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The facade of the Queen's Theatre in London teems with theater-goers and pedestrians after a Wednesday matinee recently. The box office for Les Miserables is directly under the main poster.
The facade of the Queen's Theatre in London teems with theater-goers and pedestrians after a Wednesday matinee recently. The box office for Les Miserables is directly under the main poster. (Ben Murray / S&S)

LONDON — Going to a big, professional musical is on a lot of people’s list of lifetime must-do’s that gets perpetually put off because it’s too expensive or already booked.

But for many American servicemembers stationed in the United Kingdom, going to the English equivalent of a Broadway show can be easy and affordable.

Sent to the West End of London, heart of the city’s theater district, looking for a deal, Stars and Stripes came out with a 20-pound ticket stub for “Les Misérables” and the following list of tips on how to go to a big show on the cheap.

¶ First, never, ever pay full price for a central-section West End ticket unless you need, for some reason, to book weeks in advance. With prime seats selling for 45 pounds or better at most big shows, a pair can cost an American couple the equivalent of a new stereo. The ways to pay less are myriad, as long as you can do one thing: Be flexible. Go on a weekday, go to a matinee, be open to seeing a variety of shows.

¶ The one good way to get a good, cheap ticket for a major show is to do one thing: Buy it the day of the show. There are booths in big theater districts that sell same-day tickets for shows at half the normal price. That’s right, you heard it, half.

There are four catches to the 50 percent-off deal. First, you have to buy the tickets in person, meaning that you’ll need to be in London by early afternoon on weekdays or by midmorning on weekends/Fridays, when shows sell out faster. Ticket booths open at 10 a.m.

Second, there are a limited number of half-price tickets available on any given day, and it’s first-come, first-served.

Third, you don’t get to pick your seats — they may be together if you’re with a spouse, but they’re assigned to you. Lastly, they’re only for the good seats; i.e., you can’t get a 17-pound nosebleed seat for 8.50.

¶ In the West End, the only official booth for half-price tickets is called the TKTS stand in Leicester Square. But there are scads of other venues selling reduced-rate tickets throughout the theater district. The difference? According to the lady in the tourist information booth attached to the TKTS counter, the others aren’t “official,” and, in her words, “You could get ripped off.”

Reality: An elderly woman with two young children who bought tickets at one unofficial booth was later seen sitting happily in a “Les Mis” matinee seat with the youngsters. Prices at the official and unofficial half-price booths (and, indeed, between various unofficial counters) are very similar. It should be advised that some shows — “Mamma Mia!,” “The Producers” and “Phantom of the Opera,” specifically — don’t release their tickets for half-price sales.

¶ It pays to check the box office. The best value for the money on a Wednesday afternoon turned out to be a 20-pound ticket bought just an hour before a matinee at the Queen’s Theatre. Bought at less than the half-price ticket in the center section of the theater (24 to 26 pounds), Stripes’ seat in the wings over the stage offered a better view for less cash. Granted, there was no legroom, but the seat was close enough to allow the viewer to see every detail of the play, right down to the microphones hidden in the actors’ hair. Also, if all else fails, the absolute cheapest option (with the worst view) is in the seats in the 12- to 17-pound balconies. They’re distant, uncomfortable and often only allow a partial view. But the price is good.

So, is it worth it? Yes, especially if you’ve never seen a big-budget theater production before. It’s easy to get caught up in the power and grandeur of the play. There’s something about the velvet seats, the ornate sets, even the intermission that makes the experience worthwhile. Go cheap. Enjoy.

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