I Saw The Book of Mormon for $28, On The Day I Wanted To Go



Fans try to avoid the rain while waiting for SRO tickets to The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O'Neill Theater on 49th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Photo: Alex Contratto

A bell chimes in the distance. “Only three hours left,” I exclaim.  Yee Doung, a doctor from Washington state, chuckles beside me as she continues her crossword. Even though she arrived before two in the afternoon, this mission is far from over.

The steady drizzle becomes heavier.  The twinkling bulbs glitter brightly above the Eugene O’Neill Theater.  I am in line for The Book of Mormon, the darling of the 2011 Broadway season.  Just enough room remains under the awning overhead the sidewalk outside the theater.  I hope to remain safe from the rain.  Luckily I am fifth in line, confident I will get my standing-room only (SRO) ticket.

After quickly becoming one of the most celebrated shows in Broadway history, with nine Tony Awards including Best Musical 2011, The Book of Mormon requires ticket purchases three months or more in advance.  If someone is lucky enough to get a ticket at the box office, prices soar to $475 and up, as opposed to the initial $155 for orchestra seating.

Despite massive demand and limited supply, The Book of Mormon offers both SRO and lottery tickets available on the day of a performance.  Lottery tickets, a set of twenty-four seats in the first two rows of the orchestra that are distributed two hours before show time, sell for $32. SRO tickets become available one hour prior to the overture and cost $28.  Patrons often wait outside the box office seven hours in advance for these tickets, even on a rainy day like this one.

To do my homework, I traveled twice to the theater just north of Times Square, to ascertain how early I needed to arrive before taking my vows to wait in line.

An air of excitement surrounds the theater before each performance. On my first excursion, I met Daniel Dawson, a young college student and aspiring theater performer, who arrived early for the SRO line.  “I enjoy seeing a show when it’s just starting out, and the buzz is still there and it’s really exciting. There’s something about it,” he said.

Mitchel Andral, another college student pursuing his own theater career and brimming with excitement, arrived with Dawson before noon for the seven o’clock performance.  “Everybody I’ve talked to says ‘you HAVE to see this show.  It’s exactly the kind of show you would love.’  I think it’s worth waiting this long.  It will be a story,” said Andral.

I prepared to devote eight hours to The Book of Mormon; a short but painful marriage with no promise of a happy outcome. I packed a sweater to keep me warm, my raincoat to keep me dry, a vanilla PowerBar if I got hungry, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to read in case I got bored.

What if I had to go to the bathroom, I wondered?  Would I lose my place in line?

The culture of the SRO line takes ordinary individuals and molds them into a community; an evolving family exchanging stories, discussing the show, and taking turns allowing others to stretch their legs.  The line becomes a cohesive unit.

To avoid the rain, I noticed how others prepared before enduring the line.  The men in front of me, David Sirois and Mark Della Ventura, writers from Miami visiting for a playwriting competition, kindly offered cardboard to keep me dry.

“You end up making friends.  It’s funny how there are eight and a half million people here and if you just say ‘Hi’ to someone and look them in the eye, you can make a friend,” said Sirois.  I gladly accept, and as I sit down to begin my wait, the line grows behind me.

The Book of Mormon boasts a large following that predates the musical’s inception.  Writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, did not stray from their formula of successful absurdity.  While this show may be many theater-goers introduction to the raunchy humor of Parker and Stone, my generation is all too familiar with their breed of comedy.

“Obviously these guys who wrote the play don’t believe in the Book of Mormon, but you don’t have to.  That was the message.  As long as you believe in something, this could be your paradise,” said Sirois.

Several college girls join the line behind me, eager to avoid the rain.  Luckily they have umbrellas.  They contemplate ordering food, debating between pizza and Chinese.  They wonder if restaurants will deliver to the sidewalk, and what they would do with leftovers?

A man walks up to the box office and emerges moments later, despondent.  No more same-day tickets are available for purchase, but he wants to get in.  He seeks tickets as a gift to his wife on their anniversary.  With seemingly no alternatives, and no way to get out of the rain, he must get in line with the rest of us.

