY Subway Map | Other Transit (
Wikipedia - you can find a synopsis of every show

Note: Many of the above list Broadway shows that will be opening, or soon to close, so can be a bit misleading for seeing what's playing on a given date. For this, use New York Theater Guide's "What's On" feature.

Other New York Tips

I'll make this quick as these are only a few of the numerous places I've really enjoyed seeing or eating in New York.

But I think Dave, Tom and Fred might well enjoy:

- Carnegie Deli
- A classic steakhouse: Ben Benson's, Frankie & Johnnie's or Del Friscos (in the bldg. with SiriusXM studios) 
- Live Jazz: Village Vanguard / Birdland (in Midtown) / Iridium
- Comedy: Caroline's (like the Iridium Jazz Club, on Broadway near Times Square)

Photo by Seth Arkin
- John Varvatos store in the former CBGBs, near Joey Ramone Way
- Central Park
- Hop Kee - a restaurant in Chinatown that Paolo recommended; great fried pork chops 
- Doughnut Plant - best donuts I've ever had; besides the original Lower East Side location, now in the...
- Hotel Chelsea - Many famed writers and rockers have lived here; though Sid & Nancy now most notable. Has a funky lobby, in a good way.
- Patsy's - An Italian restaurant on 56th street celebrating its 70th anniversary; said to be Frank Sinatra's favorite. I have not eaten here but am listing it largely so that I remember when pertinent. 
- Empire State Building - Yes, it's super touristy, but that's why I like going to the top. You can stand in line next to people from Malaysia, Albania, Ohio and everywhere else.
- Guggenheim Museum - Not quite NYC's best art collection, but the coolest building and easily navigable
- Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island 
- Brooklyn Bridge
- Coney Island
- 9/11 Memorial and Museum - mentioned above

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