As she stood all alone on a darkened Manhattan street at 5 a.m., Carol Watson felt a rush of fear. A menacing-looking man with a mustache was striding rapidly toward her, and the retired Cleveland schoolteacher thought briefly of fleeing. Then she stubbornly held her ground.
"I was first in line for standing-room tickets to 'The Producers,' " she said. "No way I was going to budge." The man, it turned out, had come for exactly the same reason, and the two shared a laugh as the sun rose.
Ever since "The Producers" opened in April, wangling a ticket to Mel Brooks' lunatic satire of show business and Nazi Germany has been all but impossible. In a city of long summer lines and exclusive attractions, seats for the Tony-winning musical top the Big Apple's hard-to-get list. While the show has boosted Broadway's visibility with tourists, only a handful of those visiting New York this year actually will get to see it.
But that doesn't stop people from trying. Every day, a long line forms outside the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street--filled with customers eager to buy standing-room seats or, if they're really lucky, a choice orchestra ticket that someone decided to return at the last minute.
Most come away empty-handed. As she stood behind 75 other die-hards last week, Laurie Lewis learned at 10 a.m. that she was too late for tickets to that night's show. Up and down the line, people just like her were sprawled on folding chairs and picnic blankets. They yammered on cell phones, tapped on laptops and drank water to fight off the stifling heat.
Lewis, a graphic designer from Davis, Calif., was philosophical: "I'll stay here all day, and if I have to I'll definitely come back on the weekend. I came all this way. I've got to get a seat."
Some tickets to "The Producers" are available, of course, but the price is painfully high--and getting higher. On the day Watson and Lewis stood in line, ticket brokers sold seats for that night's show for $600 to $700 apiece, well above the tickets' $100 face value. An Internet company was selling six orchestra seats for $1,350 each; balcony and mezzanine seats cost $945.
"It's crazy, but what are you going to do?" said a saleswoman for one of the brokers, who are banned from operating in New York but can set up shop in New Jersey and Connecticut. "People got money. So people spend it."
The Great White Way is no stranger to ticket pandemonium. Brokers have charged $300 to $400 apiece for seats to "The Lion King," and tickets are still difficult to acquire. There were unusually long lines for tickets to the musical "Rent" when it opened. Yet few Broadway observers can recall a ticket rush and price boom similar to that for "The Producers."
"Customers pay these prices and wait in line because going to Broadway shows now has more to do with status than entertainment," said Howard Kissel, longtime theater critic for the New York Daily News. "You might sit through something and be bored, but at least you can brag that you saw the show. And when it comes to 'The Producers,' you'll actually be entertained."
Good connections usually free up seats in New York, whether it's a front row ticket to see the Knicks ($1,650 apiece) or a table at Rao's, the famed East Harlem Italian restaurant that's booked years in advance. But even Brooks' closest partners are finding it tough to see "The Producers." According to a recent New York Post story, some investors no longer are able to get complimentary seats to the show because the demand is so high.
New Yorkers are hitting up everybody they know with ties to the show to buy a seat. But the remaining good tickets are sold out through next summer, according to Peter Kidd, a St. James Theatre employee. Road companies will bring "The Producers" to several American cities next year.
If you're still determined to catch the show in New York, and don't want to pay astronomical prices, here are some tips: There are 18 standing-room tickets on sale for each performance, but at two tickets per person, the first nine people in line usually get them. Many people wait 10 hours or more for cancellations. Yet, on the best night, only six to eight of those seats become available for purchase, according to Kidd.
Don't tell that to Ellen Rosenthal, a San Francisco doctor who came to New York on a three-day vacation just to get a seat for her 75-year-old mother, Harriet. Or Richard Swingle, an actor who failed to get tickets in the line three times before and now had returned for a fourth visit.
Nearby, Robert Phoenix, the man who initially frightened Watson, explained he had nothing to lose by showing up at 5 a.m., even if tickets might not go on sale until the evening. "I drive down from New England to see theater a lot," he said. "But this is tough. This line can test you."
Maybe there's a way to make money off it, mused Paula Stern, a Wall Street broker who had taken the day off to get tickets.
"Why not print a pamphlet for tourists laying out the rules of getting tickets to 'The Producers'?" she wondered. "Nobody pays for it, but you sell a bunch of advertising. Bingo."
Or you sit back and gloat. Exactly nine deep in the line, Jon Kretzu, a Los Angeles theatrical director, reclined on a comfortable chair that he had brought for the daylong wait and smiled. He was assured of making the cut for that day's standing-room-only tickets, so the pressure was off.
"You know what the best thing is?" he asked. "I can impress my friends back home with this. I'll be able to say: 'I was one of the lucky ones.' "
For everyone else, tomorrow's another show. They may be singing "Springtime for Hitler" inside, but it's hot outside. So be sure to bring water, something to sit on and remember the advice of Mel Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old Man: "Eat a nectarine! It's the best fruit ever made!"