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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

'Phantom of the Opera,' ''Mamma Mia,' 'Cinderella' showtimes shift

Laura Osnes as Cinderella and Santino Fontana as

Laura Osnes as Cinderella and Santino Fontana as the Prince, during a performance of "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella on Broadway." Credit: AP / Carol Rosegg

Got your watch? Don't forget your phone. Keys? Wallet? Theater tickets?

Wait, look again at the tickets (or printouts for tickets). Something else has been added to the list of things that distracted people must double- check before leaving for an evening -- or an afternoon -- on Broadway.

Perhaps you have already noticed. All shows don't start at 8 p.m. anymore. All matinees aren't on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.

Nothing can be assumed. Not every offering even has a Wednesday matinee. Earlier this month, "The Phantom of the Opera," "Mamma Mia!" and "Cinderella" changed to Thursday afternoons to give their target audience, tourists and groups, some options. "The Book of Mormon" doesn't even bother with weekday matinees because, clearly, the retirement demographic isn't considered the right crowd for such an irreverent show. So "Mormon" has two shows on Saturdays, two on Sundays, when the right kind of people -- presumably, the young and employed with discretionary income -- can find the time and the big bucks.

I am so confused. And I suspect I'm not the only one. (It is unsettling -- OK, alienating -- enough to learn that many theaters slide ticket prices around depending on the demand. This is what the airlines, and now Broadway producers, call -- with an exquisitely neutral straight face -- dynamic pricing.)

Although London has had a variety of curtain times and performance days for years, Broadway audiences have become hard-wired to certain expectations -- the sun, the moon, death, taxes and theater at 8. Years ago, when grown-ups came to work at 10 a.m. and stayed up late, curtain was 8:30.

It was a bit surprising, but in a reasonable way, when some theaters decided to play Mondays and go dark Sundays. Then came Tuesdays at 7. This was a 2003 experiment to see if the slowest night for Broadway might pick up if people could get home earlier. This turned out so well that many theaters embraced early Tuesdays. Of course, just to make sure we don't get too comfortable and assume too much, we currently have three shows -- "After Midnight," "Newsies" and "The Realistic Joneses" -- with 7:30 curtains on Tuesdays.

Now anything goes. This isn't a bad thing, unless you don't know about it. It is also more in keeping with an on-demand culture that resists being entertained at strict appointed hours.

For example, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the musical starring Neil Patrick Harris as a transgender rocker from East Berlin, has shows at 7 and 10 p.m. on Saturdays. No daylight for this dark show, a far-downtown hit in 1998.

Responding to my inquiry, producer David Binder explains in a statement that "the show has always appealed to a wider demographic than traditional Broadway shows. We have performance times for traditional theatergoers and late-nights for an audience that might not think of coming to Broadway but will come to the late show ready to rock out with Ms. Hedwig."

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, connects this new flexibility to -- what else? -- the Internet. "Fifteen years ago, it was difficult to do new things," she told me in a recent phone interview. "How could you get the word out? But so many more tickets are bought on the Internet, which makes it so much easier to communicate with theatergoers."

When Tuesdays at 7 worked so well, she said, producers "weren't so afraid to try something new. We started talking seriously about these changes about four years ago . . . Now we are really opening up."

Of course, the word may not be getting out as quickly as the industry hopes. You may have noticed an increased number of baffled theatergoers dribbling in long after the shows have started, then crawling over resentful people who managed to check the curtain time. I know someone who innocently arrived 40 minutes late to see "If/Then," the already-complicated new Idina Menzel musical, which not only has a Tuesday at 7, but a Wednesday at 7 -- even after a 2 p.m. matinee.

I asked St. Martin if actors are complaining about having less time between shows -- especially such vocally demanding shows as "If/Then," "Beautiful" and "Wicked." She said, "Actors don't come to me to complain." Sources close to "If/Then" told me that performing a matinee and evening so close together "isn't especially difficult for the cast once they've warmed up. And they're able to get home earlier as well."

I also asked Actors Equity, the actors' union, whether complaints are coming in from performers. According to the union representative, there have been no complaints.

Also not complaining, it appears, is the Broadway restaurant industry. I asked Sean Kent, a manager at the popular Orso's on West 46th Street, how badly the staggered curtains are affecting their awesomely fine-tuned reservation flow -- what he calls the "in and out times."

"It has definitely changed," he said. "I don't know if there is increased business, but the pre-and-post reservations are spread out differently. But it seems to have a positive effect. When people get out of shows earlier, they seem more willing to have a more involved dinner."

He acknowledges that people sometimes book a table for 11, not realizing they'll be out at 9:30, and notes that the varied matinee days make it easier to get into restaurants. He jokes that the people having the most trouble with the changes are ones who go to the theater a lot because "they aren't paying attention."

To pay attention, St. Martin recommends we all check the Broadway League's Web page at Broadway.org. Updated each week, it gives us all the performance schedules and the running times. I used it last night and it worked.

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