Years ago, I wrote a New York Times article in which Patti LuPone told a story about people sitting in the theater fighting over the last popcorn in a bag. She couldn't believe it. Now it happens all the time -- theaters actively encourage eating at your seats. The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), new owner of Broadway's Lyric Theatre, has taken this encouragement one step further and is providing snack menus at your seats. You can stay seated, order a variety of drinks and snacks, including popcorn, before the show and during intermission, and have your order delivered to you.
Ladies and gentlemen -- taking a trip to Broadway is now like going to the circus! Forget about the fact that you're supposed to be focusing on the art form on the stage. Forget about the fact that you -- and the people sitting next to you -- have spent hundreds of dollars to see/hear the show. Having super noisy snacks is more important. Let's also not forget that the Lyric has the worst acoustics of any Broadway house, making the chomping somehow worse.
Before people point this out, ATG is not really a major trailblazer. For the occasional show, people have walked up and down the aisle with snacks and beverages. At Rock of Ages, waiters even take orders during the show! But, then, that's Rock of Ages. The Lyric is currently hosting a revival of On The Town -- a show whose entire media campaign is based on it being a classic musical. Was Leonard Bernstein expecting people who watch his show -- a celebration of the New York of yore -- to be mixing popcorn/M&Ms so they can get a sweet/savory balance? Hildy can cook, but does she want the audience to eat while she is singing about it?
Now, someone is going to point out that eating in the theater in the West End is commonplace. The Ambassador Theatre Group uses a similar "menu at your seats" system for its theaters there. And of course no one thinks the West End is classless (despite some of their musical offerings). The sad truth is, audience members in West End theaters are often better behaved than audience members in Broadway theaters. I've never fully understood why. I don't want to get into sociological conjecture.
I went out to see what audience members coming out of On The Town this weekend thought about the menu. If most had embraced the system, this piece would be very different. A few did in fact like it -- they enjoyed not waiting on line for their snacks; those folks appreciated the hospitality. But the overwhelming majority did not like it. On The Town has an older audience, filled with people who remember when the theater was a real special night out, not one with nut mix.
Here are a sample of quotes gathered outside of the Saturday evening performance:
"Why can't people just behave? My husband and I came in from Manhasset to see this wonderful show, which we saw when we were first together. This time, the melodies were disrupted by the amount of noise in the theater."
"The fact that this is what Broadway has become is nauseating."
"I felt like I had to pass down a drink as part of my theater experience."
"My sister wanted a snack, and I was happy I didn't need to deal with the bar crowd to get it. She ate it quietly. I don't see anything wrong with it."
"It just takes the specialness out of the evening. It makes it feel a little like a ballgame. I feel they may next start installing bleacher seats."
"When I arrived there and saw the menus, I was confused. I wasn't bothered but I never thought of using them. Then I realized how distracting the whole process was during intermission. It also caused traffic."
"When people are disruptive it bothers me. The idea of this does not bother me, but I abhor the result. I want to be able to focus on the show, in silence."
"It's about seeing this musical. That experience is different when people are making noise -- whether it is buzzing cell phones, talking or eating. It's horrible."
"There is Broadway and then there is community theater and Cirque du Soleil. I go to each for different things. I don't want them to blend."
"Can no one live without eating for an hour? Must we always have food?"
Theater owners want to make money. I get that. I don't blame them. That is why people started allowing eating in your seats in the first place -- dough. You buy more if you know you can eat during the show. End of story. ATG is perhaps just trying to streamline the process, lessening crowds in lobbies. Basically every other theater allows you to eat at your seats, you just have to buy your snacks at the bars. So what is ATG really doing that has potential to harm the theatrical experience? Is it just the idea of waiters?
Well, I went to other theaters -- the Broadway and the Majestic -- and asked people if they were bothered by people eating snacks at their seats during the shows they were leaving. This is the same question I started out with outside the Lyric. Many more people outside the Lyric said "yes" as compared to the other two houses. Scientifically one could argue that there is a power of suggestion present in the menu system -- you think more about food, so your answers are skewed. But we don't live in a vacuum.
The truth is -- people are paying a ton of money to see a show. A non-premium Saturday night ticket to On The Town is $157.25. They are paying because they want to hear the gloriously large orchestra, a rarity on Broadway these days. They are paying because they want to focus on the singing and dancing. It's not like there are big stars to drool over. They are paying for the show. They are not paying $157.25 to hear some music and some bag wrinkling.
I don't deny, there are those that really want to eat snacks and find the menu system great. But what about the people those people are disrupting? Putting aside the benefit to theatre owners' wallets in the immediate sense, is this really a benefit outweighs the harm situation? Will we eventually be losing audience members when Broadway begins to feel simply not as special? Can the theatre owners maybe only sell soft snacks? Ice cream (sold at the Lyric) is fine. Popcorn not so much.
On The Town, a show I'm looking forward to and wish the best for, opens this week. An ATG representative failed to respond to my request for details about their "Ordertorium" system.