ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And I'm Ari Shapiro with story we began reporting when I was in London last week.
It's a Wednesday afternoon. A bunch of kids are outside of a West End theater, giddily unaware that their parents have just shelled out a lot of money for the experience they're about to have. On a giant sign over their heads, a silhouette of a girl standing on a swing. Her hair flies behind her in the wind. It's a matinee performance of "Matilda."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA")
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) When I grow up, when I grow up, when I grow, I will be strong enough to carry all the heavy things you have to hold around with you...
SHAPIRO: Some little girls outside of this theater are ecstatic. Maisie and Lola Ede are sisters. And which one of you is more excited to see the show today?
MAISIE EDE: Me.
LOLA EDE: Me.
SHAPIRO: You're both raising your hand shouting, me. OK. Lola first. You tell me why you're more excited.
L. EDE: Because I love Matilda.
SHAPIRO: And Maisie, why do you think you're more excited to see it?
M. EDE: 'Cause I love Matilda.
SHAPIRO: So both for the same reason.
UNIDENTIFIED USHER: To your right, first aisle.
SHAPIRO: More than 3,000 miles away, on the same Wednesday afternoon, the same scene is playing out on the Great White Way. Ten-year-old Ella Wagner is nearly hyperventilating about the prospect of seeing this show on Broadway.
ELLA WAGNER: Because I read the book, I've seen the movie and I want to watch the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA")
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) And when I grow up, I will have treats every day. And I'll play...
SHAPIRO: Same show, same excited little girls. What's different? Here's Amanda Mono in London.
May I ask how much you paid for your tickets?
AMANDA MONO: Yeah, we got quite a good deal. I think they were like £35 a ticket.
SHAPIRO: That's about $60. And in New York?
JAY FRIEDMAN: Hon, how much did you pay for the tickets?
SHAPIRO: Well, here's Jay Friedman.
FRIEDMAN: A hundred-thirty-seven dollars per ticket. Should be $137 for four tickets, but it's not. Welcome to New York. I love it.
SHAPIRO: Now, if you see "Les Mis," the giant barricade will spin in London just like it does in New York. "Phantom of the Opera," the chandelier crashes to the ground on the West End just the way it does on Broadway. But according to the Society of London Theatre, the average ticket price for a West End show is about $70. In New York, according to the Broadway League, the average price just crossed $100 for the first time. That's crazy, right? Everybody knows London costs more than New York. A sandwich costs more. A house costs more. Nearly everything costs more, except theater. So what's going on? I met Andrzej Lukowski outside of "Matilda" in London. He's theater editor for Time Out magazine.
ANDRZEJ LUKOWSKI: There's a kind of different mentality, I think, to British theater because of the subsidized sector.
SHAPIRO: He told me London has a long tradition of government-subsidized shows. These big West End musicals are not subsidized, but they have to compete with theaters that are. And that helps keep prices low.
LUKOWSKI: There's a kind of, I think, ethos of theater for the people which we have over here, which I don't necessarily think exists to the same extent on Broadway.
SHAPIRO: And he says it costs a lot less to put on a show in London. Weaker unions mean lower salaries for the stage hands and technicians. The performers tend to make less money, too.
LUKOWSKI: Because it's a lot cheaper to run a show in the West End than on Broadway, a show doesn't really need to be as much of a hit to be able to kind of break even, cover its costs, carry on. I mean, my real understanding on Broadway is a show is either a huge it, or it's really not.
SHAPIRO: One man who knows that firsthand is Hal Luftig. He's produced shows in both cities. Right now, he's trying to bring the Tony Award-winning musical "Kinky Boots" from New York to London.
HAL LUFTIG: The Brits don't really advertise on television as much as we do here on Broadway. And television advertising is a big, huge expense. That's one big cost. And the other is the construction, the building of sets. And I think over on the West End in London, they're doing movies, television and film all at the same time.
SHAPIRO: Think of it this way. In the United States, New York does the big theater shows while Los Angeles does TV and movies. But in London, it's all in one place, so sets, materials, workers can all be shared, which makes it cheaper. I played Luftig some tape of one of those London theatergoers we heard from earlier, Ben Mono. He says yes, New York shows are expensive. But he believes you get more for your money on Broadway.
BEN MONO: The theatergoing experience in America is much better.
SHAPIRO: Explain what you mean.
B. MONO: The theaters are nicer. The theaters are air-conditioned. You get a free program. You get your playbill. You get looked after. You get shown to your seat. People are polite. Here, if you get the cheaper tickets, you're in theaters that haven't got air-conditioning. The theaters are crumbling. You're paying restoration levies for theaters which they're not doing anything about. People are rude. It's stuffy.
LUFTIG: (Laughing) I want to meet them in.
SHAPIRO: Hal Luftig, the Broadway producer, thinks the guy has a point.
LUFTIG: Yes, we do have much stronger air-conditioning. And there's been a big, concerted effort over here on Broadway; we do charge a restoration fee, and the theaters have been restored. There is some truth to what that gentleman is saying.
SHAPIRO: The price of Broadway tickets just crossed $100 on average. Do you think that it has become too elitist an art form for average theatergoers to afford?
LUFTIG: I know a lot of people do think it is. And we, as an industry, are trying very hard to combat that. If you really want to go, there are ways to get less expensive tickets.
SHAPIRO: Is the gap closing? Is the West End becoming more like Broadway?
LUFTIG: I think it is. I think it's, you know, inching up, inching up. I just bought a theater ticket on the West End. It was £80. And, you know...
SHAPIRO: Yeah, close to $150.
LUFTIG: Yeah. I think it - you know, I do remember the day when you could go, and it was £10.
SHAPIRO: At the end of the day, it's basic economics. Theaters charge what people are willing to pay. In fact, new pricing strategies let producers charge the most for popular shows on popular days. It can be up to almost $500 for "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway. Still, people keep seeing the shows. In the West End, Emma Ede, the mother of sisters Maisie and Lola, says she's not really going for herself.
Why do it when you can see a film for, you know, 20 quid?
EMMA EDE: Because there's something really special about the theater. It's magical, and I think the children get really involved in the show.
SHAPIRO: But magic, after all, costs money.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MATILDA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) And one thin dime won't even shine your shoes.