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Show and tell: Long Islander shares passion, bargain tips for Broadway

Brian Stoll, who has seen nearly 200 Broadway show, runs an interactive program sharing his stories and tips.

Brian Stoll likes to dazzle his audiences with

Brian Stoll likes to dazzle his audiences with his collection of Playbills and other autographed memorabilia. Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Attend one of Brian Stoll’s lectures and you’ll hear about the time he hunted down Billy Crystal at a Manhattan flea market and got the Long Beach native to autograph a full-size poster of his “700 Sundays” one-man show, or the day he hung out with Bryan Cranston at the stage door of the theater where the “Breaking Bad” star was about to go on as President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Tony-winning “All the Way.” Or how Stoll is still waiting for an autographed Playbill in response to the fan letter he sent last month to Elaine May after seeing the comic legend’s acclaimed turn as a woman battling Alzheimer’s in the drama, “The Waverly Gallery.”

But mostly, you’ll find a sense of community and learn all the ways to get cheap tickets in Stoll’s one-man, interactive program based on his experiences seeing 180-plus Broadway shows during the past decade.

“Theater can be very addicting,” Stoll, 31, of West Islip, said during a recent program at the Kings Park branch of the Smithtown Public Library. “Originally, I thought this was a theater-holics meeting when I created it, and I’m learning that it is in a way.”

Stoll, who has worked as a professional companion and caregiver, has made an avocation of seeing Broadway musicals for a song. He scours websites and social media for news of upcoming productions and astounding discounts, seeing many shows for free but generally for no more than $100 despite skyrocketing ticket prices. The average paid admission for Broadway musicals in 2017-18 was $125.70, according to The Broadway League.

He’s been known to line up outside a theater before dawn to score tickets to hot shows, and he always goes to the theater equipped with a silver Sharpie and a genial manner — the better to coax autographs from marquee names. And he’s willingly shared all of his insider info with the nearly 1,000 people who have attended his free lectures at 40 libraries in the past three years since he started his company, Stoll the Show.  

“He lives and breathes theater,” said Frank Gunther, chairman of the curriculum committee for Molloy College’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, where Stoll is also a frequent speaker.

“He gave a presentation about 10 ways to see a show for under $100,” Gunther said. “Anybody who sees Broadway as an expensive thing to do is interested in that.”

Jude Schanzer, director of public relations and programs at the East Meadow Public Library, said the 50 people who attended a recent Stoll lecture “enjoyed learning about the theater and reminiscing about shows they’ve seen.”

Added Schanzer: “He’s an extremely good speaker, and he’s down to earth.”  

Stoll likes to dazzle his audiences by passing around albums crammed with selfies taken with the likes of Sally Field, Broadway diva Audra McDonald and Bobby Cannavale, of “Boardwalk Empire” fame. He tells them about devoted fan groups such as Rentheads — fans of the musical “Rent” who have seen it more than a thousand times.

Stoll said he usually limits himself to five trips to see a show he loves. But he understands the motivation to repeat a theatrical thrill, again and again and again.

“It’s the idea of achieving that sense of belonging,” he explained. “When I go to a show I feel like I’m among people that appreciate the same thing. I feel like I belong.”

With such smash shows as “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” the public’s appetite for Broadway has been growing. The 2017-18 season saw a record 13.8 million admissions to Broadway shows, two-thirds of them purchased by women, according to an annual survey conducted at theaters by Broadway League, the trade association of the commercial Broadway industry. About 6.3 percent of Broadway’s audience came from Nassau and Suffolk counties — despite Long Island’s geographic proximity.

Stoll, who graduated in 2006 from West Islip High School, didn’t belong to a theater group or even try out for school musicals. Instead he took field trips to see Broadway shows. He’d caught the theater bug when his mother took him at age 9 to see his first Broadway drama: “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Afterward they lingered at the stage door.

“My mother opened up my eyes to Broadway and getting to meet the stars,” he said.

A decade later, while studying for a bachelor’s degree in human development at Binghamton University, Stoll discovered that student IDs could be used to qualify for so-called “rush” discount tickets. And a star-struck theatergoer was born.

“I had to schlep all the way to Binghamton to get to Broadway,” he jokes. Last year, he saw 30 shows, a personal record that included “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away.”

