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Attention Must Be Paid, But For $800?: A Financial Detective Story About Staging Death of a Salesman in 1949 and 2012 Paperback – March 21, 2013
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
From the Author
I was struck by the huge change in the price of going to see a Broadway show. Was it really possible to see the original version of "Death of a Salesman" for just $1.50? How did prices get so high? I set out to understand just what had changed. Why had the world gotten so expensive?
From the Back Cover
Have you ever wondered how things got so expensive? Have you ever felt that inflation was much worse than the 2 or 3% gain that's reported in the news? When journalist Peter Wayner found the financial records for the 1949 and 2012 productions of "Death of a Salesman", he knew he had a good way to compare what we had with what we have today.
The short book digs into the cost of staging the show then and now and uses it as a way to understand just how the economy has changed, who won and who lost, who is making more than ever and who is being pushed aside. Wayner mixes the story of the play with the history of the times to build an engaging economic detective story that helps understand just where the money is going.
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Top customer reviews
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As I read through this all I could think was "So what?" We all know prices have changed, some of them a lot, since 1949. And, it's remarkable that you can get a burger at McDonald's for a dollar with all the inflation evident elsewhere. So, what does this have to do with the theater? Did I pick up Forbes magazine by mistake?
Finally, we get to a run down of costs in 2012 dollars of Death of A Salesman. But, there's no insight here. No insider info. No scandal. Nothing only insiders know. Most of it, the author indicates, came from Google or Bing. Big deal.
Any college student could have written this book and its contents are completely inconsequential.
Here's just a glance at the most nonsensical bits:
-Wayner argues with CPI, basically saying you can't compare costs of living (and therefore what a show ticket "costs" as a fraction thereof) between then and now. Fine. But then you have no way to make an argument either way. But instead of laying out a well-thought process for comparing, he just starts throwing around numbers (sometimes using a factor of 10 for inflation, sometimes 20, and sometimes comparing nominal prices!) He should have come up with his own defensible multiplier and stuck to it.
-Wayner argues that the cost of food has actually gone down, using the following logic: the highest-priced item on the Waldorf Astoria's menu in 1949 was $2.90. You can now buy a pizza for $5 at a discount Midwest chain. Therefore food prices have not gone up by as much as inflation. Also, a diner omelet cost $0.45 in 1949. Now you can get a McD's breakfast burrito for $1. I'm not even going to start on this one. The reason my eyes are crossing in rage and confusion should be self-explanatory.
-Wayner mentions that the average price for a ticket *during the first week of previews* was $85, therefore the show should be considered affordable by Broadway standards. Just... just no.
-He brings up rush tickets, and the fact that anyone under 30 could get a ticket for $30. He obviously decides opportunity cost is not a factor here, since anyone who's studied economics in any form could tell you that the tickets actually cost more than $30, and a different amount for each person, since you would have to take into account the hourly rate each line-sitter puts on her time to figure out how much waiting outside a theater for 8 hours "costs". Without that, you can't compare those tickets since rush didn't exist in 1949.
-When he starts laying out line items, he throws out anything without a direct comparison. Music in 1949 was billed weekly. In 2012 it was a lump sum to record plus a small weekly running cost. Rather than amortize the 2012 or bulk the 1949, he just says it's not comparable. Oh hai accounting 101.
-There was no line item for wigs in 1949 and now there is, so that's obviously a main reason costs went up. Clearly. It's the wigs, people!
-He calls Lee Cobb, the original Willy Loman, the "it girl" of his day. What?
-When addressing Siegel's central question of "could Willy Loman have afforded to see this play" Wayner's argument is thus: Loman said he made $170 a week. Therefore, with one week's pay he could have afforded a pair of $85 tickets (DURING THE FIRST WEEK OF PREVIEWS) in 2012 (But with his 1949 pay. What?) and since a meal at the Waldorf cost $2.20 (okay, back to 1949 dollars), he would have been fine.
-Also, houses are really cheap in Detroit so you can live there and just see touring productions? Yeah... sure... good point... except it's nonsense since this production didn't even tour.
-In his acknowledgements, he thanks Wikipedia. Enough said.
I will grant that he makes two good points: First, the $840 ticket price Siegel quotes is a broker price. Fair enough. You really can't compare that to a 1949 box office price. Siegel should have used the top premium price of $499. Also, toward the end, Wayner makes a decent argument that everyone has dozens (hundreds even) of entertainment options these days, meaning producers have to work extra hard to make something worth seeing and spend even more on advertising. They then have to deliver a spectacle, which costs even more to produce, causing a vicious cycle that audiences are complicit in by flocking to star vehicle after star vehicle. Good point! But he then goes on to say that changes in entertainment options and audience expectations make the 1949 and 2012 productions incomparable... after having spent a half hour comparing them.
All in all, if you've never taken an econ class or are friends with Scott Rudin, you might enjoy this. If you're looking for something insightful and well-researched, this is not it.
Apparently there is no simple explanation. For example, Wayner researches the differences in restaurant prices between 1949 and 2012 --- at both the same restaurant and wildly different ones. He looks at how the price of housing changed. He picks apart this thing we call "inflation" and shows why some things got cheaper (like the price of television), some things got more expensive (food), and a few things got horribly more expensive (advertising). The sources are historical archives for the 1949 information and sources within the 2012 revival production. What follows is a very interesting point-for-point comparison of both the costs of live theater as well as a lot of other costs that beset actors and directors.
Overall, I really liked the book.