Bringing Broadway to Charlotte
BPACs Broadway Lights Series is at the core of more than 1000 performances appearing across our stages annually – Here’s how it happens.
The Great White Way is golden of late as Broadway musicals are enjoying a phenomenal renaissance reaching all the way to Charlotte.
Programing an entire Broadway Lights season for Charlotte theater goers involves a delicate alchemy. Significant long-range planning, careful investment in show development, solid industry relationships and creating a winning environment all make Charlotte a destination producers place at the top of their list.
“We are in a golden age for Broadway,” Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, says. “And it’s not just “Hamilton” (which appears in Charlotte during the 2017/2018 series) there are lots of great shows being generated. The pipeline of shows landing on Broadway and looking to tour around the world represents a fantastic pipeline. We can look 18-36 months down the road and know that Charlotte is going to enjoy the bounty of that.”
2015/2016 was the most popular season ever for Broadway, according to the Broadway League, an industry trade organization. Total Broadway show attendance reached more than 13.3 million, grossing nearly $1.4 billion for last season, the best attended and highest grossing season ever.
Building a Broadway Lights Season
Constructing a season is years in the making for Gabbard and his team. Unlike many performing arts centers across the country, the Blumenthal has sole responsibility for selection, booking, marketing and often invests in shows that take their stages.
“Many of our peers around the country operate as landlords and simply rent out their space,” said Gabbard. “They have financial partners who shoulder part of the risk and help with marketing. Here we take the risk, negotiate the deals and often are investors in the shows. Profits made are invested back into the organization to pay overhead and support additional programing.”
As a road market, particularly as one of the “one week” cities, Charlotte is considered a premier stop for Broadway touring shows. Gabbard remarked shows in Charlotte frequently earn producers the highest net profits over any other city on tour due to strong ticket sales and below-market production costs.
The Blumenthal’s unique structure and long-term management contracts over six stages keep operating costs significantly below those of their national peers.
The Blumenthal operates the Belk, Booth, Stage Door and Knight theaters for the city of Charlotte and the McGlohon and Duke Energy theaters at Spirit Square for Mecklenburg County. The city and county enjoy predictable fixed costs and the benefit of more than $56 million annually the Blumenthal generates for the regional economy. The Blumenthal is a nonprofit organization employing about 100 full-time employees, 350 part-time stage hands and more than 350 volunteers.
“Our serving as a single management organization responsible for so many community theaters offer significant economies of scale and economic advantages that make us an attractive market,” said Gabbard.
Road markets are an important economic component for Broadway shows, according to Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. “Blumenthal is seen as one of the first class, must go to locations in the country. They are known for doing things right and as a successful first class venue. Producers see other shows go there and have success and they want to share in that success as well.”
Several years ago, Gabbard seized upon the opportunity for the BPAC to extend their influence beyond simply booking shows to influencing their development and staking in their financial success. He founded the Independent Presenters Network (IPN), a consortium of 40 leading touring presenters across the country.
“Our collective ability to invest into a show is very powerful,” said Gabbard, noting exclusive rights to showing 2004 Tony Award- winner, “Avenue Q,” was acquired by a single Las Vegas investor – freezing out touring cities. “The following year, the same investor wanted to acquire rights to “Spamalot.” Because IPN invested significant money towards production costs and I had a seat at the table with production committee, I argued with my partners that we shouldn’t do the same deal. Having a voice to effect decision making is what the investment buys us.”
In addition to “Spamalot,” IPN has invested in and helped produce several mega-hits including, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Kinky Boots” and “The Color Purple,” each appearing in Charlotte. For many Broadway shows appearing in Charlotte, Gabbard likely had a seat in the room during early workshops or show readings years earlier.
“Tom and the Blumenthal have a strong reputation with Broadway producers,” said Anita Dloniak, promoter, publicist and marketer of Broadway tour productions. “Charlotte is viewed as a leading market in the industry. We’re looking to introduce Broadway to new audiences. Blumenthal’s programming is attractive to those experiencing live theater for the first time as well as longstanding theater goers.”
Forging strong industry relationships has allowed the Blumenthal to make investments and decisions with industry pros they trust.
“David Stone, the producer of “Wicked” is an example of someone I’ve worked with over time and want to support,” said Gabbard. “This led to bringing “If/Then” here. Matthew Bourne is another producer we support and someone our audience wants to see more of and experience the evolution of his work.”
The Blumenthal hosts the world premiere of Bourne’s “The Red Shoes,” October 17-22. A magical tale of one girl’s dream to be the greatest dancer in the world, the seductive production is set to a new score arranged by Terry Davies.
“First Date,” is another example of how the Blumenthal’s investment in developing shows paid off for Charlotte. The Blumenthal-developed 2013 Broadway production received critical acclaim, performed well at the box office and helped cement the Blumenthal’s reputation as a top arts organization to work with.
And while Broadway shows are a dominant economic driver, the Blumenthal’s stages also host a variety of shows including concerts, dance, comedy and spoken-word performances reaching nearly 700,000 attendees at more than 1000 shows annually.
Giving back to the Community
Making first class performance facilities available at the lowest possible cost is a source of community pride for the Blumenthal. Gabbard estimated the Blumenthal waives nearly a million dollars in rental fees annually benefiting not only Charlotte Symphony, Opera Carolina and Charlotte Ballet but smaller local arts companies as well.
“We recognize there are things we go into that are important to the community like the Blumeys, Broadway Junior, Breaking Convention, the Charlotte Jazz Festival, fine arts and educational programing that can’t pay their own way and we need to compensate for,” said Gabbard. “Our basic strategy is to work very hard to generate money anyway we can so that when we ask others for funding support it is with a very clear conscience that we’ve done everything we can.”
One way the Blumenthal gives back is through their resident artist program, offering subsidized performance space to those where more than half their performances are on the Blumenthal’s stages.
Local performing artist and founder of her eponymous dance troupe, Caroline Calouche noted the resident artist program helped her company build a following. “We have been a resident company at the Blumenthal for several seasons,” said Calouche. “They do so much for us, their entire team is fantastic, from marketing and ticketing to the technical crew who works hard to ensure we are safe, it is a great group to be associated with.”
The Blumenthal devotes the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square year-round to local performing arts companies. “We let resident companies use it rent free (up to 2 weeks per title) and provide marketing support,” said Gabbard. We try and create the most affordable environment possible for them.”
An arts incubator, the space is frequently accessed by local companies such as OnQ Performing Arts and Three Bone Theater.
“We’ve been a resident theater company with BPAC since 2009,” said Quentin Talley, On Q Performing Arts’ founder. It has been a great relationship for us. The cost savings allows us to have significantly longer runs, and has been a springboard for us in terms of extending our reach into the community.”
For the Blumenthal, it’s all about making enriching arts experiences available for the region. “When a company needs larger space and graduates on,” said Gabbard, “That’s something to celebrate.”