He began sharing his theater obsession and cheap ticket tricks in a 20-minute talk a few years back while working at the Stony Brook University library. The lecture “went so well that I took it on the road,” he said.

Stoll’s lectures, illustrated with a PowerPoint presentation and videos, are as much conversations as lectures. He asks the audience as many questions as they ask him.

“I learn a lot from people who come to the talks,” he said. "A lot of them talk about meeting their idols and how nice they were."

“The stage door is the icing on the cake,” Stoll said. “It’s me creating my own personalized souvenir, something that I can remember the experience from and a personal connection with the show.”

Along the way, he’s discovered that when an autograph can’t be obtained in person, a fan letter may do the trick. That’s how he got an autograph from Carol Burnett when she was starring in “Love Letters” a few years ago. Burnett added a personal note, which read, “For Brian, with love.”

“Ninety percent of the time I get an autographed Playbill back,” Stoll said. “It’s me creating my own personalized souvenir, my own something that I can remember the experience from and have a personal connection to the show.”

David Morse, who was in Showtime’s recent “Escape at Dannemora,” outdid that by sending Stoll a postcard bearing what would have been his acceptance speech had he won a Tony when he was nominated last year for the 2018 revival of “The Iceman Cometh.”

To keep up with Broadway openings and closings, and the doings of stars, Stoll said he regularly checks the Playbill and Theatermania websites. He said he also follows the Twitter posts of such favorites as Kelli O’Hara, the Tony-winner returning to Broadway next month in a “Kiss Me, Kate” revival, and “The Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons, who played the lead role in last summer’s revival of “The Boys in the Band.”

“I’ve seen everything that Parsons has done on Broadway, four or five shows, I’ve met him at the stage door, and went to Los Angeles just to see a taping of ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ ” Stoll said.

Another favorite is “Hamilton,” which Stoll has seen five times for a total of $128, including free tickets won through in-person and online lotteries. The most he’s paid for the show, whose seats currently go for more than $300, was $88 for a ticket picked up on Craigslist.  

To augment his collection of theater mementos, he roams the Broadway Flea Market in Manhattan to buy souvenir magnets, pins, keychains, books and window cards from shows he's seen.

Although he’s resisted getting a tattoo like other fervent “Hamilfans,” he did take a backstage tour with cast member Anthony Ramos — and has a selfie to show for it. He said he’s met enough Hamilton cast members, including playwright and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, “that I feel like part of the show.”

The closest Stoll has come to actually being part of a show was a three-month internship in 2015 at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Stoll trained volunteers and handed out assistive-listening devices.

In a roundabout way, Stoll’s zeal for Broadway has made him a star in his own right.

“I like the idea of being myself onstage, and that’s what my talks allow me to do,” he said. "It is full circle in a way that although I never became an actor, I’m a performer talking about what I’m passionate about. I like to think that I've helped encourage people to support the arts by giving them the tools and knowledge to incorporate more theater in their lives."

Stoll’s Ticket Bargain Tips

Rush tickets Available the day of the show when the box office opens, these tickets are mainly offered to younger theatergoers with a student ID. $30-$45.

Digital lotteries Free to enter at BroadwayDirect.com and LuckySeat.com. $10-$50.

The Theatre Development Fund, or TDF In addition to discounting same-day tickets at TKTS booths in Manhattan, the fund’s tdf.org website offers advance tickets to Broadway musicals and plays. $40-$50 plus a $40 annual membership.

broadwayforbrokepeople.com lists shows offering lottery and rush tickets.

Broadway: From Back Row to Back Stage!

Brian Stoll's interactive presentation covers the history and importance of Playbill and money-saving tips for seeing Broadway shows for under $50.

WHEN I WHERE 7 p.m. Jan. 23, West Islip Public Library, 3 Higbie Lane, West Islip

INFO  Registration required at Facebook.com/StolltheShow

WHEN I WHERE 7 p.m. Feb. 4, Bayport-Bluepoint Public Library, 203 Bluepoint Ave., Blue Point

INFO Free; registration required; bayportbluepointlibrary.org; 631-363-6133

Future speaking dates are generally listed on the Stoll the Show Facebook page.

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