On Wednesday February 11th, the Paramount Theater will begin hosting its 2009 season of Broadway Across America. Broadway Across America makes Broadway theater accessible to many people who might not normally have the chance to fly out and see a show in New York.And while there is much to be said for “the Broadway Experience” of New York—not to mention the stars—there is also something to be said for being able to enjoy famous works in your own city. I talked to Josh LaBelle, executive director of the Seattle Theater Group, and Jim Sheeley, the Vice President of the Northwest Region for Broadway Across America, to find out a little more about bringing theater experiences to Seattle.
I learned that Seattle has been a stop for Broadway Across America for the past twenty years. When asked if he thinks this is because Seattle has a strong theater culture Sheeley asserts that, “Seattle has a great theater culture. I can’t think of any other cities outside of Chicago and New York that have repertory theaters of such size and quality.” Broadway Across America supplements this regional theater with big shows that might not otherwise come to Seattle. This season begins with The Lion King and continues to bring in classics and newer works until the end of the year. LaBelle points out that it’s a rare opportunity “to see shows like The Lion King and Wicked in the same year.” Part of the reason the Broadway Across America shows continue to do so well is that they can offer big, well-known productions, but also because they tailor their line-up to each city’s personality. “We try to look at each market individually to see what shows fit the culture and community that we are in. There are differences between each city and we try to reflect that,” Sheeley explains. “For example, we brought Spring Awakening to Seattle and Portland, but not to Salt Lake City or Orange County. Sometimes it takes a little longer for the public to be ready for it—it has to be established a little longer in the public consciousness. We try to listen to people in each place and respect that, but we also want to make a case for challenging theater.”
Last season for Seattle included the foul-mouthed puppets of Avenue Q and ended with Spring Awakening—a musical that also included adult language as well as nudity. The Lion King may seem like a tamer choice for new fans that Broadway Across America won over with it’s edgier pieces. LaBelle notes that, “[Spring Awakening] absolutely drew in a new crowd. The demographic of the audience was quite a bit younger.” Sheeley was also pleased with the new group that came in last season. “Avenue Q ran for two weeks and what was so fascinating about the second week without the subscriber base was that the age of the audience dropped about ten years.” The main audience for Broadway theater is strongly female and in the 35-54 age group. “It was great to see that many younger people to come in because it’s challenging to motivate younger people both because of limited financial means and because of the changing culture.” As to whether or not they think they will lose their hold on this younger audience with the more classic pieces this season (The Lion King is followed by Cats in April), both LaBelle and Sheeley are hopeful. LaBelle cites marketing plans and says that The Paramount as well as other local theaters have more than a few tricks up their sleeves. “The question always is how do we keep [a younger audience] engaged with say, South Pacific, or another classic that’s been revived I think it’s all in how we treat people,” LaBelle says, “I think that most people are pleasantly surprised when they come in to see a show with us and that is what will draw them back. Also, we have been finding more and more ways to reach people. We are not just relying on ads in the media.” Sheeley thinks that The Lion King is a perfect way to begin the season. “The thing about The Lion King is that it’s a great piece of art.” While it’s true that the Disney characters will draw children and parents, the musical’s ability to transform the theater into a vast African savannah and the extravagant costumes will satisfy many different types of art lovers.
But how will art fare in the rapidly accelerating economic crisis? At the onset of the decline The Strangerstated that in the current situation big theater is “Totally Fucked.” This is a daunting proclamation to anyone who wants to keep big productions going in Seattle and keep the big ones coming. “I think The Stranger’s wrong,” LaBelle says, “Everyone is going to have to start working a little bit differently, but I would caution people in the arts form jumping onto the ‘sky is falling’ bandwagon.” Sheeley thinks that these times “are about shaking up the theatrical world. We should never be complacent and rely on what we’ve done in the past—change is what theater is about.” When I bring up the slew of recent early closings on Broadway he says that “I think it’s just going to delay things. We like to present works that are current. For the short term it just means fewer things to choose from.”
There is plenty of reason, though, that theater can survive this financially difficult times. Producer Sue Frost surmised to MSNBC that “[…] with Obama coming in at the end of January people will be more hopeful […] and ready to go out and spend the money that they’ve been sitting on.” Sheeley noted that people are definitely hopeful, but in the almost daily deluge of bad financial news is hesitant to say if he is expecting some sort of Obama-curve in ticket sales. “What I will say is this: sales in the month prior to the election were clamped down, once we got through the election things bounced back up again.”Celebratory spending aside, it will be interesting to keep an eye on what kind of plays do well in the coming months. History has shown us that in times of economic worries the public tends to lean toward escapist fare in the arts. The summer blockbusters will probably do well, but what about the theater? Will audiences trend toward the pop musical and leave more serious, provoking theater to flounder? “I don’t think so,” LaBelle says, “I don’t know if life is that black and white. Comedy is doing very well right now, and Chris Rock may be funny, but he challenges you, too.” Sheeley also points out that as budget cuts are made more of the productions on Broadway are smaller plays-smaller plays that could eventually end up in Seattle. With subscriptions up at Seattle’s very contemporary performance group On the Boards, and tickets for The Lion King selling quickly it looks like Seattle is prepared to confront the seriousness of everyday life—but we also know when it’s time to escape into a fantasy. The experience of the theater with other people is what’s really important. Broadway Across America will keep on bringing in “anything that makes people happy that they got the value of their ticket,” Sheeley says. And when every dollar counts, that’s what really matters.