Now that's rich

Times Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES must be a heck of a theater town, after all. How many burgs beyond Broadway have five shows running that charge $100 or more for the top ticket?

"The Lion King," "The Light in the Piazza," "Sister Act," Carrie Fisher's "Wishful Drinking" and "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants" -- three musicals, a celebrity monologue and a magic show -- are reaping triple digits for the best seats, although the $100 face price kicks in only for certain performances of "Piazza" and "Sister Act," and applies to just 14 seats nightly for "Wishful Drinking." And opening soon is "Jackie Mason in the Ultimate Jew," commanding up to $103 in a four-night stand at the Wadsworth.

For classical music lovers, the $100 orchestra seat has been standard since 2003, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic moved into Walt Disney Concert Hall. And the century mark is so last century for Los Angeles Opera's high-end patrons, who first saw $100 tickets in 1992 and today pay as much as $220 for a grand circle seat. The Music Center's dance series hit triple digits last year with the Kirov Ballet; next year, the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre will top out at $115.

The $100-and-up concert ticket has been part of business as usual on the Southern California pop music scene since 1994, when the Eagles, Barbra Streisand and Rod Stewart first broke the barrier. In fact, it's not unusual to see face-value prices of $400 or more for arena shows.

But in theater, the $100 top ticket remains the exception rather than the expectation, although price-creep is undeniable for hot attractions.

"We always try to hold the line, but life goes on, and every year there seems to be a slight increase," said Ken Werther, a spokesman for Center Theatre Group. "It's the cost of doing business."

CTG is charging $100 a pop for a Saturday night seat in the first 15 rows for "The Light in the Piazza" at the Ahmanson Theatre. Factor in a 10% handling fee for purchases by phone or Internet (there's no charge if you buy at the box office), and seats cost $110 on Saturday nights and $104 for Friday nights and weekend matinees. On other nights, the price range is $30 to $85, before handling costs. Tickets for the upcoming "Edward Scissorhands" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" top out at $90 and $80, respectively.

At the Pasadena Playhouse, two rows of "premiere" seating for "Sister Act" -- 54 seats in all, blessed with extra legroom -- are priced at $100 for weekend matinees, the playhouse's most in-demand performances. Handling fees boost those seats to $211.50 a pair, while also raising the next pricing level to the cusp of three digits for matinees -- 14 rows accounting for more than half the venue's 672 seats cost $101 for a single ticket and $199.50 for a pair. For evening shows, the face price drops to $90 for premiere seats, $75 or $83 for others.

"We're not finding a whole lot of price resistance," said managing director Brian Colburn.

Although "Sister Act," a new and unproven show, costs $75 and up, tickets for the playhouse's previous offering, a star-driven revival of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Fences," cost no more than $60. With Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett playing the leads, the relatively bargain-priced "Fences" broke box office records, selling out every show and grossing more than $1 million.

"Sister Act," with no name actors but more lavish staging, is the most costly production the Pasadena Playhouse has done, and the theater's leaders priced it accordingly. "We haven't had a lot of empty seats," Colburn said. Still, enough unsold tickets remain for the playhouse to offer the deepest discount of all: It's giving away "Sister Act" as a bonus for new subscribers to the six-play 2007 season that begins in January.

When "Sister Act" makes its next stop in Atlanta, theatergoers will pay no more than $65.

"We're talking two different markets," said Robert Saxon, spokesman for the Alliance Theatre Company. "Our price is fixed at what our market will pay."

For Ricky Jay's card-magic show, $115 buys unusual intimacy: front-of-the-house seats for his Geffen Playhouse run in the company's new Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, which seats 96. The fact that it's "a major, major show," with so few seats to generate income made the $75-$115 price range an economic necessity, said Gilbert Cates, the Geffen's producing director.

In the adjoining, 522-seat main stage, however, a $110 premium ticket price has become standard for all shows. Starting this season, Cates said, the Geffen decided to charge $110 for 14 seats commonly perceived to be the best in the house, as opposed to $69 for other seats close to the stage. Cates said there's no logical reason why the premium seats are in the seventh row, as opposed to, say, the first, fourth or sixth, where the cost is $41 less. About half of the premium seats have been sold to subscribers in five-show packages, lowering the price to a discounted $100 per ticket. The house is scaled so the average price will be $53.

