CLEVELAND, Ohio – Call it “the ‘Hamilton’ effect.” Theaters across the country hosting Broadway’s hottest road show are experiencing an unprecedented uptick in subscription sales, and Cleveland’s Playhouse Square is no exception.
Sales have been so brisk, in fact, that while the show isn’t sold out, you can’t buy tickets – at least not right now. Why? It’s complicated. Not quite as tricky as creating the American banking system, one of Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments, but no tea party either.
First, it helps to look at the numbers: Last year, three days after unveiling the 2016-17 KeyBank Broadway series, Playhouse Square received 1,300 calls from fans looking to buy season tickets.
It was one of the strongest lineups in recent memory that included the launch of the national tour of the 2015 Tony Award-winning best musical “Fun Home”; Fiasco Theater’s endlessly inventive production of “Into the Woods”; a luminous revival of “The King and I”; and the mind-blowing 2015 Tony winner for best play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
This year, three days after the Broadway series launch, Playhouse Square received 9,800 calls for season tickets to the 2017-18 season, a seven-show lineup boasting Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson as anchor. In the first 20 days of the sale, Playhouse Square records indicate more than 1,000 subscriptions were sold per day.
Though they’d expected a bigger-than-normal response, no one was prepared for that kind of volume, says Playhouse Square’s Gina Vernaci, architect of the Broadway Series. The staff was swamped by the deluge. “Every day we’d have to give ’em CPR and 14 pots of coffee and get ’em back in their seats, because it was such a tsunami of phone calls.”
They’d never seen anything like it, she says. “The walls were vibrating.”
To help make way for the powerful “Hamilton” wave, Playhouse Square employees were told to stay off the office landlines and do business on their cellphones.
While next season’s package includes Disney’s “Aladdin,” making its first appearance in downtown Cleveland, and the 20th anniversary touring production of Jonathan Larson’s cult hit “Rent,” which will draw the usual battalion of “Rentheads” from all over region, there’s little doubt the insatiable demand for “Hamilton” is behind the spike.
“Our renewal rate for the’17-’18 season is at 92 percent – it’s up 13 percent from the previous year. Everything’s higher,” Vernaci says. (Those are the people who bought subscriptions to the 2016-17 season who decided to re-up for 2017-18.)
And total subscriptions? “We were at essentially 31,000 last year at this point in time, and today we are at 41,600 and growing.”
To date, Playhouse Square has renewed a total of 33,000 season tickets — all of which include “Hamilton.” (As is always the case, last season’s subscribers get first dibs on this season’s goodies.)
The group has also sold a total of 7,000 new season ticket packages with “Hamilton” and anticipate another 1,000 once they work through a waitlist started when news that the show was coming to town broke in June 2016.
All told, Playhouse Square anticipates it will have sold approximately 41,000 season ticket packages with “Hamilton” a year before the show hits town. And, despite that record-breaking number, there are still “Hamilton” tickets left.
But if you go to playhousesquare.org hoping to score a subscription with “Hamilton” as part of a seven-show package, you’ll be out of luck. “‘Hamilton’ is no longer available with the purchase of new season tickets,” reads a notice on the website in all caps.
There are still subscriptions available, but the seventh show you’ll be buying is “Wicked,” not “Hamilton,” the first time in anyone’s memory Vernaci and company have had to substitute one show for another before the start of the season.
While some of the remaining tickets are earmarked for donors and group sales, most will be sold as single tickets, which will be made available to the public sometime in spring 2018.
“You want to have seats available for the general public, so you can’t gobble all the seats up with season tickets,” says Vernaci.
There are plenty of people who only want to see Aaron Burr challenge Alexander Hamilton to that fateful duel but have no interest buying the whole kit and caboodle to watch a buff street urchin cavort with a corpulent Genie or learn how Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia became superstar Gloria Estefan in “On Your Feet!”
But why can you still buy a subscription that includes other hit shows in the 2017-18 lineup like “Waitress,” which kicks off its national tour in Playhouse Square in October? And, shouldn’t there be more “Hamilton” tickets available to subscribers because it has a longer run than other shows, playing Cleveland for six weeks rather than three?
Ticket allocation is determined by the folks at Playhouse Square and the producer of each show, Vernaci explains.
“It depends on the show, and because the demand for this particular show is so high, you want to be able to make sure you’ve got a balance out there. There are all these constituencies . . . fans come in the door in a lot of different ways.
“There’s the fan who is the season ticket holder, there’s the fan who’s there with their company outing. And you want the mix of all that energy in the room.”
While lead “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller has said he’s happy that the “Hamilton” craze has been a boon for theater in general, he has been equally clear about not wanting theaters to use the popularity of “Hamilton” to force people to become subscribers.
“The only thing I don’t want anyone to say is that if you don’t buy a subscription, you won’t be able to get a ticket, because there will be single tickets,” Seller told The New York Times in a 2016 story about the planned national tour. “They won’t sell out through subscriptions.” (Seller also produced “Rent,” the musical that reimagined of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and revolutionized Broadway in 1996 in the same way “Hamilton” has nearly two decades later.)
It’s no secret that single tickets to “Hamilton” will cost more than you’re used to shelling out for a touring Broadway show. A ticket to “An American in Paris,” the last show of the 2016-17 KeyBank Broadway Series, ranged in price from $10 to $95. How much more will a ticket to “Hamilton” set you back?
At the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where “Hamilton” will open next month, one seat to a Saturday matinee on Aug. 19 – purchased through Ticketmaster, not a scalper – will run you $914. But that’s Los Angeles.
How do you determine what people are willing to spend to catch the life and tuneful times of the “Founding Father without a father” in Cleveland?
That info, says Vernaci, is TBD, but producers will likely look at what locals have paid to see everything from “The Book of Mormon” to Lady Gaga to set prices.
Those angry that they missed out on the relative bargain of “Hamilton” on subscription (packages range from $100 to $680) should have broken out the credit card sooner, says Vernaci.
That’ll be true for the 2018-19 season too, she adds, so those who buy in now will be first in the queue for other hits that come our way. (Tony darling “Dear Evan Hansen” is set to launch a national tour in Denver in 2018 . . . just sayin’.)
“We’ve been very forthcoming,” says Vernaci, giving people a heads-up a year ago to subscribe in 2016-17 so as not to miss their shot at “Hamilton” in 2017-18.
Being one of the first cities to land “Hamilton” is like playing in the World Series for the first time, she says – a high-stakes, high-pressure thrill.
“It’s a big project and it’s a blessing to have it, but there are just a lot of T’s to cross and a lot of I’s to dot before you can roll it all out.”
And, remember, it’s a lot easier to get a subscription these days. In 1992, a year before “The Phantom of the Opera” first played Cleveland, people wanting to reserve a seat had to clip out an order form from an ad in The Plain Dealer, fill it out, write a check, pop them both into an envelope and send the request by snail mail.
“And then we date-stamped all of them and opened them in order of the date stamp,” Vernaci says. “The system has changed, thankfully.
“But ‘Hamilton’ was just an avalanche,” she says. “We got through it, but it was a huge response.”
They’re gearing up for the day single tickets go on sale. And, she says, so should you, because “45 seconds later, it will be sold out.”