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A theatre lover reminisces about his best -- and worst -- seats
Forget New York City real estate. The theatre is where it's all about location, location, location. While there's no question that having a great seat can make watching a terrific production even more enjoyable, can an outstanding show make up for seeing it from a lousy angle? Sometimes, yes. Sure, being in the back is... distancing. It's harder to feel engaged when the people on stage have no discernible features, as if they're wearing stockings over their heads in preparation for a holdup. And yet at times the performers magically make it work for me no matter where I'm sitting (or standing) in the house. I've experienced some of my best nights at the theatre from the very last row of a cavernous venue. I saw Oslo from as far as it's possible to sit from the stage at the Vivian Beaumont and couldn't imagine being more enthralled. Same with Hamilton. I was in the last row at the Public and was exhilarated to be in the room where it happened, albeit just barely.
The hierarchy of great seats isn't linear. Front row center doesn't represent the best. For one thing, that's the spit zone. When performers are emoting directly to the audience, it can feel like having VIP seats at SeaWorld, but without the protective rain gear. With a particular Pirate King I recall it was not such a glorious thing to be quite so close.
Back of the orchestra? In many theatres, these seats are too far back to see and hear well, and they're under the low overhang of the mezzanine. Plus a show's charms sometimes don't project to the back of the house, regardless of which section you're seated in. At one monster of a musical that tried to reinvent a classic movie for the stage, I spent most of the second act wondering what would happen if I jumped from the balcony. The story I was imagining in my head was better than the one on the very distant stage. Another time, two bigger-than-life acting divas couldn't get me invested in their dramatic plight from the back right corner of the balcony. I was just too far away to care.
Some theatres earn their reputation of not having a bad seat in the house. I saw Fun Home at Circle in the Square four times, and the four vantage points made each experience a bit different yet all equally engaging. I saw Hello, Dolly! with the Divine Miss M (why Donna Murphy, of course) twice: once from the front mezzanine and once from the back of the mezz, where the balcony blocks the top of the stage. It does make a difference being able to see Dolly ready to descend that staircase at the Harmonia Gardens versus taking it on faith (and audience's enthusiastic response) that she's there.
While the first row has its (s)pitfalls, sometimes that proximity allows you to catch things you might miss from further back. I remember seeing Len Cariou as Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse. At one point, the Tony winner spotted a woman sitting in the first row, intently following the text in a well-worn copy of the play. Apparently concerned she was missing the performance, Cariou reached down and gently closed her book. He had her full attention for the rest of the performance.
Of course no matter how great your seat is, if your neighbors are texting, talking, or chewing you may want to pull a LuPone… but that's a rant for another time.
Share your seat stories in the comments!
When Allen Mogol isn't sitting in theatres, he writes for them. He's a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.
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