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Published: Wednesday, 1/26/2011

Hard-core fans make theater shows a way of life

NEW YORK -- It was intermission at the final Broadway performance of Next to Normal, and Natalie Chernicoff, who was seeing the show for the 32nd time, was talking mascara with Kathleen Parker, who was seeing it for the 42nd time.

"I just gave up on the mascara today," Chernicoff was saying as the two met up for a chat at the back of the Booth Theatre. Eye makeup just wasn't going to work, the two agreed, once those tear ducts started flowing.

Down in row BB, Tracy Stemple was steeling herself for the brutally emotional second act of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about mental illness. It was her 105th time. Her 104th time had been earlier that day, at the matinee.

These were just a few of the Next to Normal regulars -- fans for whom the show, which ended a two-year Broadway run in mid-January, became a way of life, something to see not once or twice, but regularly, as in once a month, once a week, or even more often.

Why, one might ask? Doesn't it get boring? Silly question. "Each performance brought something different," says Stemple, a marketing director in Manhattan. "A different actor, an understudy, a new take on a part. I could have stopped. It wasn't like a competition or anything. But it made me happy."

Call it serial theatergoing: The phenomenon is hardly unique to Next to Normal, though that show, which continues on national tour, did seem to spawn an unusually fierce following. Rent was known for its many repeat visitors, and Spring Awakening had its groupies. These days, some fans are setting records at Wicked.

Nick Ahlers is one of them. The fifth-grade teacher from Caldwell, N.J., has seen Wicked 98 times. What draws Ahlers, 27, back repeatedly is the music by Stephen Schwartz. "I go to Wicked to hear phenomenal singing," he says. "And I love seeing different performers in the roles. I'm just trying to see a whole bunch of interpretations."

So what about the cost, you ask? A top ticket at a Broadway musical sets one back over $100, or well over $200 for a premium seat. But regulars say they rarely pay anything close to that.

"I can count on one hand the number of times I've gone full price," says Ahlers. He gets his tickets in the Wicked lottery rush -- 25 front-row seats sold before each performance for $26.25.

Next to Normal began by selling rush tickets in the morning, which led to occasional all-night waits in Shubert Alley. Then it switched to a lottery system for $25 seats, with "lotto loser" partial-view seats for $40.

Parker, 24, who works at a theater district restaurant, has used these and other, more creative methods: Eight times, she literally worked her way in, selling candy and bottled water for the theater's concession company. She once "overnight-rushed it," when a new actress came in to play the daughter. "I got there at midnight," she says. "I was the third person in line."

To experience the passion of these fans, one had only to sit through that last second act performed at the Booth, particularly a wrenching, climactic mother-daughter confrontation. Groups of audience members sobbed loudly.

"Oh my God -- I have never heard it like that," says Parker. "Some girls across from me were just out of control."

Also somewhat amazed was the show's composer, Tom Kitt. "This show keeps surprising me," he said as he and lyricist Brian Yorkey were mobbed in the aisles afterward. "You have no idea what this show has brought to me," one tearful 16-year-old told Kitt as he signed her program.

At the end, a band of regulars headed to the stage door -- "stage-dooring it," they call it -- for autographs, hugs, and goodbyes.

Chernicoff, 19, who had traveled to New York early that day from her home in New Town, Pa., was among them, saying farewell to cast members past and present. But not for too long. She had an early flight to California, to see friends, but also -- you guessed it -- to catch Ripley in Next to Normal the following night, in San Diego.

For regulars like her, one theater door closing just meant another one opening.



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