Ethel Merman- who else?
In days gone past, the front row was the place to be- the most expensive tickets, the most exclusive tickets, the ticket that showed that you had power and position in the world. In short theatre seating hierarchy was simple. The closer you were to the front, the higher you were in the hierarchy. I guess this has something to do with not only being closest to the stage (and so supposedly having the best view) but also being closest to the stars of the show (and we are talking some big names, it hasn't just been recently that star names have been required to sell a show- imagine being front row to the opening of a new Ethel Merman show- WOW).
So what has changed? Most front rows are now taken up by loudmouth teenagers with no knowledge of dressing up for the theatre (I even once saw a girl just wearing a t-shirt and not much else). I think this progression is twofold (or maybe three if I can think straight!) and its results also give the appearance of ouroboros; that of a snake biting its tale- or in theatre terms, well we'll get to that later.
Over the years, set designs have become more vast if not more imaginative. During the sixties and seventies we saw some of the most amazing designs such as the set of Grind that completely rotated between scenes to show the inside and outside of a club. A pioneer of outlandish set design was Eugene Lee, one of my favourite set designers if only for the way his sets encumbers all and perfectly set the atmosphere of a play. Among his craziest ideas were a production of Candide in which the Broadway Theatre was broken up into small stages connected by walkways and seats ripped out in favour of wooden benches and stools. This closed pretty soon after opening. His other famous attempt at completely demolishing the Broadway was Dude! by Ragni and Rado (who else?) The stage and seats were separated into different areas such as forest and sky with different areas also representing different price ranges (clever Mr Producer always knows how to get more money out of theatregoers without them realising). The floor was strewn with chicken feathers and soil. Needless to say this closed even quicker than Candide.
But sets did continue to grow, especially through the 1980s when recession meant people wanted more for their money and so wanted huge extravaganzas with sets to match. Into the nineties and to the present day we have looked towards huge automated sets that look pretty, change within the blink of an eyelid, and have the potential to decapitate a poor unsuspecting ensemble member with one blow. So what does this sort of set mean for sight lines, especially for the front row elite?
For the cheap seats, things got better, big sets mean you can see more of it from away and there tend to be larger ensembles hence more to see if you sit far back. For the first class front rowers, things got worse. A large set means more will be played upstage meaning you can't see jack all. The stage will be further above the seats to accommodate all the mcgubbins controlling your swanky automated set and the larger ensemble will mean more feet for you to stare at! Two friends of mine recently found themselves in the front row of Hairspray where the view was so bad they had to move back a few rows just to see any of the show. In short, only foot fetishists and those who like peering into the orchestra pit would ever pay full price for these seats.
I blame Rent, well Rent and John Barrowman- everything's always his fault!
Another reason for the decline in popularity can be traced back to Rent. In an attempt to be hip and "down wiv da kids", and also in an attempt to honour Jonathan Larson, Rent implemented the first lottery ticket system. People would line up at crazy o'clock in the morning to obtain $25 tickets for the front two rows of the theatre. This idea became a phenomenon with Rentheads camping out multiple times a week and even creating their own little universe within these lines. Other shows started taking this idea for themselves until almost all musicals on Broadway had some sort of lottery or student rush. Now London is starting to catch on with Legally Blonde offering cheap front row seats that tend to be full of screaming teenagers, or worse screaming drama students. My point about lottery seats is that now the front row is notorious for being where the desperate fans sit (even if they don't realise they are now possible the worse seats to have). Next to Normal used to have a rush system where the first there would get the first seat and so on. Things got so bad that there was a crazy girl who insisted on having "her seat" every time and would queue up even the night before to ensure this. Wicked had an instance of Kelly Ellis getting so annoyed with the fangirls in the front row that an accidentally left on mic revealed that she wanted to stab the girls with the pins her dresser was holding. Perhaps this is another reason why we don't want to sit in the front row anymore- to escape the grasps of crazy fan girls.
This author would willingly straddle these two, wouldn't you?
And finally to the ouroboros moment- audience interaction. I guess Hair started this back in the 60s, when front seats were still the place to be and hoity-toity types were stunned when a hippy suddenly jumped onto their chair or gave them a flower. As time has carried on, interaction has continued and those who do not wish for a negative interaction have distanced themselves from the front. Blue Man Group tend to sell of their front seats cheap and I think they also provide disclaimers as many of their stunts can "leak" out to the front row. In Denzel Washington's Julius Caesar, the production was so bloody that the front row were provided with pacamacs to protect themselves from flying blood. As negative effects like this increase, the value of front row seats decrease (unless you're in for a cheap thrill).
But we have now come full circle. The new production of Hair has brought back the thrill of being in the front row. People are now willing to pay as much money as they can to have Will Swenson sit on their lap or Gavin Creel molest them. (I would.)