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Van Wezel prepares for a season of hot tickets

"Hamilton" is one of seven Van Wezel premieres during the 2023-24 season.
"Hamilton" is one of seven Van Wezel premieres during the 2023-24 season.
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Hot tickets: How do you get your hands on them?

That's the burning question for Mary Bensel, executive director of the city-owned Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the purple pride of Sarasota.

In a season where demand for "Hamilton" is off the charts, everyone wants to know how to get a seat for the no-holds-barred show about the nation's first secretary of the Treasury and his wanton ways. 

Sure, it's been awhile since Lin-Manuel Miranda's boundary-breaking musical swept the Tony Awards back in 2016. Since then, the touring show of "Hamilton" has been to Tampa's Straz Center three times.

Who cares? It's coming to the Van Wezel from March 26 to April 7, and everyone in town wants a ticket now.

Here's the deal. The best way to get a seat for "Hamilton" is to become a Van Wezel subcriber and get a ticket as part of a package of shows. The date for single-ticket sales has not been announced (stay tuned!), but Van Wezel subscribers will get the first shot.

Can't afford to become a subscriber? Become an e-club member at no cost — yes, you read that right — and get a jump on the masses. The day after tickets go on sale to subscribers, they will be opened up for e-club members, Bensel said.

Last but not least, members of the general public will get their turn on day three.

Whatever you do, Bensel says, don't go to the top of the Google listings and buy from a ticket reseller unless you want to pay a hefty markup and maybe even get left out in the cold. "Some resellers advertise tickets that they haven't even got yet," she says.

Some trigger-happy ticket buyers make the mistake of clicking on the first offer in the online listings instead of scrolling down the list to buy on the Van Wezel website. 

"I once saw a lady crying at the box office when she found out the ticket that she had bought online for $300 from a reseller was selling for $40 at the box office," says Bensel. "I'm not kidding."

There are rules regarding the resale of tickets by government entities such as the Van Wezel and nonprofits like The Straz, but suffice it to say they are not strictly enforced.

Some people may not know that artists have the ability to dictate who can buy tickets first, Bensel says. Case in point: When single tickets for 2023-24 season events went on sale Sept. 1, one of the Oct. 22 shows for America's reigning King of Comedy, Sebastian Maniscalco, was already sold out. 

How could that be? According to Bensel, members of Maniscalco fan clubs got first dibs. Those were the terms dictated by the white-hot comedian, who hit the silver screen (and a window) earlier this year in "About My Father," also starring Robert DeNiro. 

"There was a pre-sale for fan club members for one show and our subscribers got to buy tickets for the other," Bensel explains.

Unlike some people, Bensel doesn't have a problem with that. "Sebastian's fans made him who he is today. It's great that he looks after them," she says.

With "Hamilton" in the Van Wezel lineup, Bensel says this promises to be the biggest and best season for the purple performing arts venue since "The Lion King" played in 2019. 

The more than 37,000 theatergoers who attended "The Lion King" from March 14-31 that year spent a collective $3.5 million at the box office, according to the Van Wezel, which makes such financial information public because it is a government entity.

If 2019 rings a bell, that may be because it was the high water mark for the arts and entertainment world. A year after "The Lion King" came to Sarasota, the pandemic shut down theaters and other performance venues across the country. Many haven't returned to their 2019 attendance levels and have been forced to curtail their seasons, lay off staff and even close their doors.

With "Hamilton" in the mix, Bensel thinks the 2023-24 season is shaping up as a record-breaker for the Van Wezel. It's going to get some help from other high-profile shows, including "Hadestown," a modern musical retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It comes to the Van Wezel from Jan. 30 through Feb. 4.

"Phantom of the Opera" star Sarah Brightman brings her Christmas concert to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Dec. 14.

Personally, Bensel is fired up about "Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations," a musical about Motown royalty The Temptations (Feb. 21-25); "The Cher Show," a tribute to the enduring singer who is one of rock's original divas (Jan. 10-12); "Phantom of the Opera" star Sarah Brightman's Christmas concert (Dec. 14). 

She confides that William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk in "Star Trek," is also on her personal must-see list. He's at the Van Wezel Nov. 11. "Some people don't know it, but I'm a Trekkie," Bensel says.

Other shows sure to bring out faithful fans include doowop royalty Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, coming to the Van Wezel on Nov. 18, and the Allman Betts Family Revival on Dec. 12. The revival features an array of guests performing two sets —one for the songs of Greg Allman and the other for the songs of Dickie Betts.

Even though tips about how to get hot tickets dominate the conversation, anyone talking to Bensel would be remiss if they didn't ask: Does Sarasota really need a replacement for the Van Wezel? 

As plans are drawn up for its successor, the beloved purple venue has been named one of "11 to Save" by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.

There's no question that Sarasota is ready for a world-class performance venue and the Van Wezel isn't it, Bensel says without hesitation.

She is not exactly an impartial observer. Bensel was a member of the four-person task force that selected Renzo Piano Building Workshop to design a replacement for the aging Van Wezel, which was built in the 1960s.

It's not just the size of the Van Wezel, which has 1,741 seats, that is a problem, Bensel says. It's the technology, which hasn't kept up to date with the needs of touring Broadway shows. 

When "The Lion King" came to the Van Wezel, Bensel says the head carpenter for the show told her, "I've had every problem before that I've had here but never all at the same time."

The city has agreed to split the $300 million cost to build a new 2,250-seat venue with the the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation.

Filling those extra seats won't be an issue, Bensel says. "Just look at the growth in the number of people moving to Sarasota and visiting," she says.

A top-notch venue "changes the level of talent you get. It will open the door to bigger acts," Bensel adds.

In other words, "If you build it, they will come." 

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of "Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations."



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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