"To me, that's the more relevant figure," said Cates, who, like virtually all arts executives, is sensitive that his institution not be perceived as catering to moneyed folks, to the exclusion of the increasingly beleaguered middle classes and working poor. Seats not sold at the regular price, he notes, are available for a deep "rush ticket" discount shortly before show time, which makes it possible for the purchaser of a $15 student rush ticket to have as good a seat as someone who forked out the regular or premium orchestra price. The $110 tickets, Cates says, are for people who insist on the best seats in the house and don't care what the price is -- for instance, a movie executive who doesn't go to many plays, but for whom it is de rigueur to see Fisher dramatize her bumpy path through the upper echelons of show biz. Even if demand for the $110 seats proves intense, Cates said, the Geffen won't sell more than 14 of them, because he wants an orchestra stocked overwhelmingly with theater enthusiasts, not scene-sters.

Even at $110, Princess Leia loses her duel at the pricing pinnacle to a more cuddly royal personage. "The Lion King" is playing again at the Pantages, and a $127.50 "VIP package," available for all performances, gets you a prime seat for Simba and the gang, plus parking and a souvenir program. Those who order their tickets a la carte pay $17.50 to $84.50.

High rollers can splurge even more when "Wicked," the pre-Oz musical, returns to the Pantages in February: The VIP treatment will cost $150 weeknights and $175 on weekends -- and that gets you just the parking; you'll have to fork out for a program, just like all the non-VIPs.

Those with budgets to meet can get in for the $30 to $88 regular price, not counting extra charges for ordering by phone or Internet. If you don't mind gambling some of your time, the best deal for "Wicked" is in the first row: Before each performance, per order of the national producers, there's a raffle for the right to buy two front row seats for $25 each. You have to show up early, put your name in the hat, and hope to be one of the dozen or so winners, among the hundreds who typically try.

At the Orange County Performing Arts Center, "The Lion King" last year commanded $126.75 per ticket for a package deal that included a souvenir program, a toy and a commemorative ticket; regular seats went for $23 to $73. Top seats there for "Wicked" in August were $74.50, and "The Light in the Piazza" will top out at $70 during a two-week stand in May, said spokeswoman Jennifer Mahal.

L.A. crowds don't seem daunted by $100 theater tickets, said Martin Wiviott, general manager of the Nederlander Organization's Broadway/L.A. series at the Pantages and the Wadsworth. Wiviott noted that New York's Broadway producers began the premium-pricing trend, taking a cue from -- and trying to elbow aside -- scalpers who were scoring hundreds of dollars above face value for good seats to hit shows. Consequently, the average ticket price for "Jersey Boys" on Broadway is $119, according to box office figures compiled by the League of American Theatres and Producers, and premium seats to the sold-out show cost $251 to $351. Prices for "The Lion King," "Wicked" and "A Chorus Line" on Broadway average $95 to $101, with premium seats $200 to $300. Those are bargains compared with the $480 charged for premium seats to "The Producers" when mania for the original Broadway cast with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick was at its height in 2001-02.

In 2000, "The Lion King" was the first Broadway/L.A. show to reach the $100 mark (not counting add-on handling charges). Then, and now, "those are the first ones to go," Wiviott said. "Real avid theater-goers call and say, 'I want the best ticket.' " The cheapest seats also tend to get scooped up early, by school groups and fans who don't have a bundle to spend. Center Theatre Group's Werther recalled "many meetings, with great consternation" over whether to break the $100 barrier for the first time with Baz Luhrmann's production of "La Boheme," which played at the Ahmanson in 2004. Even with a top cost of $120, the tickets sold. "Everybody wanted to see it," Werther said, "and the price didn't seem to be an issue."

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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That's the price you pay

Here's a sample of top ticket prices for various events:

Lakers, Staples Center: $2,200, courtside seat

Dodgers: $450, field level behind home plate (includes unlimited food and soft drinks); $200, field level along baselines

"Jersey Boys," Broadway: $351

"Jersey Boys," Ahmanson Theatre: $100

Kirov Ballet, Orange County Performing Arts Center: $110

Ballet Pacifica, "The Nutcracker," Irvine Barclay Theatre: $38

Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: $220

Long Beach Opera: $110

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall: $135

Pacific Symphony, OCPAC: $150

Barbra Streisand, Staples Center: $800

Rolling Stones, Dodger Stadium: $450

The Who, Hollywood Bowl: $282.50

Madonna, Staples Center: $362.75

Rod Stewart, Staples Center: $125

Dan Zanes and Friends, OCPAC: $25

"Disney on Ice: A Disneyland Adventure," various locations: $60

ArcLight Cinemas: "Dreamgirls," exclusive engagement: $25; others: $14

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