The Hamilton effect: Traveling to see blockbuster theater

Florencia Espino stood in line with other eager fans, waiting to get into the sold-out Lyric Theater on West 42nd Str...

Posted: May 11, 2018 2:10 PM
Updated: May 11, 2018 2:10 PM

Florencia Espino stood in line with other eager fans, waiting to get into the sold-out Lyric Theater on West 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Playing there: "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," starring seven of the actors who originated their roles in London in 2016, including Jamie Parker and Noma Dumezweni, who won Olivier Awards for their performances as Harry Potter and Hermione Granger.

"I didn't think I would be able to see it," says Espino, 30, a graphic designer from Buenos Aires. "I grew up with the books. They mean a lot to me."

Espino always incorporates at least one theater visit whenever she travels, she says. But last year, when she tried to see the two-part Potter play in London -- in which Harry has grown up to be a father -- she discovered it had been sold out a year in advance.

This time, she'd first tried online unsuccessfully and, without much hope, stopped in at the box office a day before. "There was one ticket left!" She grabbed it.

The Hamilton effect

Other tourists are even more dedicated to seeing a musical or a play when they travel, securing tickets before they make airline and hotel reservations or traveling with a group that builds a trip around theater.

It's a growing trend, partly because the Internet makes it easier to buy tickets, partly because theater and travel organizations are encouraging it and partly because of a phenomenon that, according to Chris Heywood, a spokesman for NYC & Company, New York City's marketing organization, is known as "the Hamilton effect."

That one hit show about America's founding fathers, now playing internationally, has stimulated interest in other musicals and broadened the audience base. "It's bringing people to the city," Heywood says. "We want to encourage people to build a trip around Broadway."

Among those who have traveled to New York just to see "Hamilton" are Kim Teixeira and her 15-year-old daughter Emma, who took a spring-break trip from Norfolk, Virginia. Teixeira, who runs a learning center, bought their premium tickets two weeks ahead with credit card points.

"For the amount of points I used, we could have gone to Hawaii," she jokes.

They stood outside the theater's stage door on 46th Street after a Saturday matinee with a cluster of other fans -- including many who had bought tickets a year ahead -- waiting for cast members to emerge, so they could applaud them again and maybe snag an autograph or a photo.

Tourists prefer well-known shows

Although newer musicals and plays dominate the desires of the most dedicated theatergoers, many more visitors to theater hubs just want to see something they've heard of, says Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, a national theater trade association that keeps statistics.

Hits that have played for more than three years are 21% more likely to have foreign visitors than newer shows, according to the league. Of the 13.3 million admissions to Broadway shows in the 2016-2017 season, 61% were tourists from outside the New York area, 46% of them from the United States and 15% from other countries.

Broadway's older shows are also more popular abroad, she says.

"'Phantom,' 'Lion King,' 'Chicago,' 'Wicked' and 'The Book of Mormon' are popular shows that are touring internationally," says St. Martin. "'Hamilton' has joined that group. It has created a brand faster than a traditional show."

Harry Potter was a brand before it landed in London or New York, she added, and so was "Frozen," a new musical in New York based on the hit 2013 animated Disney film about a princess and her sister.

"I'm quite sure it will be a touring brand before we can blink our eyes," she says.

Tours do not diminish the lust for seeing a show on Broadway or in London, she adds: "It's the opposite of detracting. If you've see it at home, you especially want to see it in New York. Or if you've seen it in New York, you want to see it again, depending on the show, done in the language of your own city." That applies domestically too.

On the same April Saturday when Teixeira saw "Hamilton," Peggy Cox and her teenaged daughter Jennifer saw "Wicked" as part of a high school theater trip from Sevierville, Tennessee. They had seen "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Lion King" during the first two days of their visit.

"Wicked" was her favorite, says Cox, a vocalist who has performed at such spots as Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park and resort in Pigeon Forge, near Sevierville. She had seen "Phantom" three times locally in professional touring productions but loved seeing it again, she says.

"On Broadway, it's a cut above."

Backstage tours and workshops

One of the largest wholesale distributors of group tickets for theaters in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas is Broadway Inbound.

The company works with tour operators, travel agencies and websites like Expedia and Trip Advisor, as well as agencies and websites in South America, Asia and Europe, says company vice president Bob Hofmann. A growing part of the business, he says, is organizing workshops and backstage visits along with tickets to a show.

"Travelers are looking for experiences," Hofmann says. "We add the sizzle."

A group might visit a rehearsal studio and "meet the artists, learn dance numbers from the show, or do theater combat or theater games. It's fun for kids and adults."

The company also alerts travel organizers to Broadway-bound shows like "Pretty Woman" (now in Chicago, another US theater hub) and lesser-known surprise Broadway hits like "Come From Away," set in the tiny Canadian town where 38 planes were ordered to land on September 11, 2001. (The show is also drawing people to the Canadian theater hub of Toronto.)

London, which boasts a theater scene easily as robust as New York's, also attracts theater goers: A record 15 million people visited London theaters in 2017, according to the Society of London Theatre. The society has a ticketing website, OfficialLondonTheatre.com, prints an Official London Theater Guide and runs the TKTS booth for discounted (and full-price) tickets in Leicester Square.

(New York's TKTS, for mostly same-day discounted tickets, at Broadway and 47th Street and other locations, is run by the non-profit Theatre Development Fund.)

Discounted tickets can also be found at sites such as Theatermania.com, BroadwayBox.com and Playbill.com, which also lists last-minute discount policies at individual productions.)

VisitBritain.com, the website of the British Tourist Authority, reported that in 2012 (the most recent year for this data) about 9% of all visitors attended a musical or other show, compared to 4% who went to sports events. The VisitBritainShop.com site, aimed at visitors, offers advance purchases of theater tickets.

Theater tours, theater experiences, and annual festivals are a growing trend in the UK, too, in London, Manchester and Bristol, and Yorkshire is another theater town, according to a VisitBritain spokeswoman.

Buying Broadway tickets abroad

This year, the Broadway League is conducting a social media pilot program to encourage foreign travelers in three countries to purchase tickets before they arrive in New York, so they can get better seats -- or any seats at all for popular shows. (For the week ending April 15, nine Broadway shows reported being at full capacity or more.)

The program's ads, St. Martin says, are aimed at Canada, Australia and Germany. In the two English-speaking countries, readers are directed to the League's Broadway.org site, which links to shows' official ticket sites, and in Germany they are directed to a German language site, newyorkmusicalkarten.de/broadwaycampaign.

If Julia Frieling, 24, and Elias Gorre, 28, both from Berlin, had read the ad, perhaps they might have found seats for a preview performance of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" when they were in New York on April 7. They were surprised to stumble upon the theater, which is elaborately decorated on the outside.

"We didn't know it was playing here already," says Frieling, an ardent Potter fan. Alas, there was only one ticket left, and only one of them going was not an option. They did have a substitute, though: Their next stop was Orlando, Florida, to visit a theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

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