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How do you know when enough is too much? And what happens when you factor in the collateral damage of lost time, bitterness, dashed expectations, and jealousy?

It’s something I’ve been pondering ever since trying to corral Hamilton tickets for myself, my husband and our two daughters. 

“Hamilton” is coming to Salt Lake City, a five-hour drive each way from our home in rural Idaho. The long journey would likely also mean a hotel stay. That’s a lot for a night of theater, but it seemed worth considering, especially given that my husband, a genuine Idaho cowboy, still belts out songs from “Wicked” six years after driving 2 ½ hours to see his first Broadway show in Boise. And after all, shows like “Hamilton” don’t come close very often.

Still, after hearing that tickets started at nearly $1,000 each, I consciously uncoupled from the idea of buying any. Then it got ugly. A friend, a high school teacher of U.S. history, told me there was a way to get cheaper seats and enjoined me in the pursuit so that our four collective children wouldn’t be left out.

Two little words: Left. Out. Now not only did I want the tickets, I needed them, to prove myself a worthy parent.

Getting tickes on the (relative) cheap required joining in an online lottery of sorts. Now, I am not someone who likes to wait for things (growing up in Houston, I witnessed fans sleeping on sidewalks surrounding The Summit to see concerts, but given the discomfort investment required I was willing to let an opportunity pass), nor am I someone who enjoys crowds or the challenge of getting tickets to anything shorter than a two-week vacation. I am also not a gambler. I once put 25 cents in a slot machine at The Rio as I was leaving a weekend of Las Vegas theater, won $25 and kept walking. 

But this online approach was a new enticement. So I set my alarm to count down the three hours between rising and setting up my laptop to sign on to a website that would, at precisely 9 a.m., assign me a secret number and shuffle a virtual me into a packed electronic waiting room, where I would spend the next six hours trying to cadge tickets to “Hamilton.” 

At the appointed time, an avatar of a bouncer politely welcomed me. A small number of seats were being offered for $75 to $250. The rest would go for more standard prices. Hopeful buyers were firmly advised to set a budget. They were also told the tickets might be split up. They could even be on different days. I figured that this news would surely cause some to give pause, and that simply by standing my ground I would take their place in line.

The experience of coveting, queing up with an unseen mob and elbowing my way to what most certainly could have ended up breaking my bank, brought out the worst in me. The most self-indulgent, reckless, shame-vulnerable side. In the first hour, I had come up with every justification in the world for the expense, no matter the total. 

My friend got kicked off the line first. I should have been empathic, but instead I was triumphant. While I did a little happy dance, she was explaining to her students her experience and loss. But my hubris didn’t last; in the end, we both ended up ticketless.

Later, as I groped to explain my behavior, I had a post-disappointment reality check with Utpal Dholakia, a pricing expert at Rice Business School. He deftly explained my fervor — and offered a roadmap for making a sound investment. First, he explained the four properties of outrageous spending. 

  • Overspending occurs when the individual's spending is disproportionately high relative to his or her income.
  • On the upside, when a particular expenditure is budgeted for in advance, it can be high relative to the individual's income — and still be part of a disciplined approach to personal finance.
  • Consumers have a range of reasonable prices for what a product is supposed to cost. When a product is priced below this range, it will be judged as cheap. If it’s above this range, it will be deemed expensive. But if a product is far above the range of reasonable prices, it is seen as extravagant. Even high-income levels are not immune: when Kanye West and Kim Kardashian were reported to spend $500 to rent and watch newly-released movies in their home theater, generated widespread mockery. 
  • Performed once in a blue moon, any one of these behaviors doesn’t necessarily indicate out-of-control spending. But when all three behaviors are repeated — either individually or together — there’s a discipline problem. And it usually leads to adverse consequences.

Bargaining myself into and then out of getting the “Hamilton” tickets was actually an important exercise, Dholakia told me. 

“Determine what is important to you,” he said, “what contributes to quality, and buy the item with the best value, not simply the most expensive one.”

During the hours I was in the virtual line waiting for tickets I walked the dogs twice, ran three miles and made fresh guacamole. But I also passed homeless people encamped in a park, which made me sick with guilt that while they dug in the trash for a wrapper to sleep on I was considering dropping thousands for a night of theater.

As Freddie Harris, artistic director of The Company at New Jersey’s Bloomfield College, said about “Hamilton”: “You are telling the story about this penniless immigrant making great and using this very diverse cast in a timely conversation with this very important message about diversity and inclusion that has been turned upside down with the cost of the tickets. The message has been tainted somehow because it’s something that is only observable by the elite.”

So, maybe it’s okay that the elites beat me and mine to “Hamilton.” And all is not lost. For a lot less, I took the family to see “Kinky Boots” in Boise and my husband to a professional drag show, “Viva la Diva,” in Salt Lake City. And if I can really be disciplined, I might even be able to have my social righteousness and my “Hamilton” too, with a vacation thrown in. In 2019, Miranda will reprise his signature role in his home of Puerto Rico, still struggling to overcome the damage of Hurricane Maria.

“The goal is basically to have one third of the tickets be $10 and affordable to Puerto Rico on the island and really wildly overprice the other tickets for tourists so that that money can restore arts funding in Puerto Rico,” Miranda told “Playbill.”

Til then, I always have YouTube and Miranda, naked, in “Crosswalk, the Musical: Hair.”

Utpal Dholakia is the George R. Brown Chair of Marketing and professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

This article first appeared in the Houston Chronicle as "Is The Cost Of 'Hamilton' Worth It?"

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