A friend emailed me recently for advice on going to see a Broadway musical. Actually, they're thinking of going to NYC sometime but for now wanted to know what they could see on this side of the country. DISCLAIMER: I am no expert. But I am a huge enthusiast so I thought I'd share some information, opinions and tips about going to the theater for a little culture.
To start with, there's the different types of productions. Broadway musicals are in New York in certain theaters, I believe Off-Broadway is even constrained to a certain set of theater or at least production companies. Sometimes Broadway productions have an out of town try-out. Those of us lucky enough to live near San Francisco have been blessed with a number of these special previews (I didn't see Legally Blonde but it got surprisingly good reviews, I did see the revival of A Chorus Line, they were fantastic). In a number of cities there is the possibility for "sit-down" productions, which usually means the run is open ended and they aren't moving on to the next city the day after tomorrow. Los Angeles often has this type of show and Las Vegas has become the newest hot spot for sit-downs. In Vegas they have been shortening shows and taking out intermissions but I think it's great to offer this entertainment option in Sin City. Next on the list is national tours, these productions vary in quality but are usually close to Broadway caliber. The sets often have to be simplified a bit and the cast has the added strain of travel in addition to performing eight shows a week, but honestly, before I ever went to New York I saw dozens of these tours and I never would have known I was missing a thing. Please note: these are tours, so please don't ask me if I'm going to see Molly Ringwald in San Jose's production of Sweet Charity, that's just silly. Then there are professional theater companies across the country doing fantastic productions, actors are often equity and aren't always locals. Examples of this would include San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Sacramento Theater Company. This would be followed by local productions and community theater. These groups will do a range of old and new shows, the ticket prices and quality of production and performance vary greatly.
Now, how do you figure out what is out there and available for you to see? Playbill.com is an excellent source of information on what is going on in the New York theater scene as well as what shows are playing across the country. You can look for tickets on TeleCharge (for Broadway and Off-Broadway) or TicketMaster, plus a number of other ticket brokering sites. For tours coming through San Francisco check out bestofbroadway-sf.com.
When you're ready to take the big leap over to New York I strongly recommend the TKTS booth from the Theater Development Fund. Day-of tickets to almost any show on Broadway can be purchased at a discount (usually half-off) at one of their two booths in the city, cash or traveler's checks only. Ticket managers for the different shows decide what tickets/seats to send (someone paying half-price for the seat is better than nobody at all), and I hear you can sometimes get a better seat at 6pm than if you go when the booth opens at 3 (which would indicate a second wave of seats being released as managers get more desperate to fill the seats). I have always been able to get tickets to the show I've been after (but I always had realistic expectations). The seats are usually close to the front, but rather far off to the side. It's a lot of fun to be so close to the action, plus you can practically reach out and touch the people who paid twice as much as you! I would like to remind you to do a little research though, check out what's been selling at the booth. If your trip will be ruined if you don't see that certain show and it's only sometimes at TKTS, then go ahead and book tickets in advance. And no, you can't get Wicked for half-off but if it's only one or two of you and you're willing to pay full-price then just go get in the cancellation line about two hours before curtain and you'll probably be fine.
Remember, theater is part art and part life. There aren't many fleeting things that I enjoy quite so much. So open your mind, take it all in, and enjoy.