Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.
Cellphones and related digital devices must be the least loved part of today’s theatergoing — worse, even, than the guy sitting next to you eating chicken and people who laugh in your ear when nothing’s funny.
But suddenly, or so it seems, live theater’s biggest nuisance is also being credited for a breakthrough in audience development.
We are talking about the digital lottery, a way to offer same-day discounts to even the biggest shows while, simultaneously, offering a little gambling thrill on the side. Among those with the lotteries: “Wicked,” “Fun Home” and, of course, “Hamilton.”
Live lotteries are hardly news. Until this season, however, hearty would-be theatergoers — usually young, healthy and flexibly employed — would have to arrive hours before curtain to enter their names in a drawing and then wait around in all kinds of weather to see what lucky names were picked from the bingo bin.
Enter the wonders of technology. With the digital lottery, you just have to enter your name on your phone before a specified hour (different shows have different timetables). If you win, you are notified immediately after the drawing. You have one hour to answer back and pay with a credit card (discounted prices vary). Then you must pick up your ticket (or, in many cases, your pair of tickets) at the box office at a specified time — usually 30 minutes before curtain — with a government-issued ID.
“It’s all the rage these days,” a Broadway publicist tells me without overstating the phenomenon. In fact, these days, it is harder to find a show that doesn’t have a digital lottery than one that does.
Scarcely a week goes by that I don’t get an email announcing that another show has entered the digital lottery game. Cirque du Soleil’s “Paramour” doesn’t officially open until May 25, but, rest assured, an unspecified number of $35 tickets will be offered online. “Beautiful” recently started one with $39 tickets, and “American Psycho” just joined the trend with $45 seats.
Early last month, “Aladdin” joined the trend, converting its in-person lottery to digital. Perhaps even more surprising, “Lion King,” a sold-out smash for 18 years, began its very first lottery last November. Each offer an unspecified number of $30 tickets to each performance.
Previous attempts at student-rush and other discounts for “Lion King” were thwarted by scalpers. But according to Andrew Flatt, senior vice president of Disney marketing and sales, “This new digital lottery system offers a level of accountability that ensures that the tickets we make available for $30 are sold — at that price — directly to the guests who are attending the show.”
Arguably the most famous lottery has been the one offering 21 front-row tickets to “Hamilton” for $10 before every sold-out-forever performance. As soon as the show opened on Broadway last summer, crowds assembled outside the theater for the live lottery. Not surprisingly, other theaters and businesses in the area were less than delighted with people hanging around for the drawing, not to mention for the little pre-shows that creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, his cast and other theater friends began improvising to entertain the fans.
In January, “Hamilton” went digital for the winter, except that the volume immediately crashed the website before ultimately getting the system going. Now that the sun has come out, there will be only live lotteries for the Wednesday matinees. All other lotteries are staying digital.
Broadway Direct is part of a national consumer site owned by the theater owner, the Nederlander Organization. According to Sean Free, vice president of sales and ticketing, “Disney came to us. They wanted to set up a digital lottery for ‘Lion King.’ We said, ‘Why don’t we create the digital lottery for you and we will manage it?’ ” Broadway Direct now manages lotteries for shows including “Wicked” ($35 a seat), “American in Paris” ($40) and “On Your Feet!” ($50).
“Two or three years ago, nobody could do this,” Free says. “The technology is very complex. It takes an infrastructure to support the volume. Every lottery starts and ends at a different time, so it’s a 24-hour day.”
The pioneers of digital lotteries are Merritt Baer and Brian M. Fenty, Broadway producers and longtime friends behind TodayTix.com, which manages lotteries for such hits as “Fun Home” ($35 a seat).
“We’re really proud to have led the way,” says Fenty, who explains their impressive longtime partnership with the Public Theater. This includes an impressive program that makes every seat for the first performance of every show in the entire season free via lottery. And in this 50th anniversary year, the Roundabout Theatre, which started in 1965, has a lottery offering $19.65 tickets in all its theaters.
“We’ve now had over a million entries to our lotteries,” Baer says, which means “thousands of entries to any given show.”
Ultimately, none of this makes theatergoing less of a crapshoot. How nice, however, to give everyone a chance at the action.