Broadway Press Nights
Critics and awards voters are invited to attend special press performances held both before and after opening night of a Broadway show.
For every production that comes to Broadway, there are a smattering of selected performances designated as Broadway press nights. Press performances are vital to a Broadway show because it is the press that gets the word out to the public that the show even exists. And, if the members of the press actually like the show, presumably they will write positive things about it that will entice potential Broadway ticket buyers to purchase tickets.
The History of Opening Night
Back in the old days, all the major Broadway theater critics would be invited to opening night. After the show, they would immediately run off to quickly write their reviews and turn them into their newspaper or television outlets for immediate publication and broadcast. (This is where the notion of critics being seated on the aisle comes from ... so that they could escape the crowd as soon as possible and go write their reviews.) The Broadway show's producers, cast, and creative team would all wait on pins and needles at the post-show opening night party until the reviews came out late that night, and sometimes those reviews could mean life or death. If they were truly dire, the show could possibly even close that very night. If they were raves, then the next day there would be a line to the box office running down the block (this was in the days before Ticketmaster and Telecharge).
The First Night Press List
That era has now passed, and these days a far more sane approach is taken to dealing with Broadway critics. Rather than having them review the opening night show on opening night, critics are invited on a few designated Broadway press nights held right before the official opening night. Although these are technically preview performances, the show is almost always considered "frozen" (i.e. no further changes will be made to the production) by the time the press performances are held. This ensures that what the critic is reviewing is what subsequent audiences will also see. Some are also invited on opening night itself, but most critics prefer to go early to give themselves a little extra time to write their reviews. The people invited to these pre-opening and opening night Broadway performances are on what is known as the First Night List. They are the most important and influential critics on Broadway, most notably Ben Brantley of the New York Times.
Post-Opening Press Performances
There are also a few press performances held after the opening night. It is usually the "minor" press invited to these performances (bloggers, reviewers for small newspapers, etc.), as well as members of voting bodies like the Tony Awards, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, etc. Though voters and members of the press are strongly encouraged to go on these special Broadway press nights, the shows' press representatives will also sometimes allow a journalist to go to the show on another post-opening night if for some reason if he or she is unable to attend the official press performances.
The Press Get In For Free
The Broadway show's press representative (please see our article on Broadway PR firms) is responsible for making sure that the right people are invited on press nights. These press reps send out invites via email and snail mail, they take reservations, and they are there to hand out tickets personally on press nights. At a given Broadway press performance, there may be 50 or 100 Broadway reviewers, journalists, broadcasters, and awards voters invited to the show. These invitees will be given complimentary tickets, usually for both themselves and for a guest. But occasionally a show that is already very popular or selling out will only give one comp ticket per person. The press are not typically given any kind of complimentary beverage or snack at the theater's bar.
The Rest of the Audience
Even on press nights, the majority of the audience in the theater is still the regular ticket-buying public. The public is not informed of which performances are press performances, and it doesn't really affect them in any way. However, if a show is not selling a lot of tickets during previews, the Broadway show's producer is likely to "paper" the audience (i.e. give away free and heavily discounted tickets) so that there will be a full and appreciate audience on the night that the critics are attending. The show's producers and creative team are frequently in attendance at these performances, too, anxious to see them go well since the audience is full of critics.
A Great Performance
Broadway press nights can be great nights to attend a show, whether you're a critic or not. The audience is usually packed and buzzing, and everyone onstage is giving 110% because they know that their performance that night is being critiqued and evaluated. And you can be sure that, unless he or she is actually deathly ill, the star won't be out of the show that night!
Publishing the Review
Even though they are usually seeing the show a night or two before opening, Broadway critics do not actually publish their reviews until opening night. Since opening night is still considered the first official performance of a show, Broadway producers never want any legitimate professional reviews to appear prior to then. This is standard practice and reviewers honor this policy so that they can stay in good standing in the industry. The newspaper reviews are generally published the day after opening, but in this age of the internet, the reviews can usually be read right on opening night. This is good news for the creators of the show, who no longer have to be nervous at the post-show party waiting for the reviews to finally come out.