“Four already?  Hi-five,” exclaims Della Ventura as he continues to sit with Sirois, patiently counting down the minutes until showtime.  People continue reading, get up and take brief walks, and make numerous trips to Starbucks for a bathroom break.  They live their lives despite the limitations of the line.

“If you’re with a great friend and someone who can get you food, and then so you can go to the bathroom, and if you have $27 to spend, it’s worth it.  You spend $15-20 on a movie now, with popcorn $30, $40-50 for a date and dinner afterwards, you’re spending $100 bucks now anyways on a movie — why not go see a play?” said Sirois.

After four o’clock, people congregate outside the theater to ensure that they can add their names to the lottery.  The drawing begins an hour later and people on the street become antsy.  They try to ascertain how they will access the show, often unaware  of the devotion needed to secure a mere SRO ticket, considering most will not pay the inflated ticket prices.

A woman walks by the SRO line, quietly calculating her probability of obtaining a SRO ticket, since the theater only offers 26 tickets to devoted fans who wait in line for what seems like an eternity.  The line already stretches beyond 30 people.  I knew her chances for this evening’s show were slim at best.

“Lucky Lindy, right here” exclaimed Pepe Miller, whom I met when  I watched the lottery process unfold on my second trip to the theater.  She appeared overjoyed to win the seemingly impossible lottery.  After seeing How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying on Broadway with her husband and daughter while on their Northeast college tour, the family was ready to try for The Book of Mormon.

“We knew today we were going to try for the lottery, we had read about it online.  We got here at 11:40 in the morning and the names were drawn at twelve o’clock,” said Miller, who attended a Sunday afternoon performance.  “We have several friends who have seen it, and they say it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen.  Hands down, hands down.”

The lottery drawing is a performance in itself.  A man emerges from the theater, bullhorn in hand, a circus ringleader, prepping everyone for the show.

“There is a big barrel,” said Miller.  Each person in line has one chance at tickets, “and you have the option of one or two tickets.  If they find that you have duplicated entries they will take the tickets away when you come.  Tickets are $32 each and we are in front row center.  They are $475 for premium tickets,” she said, indicating the outrageously high, record-setting prices of the same seat without the lottery.

The ringleader names the state written on each selected card, a tortuous way to quickly eliminate many hopefuls, and demands joyous celebration when he calls a name, as though winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon were synonymous with winning the New York State lottery.  In one particular instance, a fan emerges from the huddled crowd, throwing her hands up in the air, screaming.  She could not have been more exhilarated, even though she claimed this was her thirtieth performance.

The lottery is a whirlwind, lasting fifteen minutes at most before the crowd quickly dissipates, enters the cancellation line, or attempts to wait in the SRO line.  The attention quickly returns to our line, where Della Ventura asks if I am familiar with the soundtrack.  “You’re in for a surprise,” said Della Ventura.  “If you’re not offended and enjoy their humor, you’ll love it.”

As six o’clock nears, members of the box office emerge from hiding to examine the line, shocked to find out how early we arrived.  They issue their disclaimer, explaining that even though some people stay all day and usually get their tickets, distribution is never guaranteed.  As they return to their closet-sized office to begin distributing tickets, the SRO line begins to stand and stretch, awakening from a slumber of sedentary boredom.

I purchase my two tickets, bewildered that the process is over.  Did six hours really just fly by?  Surreal.

I realize I have the freedom to move around, no longer bound by the limitations of the line.  The feeling is strange, and startlingly unfamiliar.  Now what?

I run across to the street to the West End Grill on the corner of 49th Street and Eighth Avenue to enjoy a beer before the show.  Feeling seasonal, I select the local pumpkin ale. The bartender suggests adding cinnamon sugar to the top of the draught.  Skeptical, I heed her advice, and several scrumptious brews later, I am outside the theater, belly full and eager for what I hope will be the performance of the year.  After all this waiting, I am ready to laugh my socks off.

And I did.

Fans try to secure lottery tickets to The Book of Mormon. Photo: Alex Contratto