Sitting Pretty at the Show
By ALLEN MOGOL
Friday, December 22, 2017  •  
Fri Dec 22, 2017  •  
Broadway  •   13 comments Share This
Theatre seating is all about location, location, location.

A theatre lover reminisces about his best -- and worst -- seats

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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! 

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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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13 Comments:
Amy Posner said:
Front row: smacked by a gob of Florence Henderson's shampoo foam; without missing a beat, she inserted a "sorry" while washing Emil right out of her hair. Seated on Delacort stage: amused and disgusted when Meryl Streep spit into Raul Julia's mouth. Back row at RSC: Mezz blocked Juliet's balcony! Standing room Lily Tomlin Appearing Nightly: couldn't jump up for the 5 standing O's during the show
Posted on 12/23/2017 at 10:01 AM
Gabriel Velez said:
Near the end of the run of the original DeathTrap on Broadway, I had front row center.The star gave dirty looks & sneered at people who had the nerve to come in and be seated during his performance. Also sitting in the 6th row watching'Sweeney Todd', I could see blood fly across the stage as 'Sweeney' (George Hearn) cut people throats.
Posted on 12/23/2017 at 11:13 AM
Robert Moulthrop said:
Mid-Mezzanine at the Broadway seeing Ethel Merman in Gypsy. Last row of the Wintergarden balcony seeing Carol Burnett in Mattress. Front row of the Wintergarden seeing the original Follies. Virtually every seat for August: Osage County; same for both the original and last revival of Virginia Woolfe. Not to mention the first production of Long Day's Journey (Frecerick March and Florence Eldridge)
Posted on 12/23/2017 at 1:03 PM
Louise Smith said:
I was in one of the "ripple seats" at the National in London to see Michael Gambon and Simon Russel Beale in Volpone. I could feel the heat from the torches that were carried onstage. That experience changed my perception of theater. All of a sudden it was truly real to me.
Posted on 12/23/2017 at 5:06 PM
Grace Ellis said:
I recently sat near the end of the front row at the Public's staging of "Office Hour." I had a very clear view of Sue Jean Kim's actual tears near the end of her office hour with a deeply disturbed student. Julia Cho's play and Kim's performance are among my most compelling theater experiences.
Posted on 12/23/2017 at 5:34 PM
Lisa eisenstein said:
So true Allen. Ideas determined to see the original cast of wicked before it closed so took seats in the last row at the winter garden. Might as well have been watching tv
Posted on 12/23/2017 at 11:37 PM
Ellen Victor said:
On standby line all day for Phantom of the Opera (w/Michael Crawford) 1st of 14? Times seeing it. At very last minute House seats available, Row D Center. Hurry, hurry, curtain about to fall. Rushed in, ripped pants in the rush, smell of theatre electronics in the air, sit down, theatre darkens, the magic begins.
Posted on 12/24/2017 at 1:03 AM
Joanne Theodorou said:
Long Day's Journey Into Night w/ Jack Lemmon, Bethel Leslie, nott mention Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher First Row orchestra. A cathartic night, all four performers, especially Bethel and Jack were COLLAPSED by the end, could barely take a bow, they all gave an electric performance. I then understood the physical and emotional demands of great drama, the proximity of their faces said all
Posted on 12/24/2017 at 1:10 AM
Christie said:
On a front row bar stool looking up at Oak Onaodowan in Great Comet of 1812. I would just like to congratulate the seamstresses on that show for the expert way the stripes on the seat of his trousers matched.
Posted on 12/24/2017 at 2:40 PM
Jim Leveskas said:
Worst seats were in 1979 at the Broadway Theater during preview showing of Evita with Patti Lupone. Seats were in the back of the orchestra under the overhang, and it was impossible to see the upper stage. I wrote a letter to Harold Prince, and God bless him, he sent me two free tickets on another date, which were the best seats ever..Row F on the aisle. And I swear Patti Lupone played to us.
Posted on 12/24/2017 at 3:45 PM
Linda Ogden said:
Best seat ever--one of the "cafe tables" for "La Cage" with Kelsey Grammer. He not only serenaded me from the stage, but he came up behind me mid-song and gave me a hug! Couldn't believe I got so lucky with a TKTS ticket!
Posted on 12/26/2017 at 9:29 AM
Allen Mogol said:
I love reading these comments. Amy and Gabriel: flying shampoo and blood! Robert: I'm jealous. I only saw Ethel Merman once, in the revolving door at 1133 Sixth Avenue. Louise and Grace: fire and tears! Lisa: I agree. Watching the monkeys fly overhead from front orchestra was a big deal for my nieces. Seeing the show from the back of the house another time, I might as well have been in Kansas
Posted on 12/27/2017 at 2:08 PM
Leni Anders said:
Best seat - As a former Broadway dancer I bought tickets to "A Chorus Line" when it was at The Public. In the interim the show moved to Broadway. All Public tickets were honored. I was given the seventh row center, my ideal seat. A spectacular seat to see a spectacular show.
Posted on 1/22/2018 at 5:15 PM
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