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'Hamilton' ticket prices are a lesson in supply and demand

Posted June 18

Prior to “Hamilton” sweeping the Tony Awards, “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a piece for the New York Times called “Stop the Bots From Killing Broadway.” Miranda laments that “many people who want to see ‘Hamilton’ can’t.” He also initially — and correctly — attributes the problem to “simple economics: The demand for tickets exceeds the number of seats in the theater on a given night.” But he then proceeds to undermine his own basic premise in a futile attempt to repeal the law of supply and demand.

Miranda is concerned that “ticket bots” buy up all of “Hamilton’s” tickets the instant they go on sale and then resell them at vastly inflated prices, sometimes at more than 1,000 percent of their face value. This is already illegal, but since third-party brokers are happy to pay the requisite fines as the cost of doing business, Miranda proposes that this practice be made even more illegal. While this may feel like justice, it won’t solve the basic problem that many people who “want to see ‘Hamilton’ can’t.” And even if Miranda were able to put every scalper on the planet out of business, they still can’t.

Consider “Cagney,” another musical about an American icon that’s playing just down the street from “Hamilton.” I went online and found good tickets available for the following night’s performance for the face value of $75 each. Why haven’t ticket bots bothered to gobble those tickets up, too? The answer, of course, is that theater owners can’t fill the house at $75 a pop, so StubHub isn’t going to have much luck attempting to repackage the “Cagney” experience at a 1,000 percent markup. The reason they can get away with that for “Hamilton” is that people are willing to pay $3,500 to see Miranda in action. Call them any name you want, but StubHub and Vivid Seats are, in the rawest, most practical terms, nothing more than capitalists responding to what the market will bear.

That’s an undeniable, harsh reality of life, particularly in Manhattan, where a modest two-bedroom apartment is likely to cost 10 times more than a palatial two-story home in Omaha, Nebraska. No matter what someone thinks a price should or shouldn’t be, actual prices are ultimately determined by what people are willing to pay. Things cost what they cost. Artificial attempts to alter that reality are inevitably doomed to fail.

So there are two solutions that present themselves. One is that the “Hamilton” box office raise the price of “Hamilton” tickets to the same premium that the scalpers can command. There would be a great deal of complaining about expensive seats, but under the current system, StubHub sells a primo “Hamilton” ticket for thousands of dollars and keeps all the profit. Wouldn’t Broadway be better served if that money were poured back into the production instead?

Yet Miranda would likely never agree to this, as it would make him look like the bad guy. OK, then here’s a better solution — if you want to meet demand, increase the supply. Have productions of “Hamilton” running in four Broadway theaters at the same time. Yes, I know, Miranda can’t be in all of them, but it’s a poorly kept secret that he and most of his original cast are leaving the show in July. So why not? Surely people would fill all four theaters, and many may see all four versions to compare and contrast. Punishing StubHub may feel good, but making more “Hamilton” is the only way to make sure that people who want to see “Hamilton” actually can.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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