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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

A web of confusion over previews

Tom Zahner, of Cologne, Germany, leaves the Spider-Man

Tom Zahner, of Cologne, Germany, leaves the Spider-Man box office after purchasing tickets to a preview of the Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." (Dec. 21, 2010) Credit: AP

As if there weren't enough new hot buttons being pressed by "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the show has pushed a more familiar controversy back to the surface.

We speak of Broadway previews, a subject that rears its head every decade or so when the concept gets stretched beyond its original intention. Or when people forget what that was.

And here it is again. Last week, Bill de Blasio, the public advocate for New York City, spoke up against Broadway's failure to tell customers when they are buying tickets for a preview - that is, a work in progress - and not the final version.

"Theatergoers deserve to know what they are buying," he said in a statement to Newsday. "The industry must be forthright with its consumers. Make no mistake, there is a difference between a finished product and a preview performance that could be stopped at any time to iron out new material."

And in a letter urging action by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, de Blasio was specific that, although the problem is widespread, the impetus for his concern is "Spider-Man," which he believes "may be in violation of consumer-protection laws."

With all the opinions, gossip and catastrophic injuries flying around the high-flying, $65-million mega-musical, it is understandable if people - especially people outside New York - believe that the show has been open since Nov. 28.

In fact, that was just the first preview, a public run-through that, in saner days, was a discounted trade-off between informed theatergoers and working artists. The much-delayed show does not officially open - that is, completed for professional reviews - until Feb. 7.

But nowhere on the show's official website (where tickets are sold for $75-$150) is there an indication that this much-anticipated collaboration between "Lion King" director Julie Taymor and rock royalty Bono and The Edge is still very much a work in progress. If you call Ticketmaster to buy a seat, the helpful automated voice says nothing about the show still being in previews, nor does it mention the opening date. When national newscasts interviewed enthusiastic cast members last week, not a word was mentioned about the show still being rewritten, recomposed and restaged.

The only place the word "preview" appears is in the alphabetical theater classifieds, called the ABC's, that appear in some newspapers.

"Spider-Man" is by no means the only example of this misleading consumer practice. Like almost everything else about this bigger-than-big attraction, however, it is the most public. With the enormous 1,900-seat capacity at the Foxwoods Theatre and the clamoring for tickets, it surely is the most lucrative.

Historically, the preview issue came to a boiling point in 1991 with "Nick and Nora," a musical that played 71 performances without telling audiences they were paying opening-night prices to watch a preview. After the reviews finally came out, the show ran just nine more times.

Some of us in the press complained of what we saw as consumer fraud, which got the attention of Mark Green, then commissioner of the city's Department of Consumer Affairs. He informed the League of American Theaters and Producers (now the Broadway League) that all future theater ads "must clearly disclose" when a play was in previews and when it would officially open.

Green originally wanted previews indicated in all ads and at the theater box offices.

He also wanted to impose a penalty, "including but not limited to fines of up to $500 per ad as well as restitution for aggrieved consumers." In his letter, de Blasio said, "I believe the Department of Consumer Affairs is both within its rights - and obligated - to undertake similar measures today."

I can't find anyone who knows anyone who was ever fined. But when producers got lax about labeling their full-price previews in 2002, Betsy Gotbaum, then public advocate, was informed and, suddenly, the word reappeared on advertisements.

Asked why the issue is ignored by so many productions, Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League since 2006, said that producers she talked to feel there was more of an "understanding" than a regulation.

"This reminder," she said, "is definitely going to make them more conscious of that understanding." 

If there is confusion, and there clearly is, producers can thank the stratospherically high profile of "Spider-Man" for shining lots of light on the slipping adherence to now-dated consumer guidelines.

Should the Department of Consumer Affairs and the league decide to revisit the problem, they will have to acknowledge that most tickets are now bought online or by phone. The idea of someone going to the box office and reading a display ad there seems pretty quaint. A random sampling of the websites of major upcoming shows ("How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Catch Me If You Can") has nothing about previews. Shows begin "performances," with none the wiser about the omitted opening date.

Compared to "Nick and Nora" or "Legs Diamond" (72 previews in 1989) or "Merlin" (69 in 1982), "Spider-Man" (between 65 and 70 by Feb. 7) is not a record breaker. But 65 previews in a virtually sold-out house means that more than 120,000 people will have paid extraordinary prices without being warned they've bought practice sessions. If the average ticket price continues to be $121, as it was New Year's week, that's a gross of more than $14 million before the thing even opens.

Producers will remind us that many shows are too complicated to try out on the road. Tours are too expensive for most budgets, which means that work must be done in public in New York. This is hard, obviously, especially in an Internet age in which every blogger is a critic. Except for the Web, however, producers had the same complaints in 1991.

How, one wonders, does the Metropolitan Opera stage huge new productions (including Taymor's 2004 "The Magic Flute") with ever-more-complicated technology with just a dress rehearsal before opening? Granted, nobody flies over the audience. But how did the massive production of "Sweeney Todd" open as a masterpiece in 1979 after just 19 previews and no out-of-town tryout?

There is no precedent to indicate that a musical - even one with flying - improves in proportion to the number of previews. There is, however, a precedent for making sure they are labeled as such.

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