Dynamic pricing at People's Light and Kimmel? Price bumps coming to live theater near you

Dulé Hill will portray legendary entertainer Nat “King” Cole at the People’s Light in Malvern. The show is called “Lights Out: Nat King Cole.”

With the TV and stage star Dulé Hill (of Psych, Suits, and The West Wing) cast as an “Unforgettable” jazz-pop icon, Malvern’s People’s Light theater company knew the event had special appeal. So its leaders dared to price tickets a tad higher than normal for the world premiere of Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole. (Read our interview with Dulé Hill about this demanding role, and about being Charlie to Martin Sheen’s Bartlet.)

“Really, we didn’t know how hot the demand would be,” said People’s General Manager Ellen Anderson. “Nobody blinked at the initial $5 increase” — to $42 on weekdays, $54 on weekends  — “we first put on single seats. And now with the first three weeks of the show sold-out — and the official opening Wednesday — people seem OK with paying as much as $76 a ticket, plus a  $7.40 box office handling fee. That’s more than we’ve ever gotten for a show before, even for Christmas week.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of “dynamic” pricing, Philadelphia-style. While the profit-grabbing strategy regularly exploits travelers in the airline and ride-share industries — not to mention the reselling of tickets for concerts and Broadway hits — dynamic pricing in Philly arts remains a gentler affair.

Mostly, it’s synonymous here with deflation not inflation. Like money-saving subscription offers to the Philadelphia Orchestra, Arden and Walnut Street Theatres. And half-off tickets at bargain sites like Philly FunGuideTodaysTix, and GoldStar. Or $10 student and community rush seats at the Kimmel Center.

Local wisdom holds that filling the house with cut-rate deals is “good for the artists, for the community that might not otherwise come and good for the presenter,” opines Kimmel Center marketing vice president Crystal Brewe. “We’re selling a perishable commodity. Once the curtain  goes up, your inventory is spoiled.”

But last-minute price increases are emerging. The Kimmel does it so subtly that its audiences may never notice. “We’re constantly monitoring not only which shows are selling really well but which sections of seats are most in demand,” said Brewe. The Kimmel’s model then adds a mere “$2 to $10″ per seat. Should you come across higher markups, it means “you went to a ticket reseller with an online web address very similar to ours,” she warned.

The whole package also is key at People’s Light, not only with its bargain $26 per ticket subscription deals, but also with free parking and shows deals including dinner at their adjacent Farmhouse Bistro. “After suffering a $20 or $30 charge just to park downtown or at the ballpark, our showgoers tell us that they really appreciate the free parking,” producing director Zak Berkman said before last week’s Lights Out dress rehearsal.

But as a Broadway veteran, Berkman sees the value in raising Springsteen on Broadway tickets to $849 and having Bette Midler fans pay up to $1,009 per seat at Hello Dolly. First tweaked by Disney Theatrical Group for The Lion King, upwardly mobile ticket resets  — also called “demand,” “surge,” and “flex” pricing —  helps investors recover “the losses they take on four out of every five shows,” said Berkman. It’s also meant to block exploitative resellers who use computer-driven “bot”  programs to snag tickets the instant they open up.

Now Berkman is hoping that a more seemly bump-up will help People’s Light recover a fairer share —  though hardly all —  of the $750,000 it has invested in the two-year nurturing of Lights Out. Presented without intermission, this fast-paced ride takes us into the mind of a star who challenged the status quo in 1956-1957 as the first African American to host a national TV show. It also presents fellow pioneers, including Sammy Davis Jr., (knocked out of the park by Hamilton alum Daniel J. Watts)  and Eartha Kitt, purred by Gisela Adisa. “It’s also true, as we relate, that the show never attracted a national sponsor, the sad thing that killed it. Advertisers were afraid to endorse a black performer, bending their will to the racism of the era.”

People’s Light envisioned the musical with four actors and a piano player but  “wound up with eight”  — mostly Actors’ Equity pros — “plus a four-piece band,” said Berkman. It also needed two choreographers, not one, plus extensive costuming and wigs “to get the ‘period look’ right. And while it limits payback, we put the show in our much smaller, 155-seat Steinbright Theater, for intimacy and so we could run it simultaneously with our holiday panto,” this year a modernized musical send-up of Aladdin.

Even though the Cole project has garnered a  “largest ever” $300,000 development grant from the Pew Center for the Arts & Heritage, plus sponsorship from PNC Arts Alive, PECO, and Katie and Bill McNabb (Vanguard’s outgoing CEO), “we would really have to charge $120 a ticket for this show to break even,” Berkman calculates. “That’s the reality of a community outreach-minded arts operation, where you’re lucky to get back 50 percent of  your costs from earned income. But pushing the ticket price up to $76 … and attracting full houses who also visit our for-profit restaurant for pre- and post-show meals and drinks . . . that all should help.”

And if Lights Out  moves to New York or sparks other productions, People’s Light gets royalty income, too.

Meanwhile, a little effort called Hamilton announced for the Kimmel’s 2018-19 Broadway season has already inspired a variation of the red-hot seat sale.  Subscribers to the current 2017-2018 season have been promised preferential treatment and the same seats for next year’s season including Broadway’s biggest hip-hop hit. Now at “capacity,” this Kimmel come-on sparked an 84 percent rise in subscriptions, priced between $219 and $839 for seven shows.

“We’re winning two ways,” said Brewe, “building the base of arts supporters as well as our  bottom line.”