Setting the stage: Does Salt Lake Valley need a new 'Broadway' theater?

By Erica Hansen
Deseret Morning News

Published: March 23, 2008,5143,695263653,00.html

It's a summer evening in Denver.

People sit at tables along a walkway enjoying their dinners. Some folks mill around, looking into windows and gazing at sculptures. Others enjoy drinks and snacks at many of the restaurants and bistros near the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the largest arts complex in the world.

Connected by an 80-foot glass ceiling, the DPAC has 10 different performance spaces and is a gathering place for arts lovers of all kinds.

DPAC is home to the Colorado Symphony, Opera Colorado and the Colorado Ballet. The complex has four other theaters, a grand ballroom and two different cabaret spaces for more intimate theater as well as showcasing new works. And the DPAC boasts the 2,800-seat Broadway-style Buell Theatre, host to the Broadway touring shows.

When asked about the Buell, Jack Finlaw, Denver's director of theaters and arenas, said, "For the last 17 to 18 years, most years it has been very successful. We fill the hall anywhere from 30 to 40 weeks a year with product and, in addition to the Broadway shows, we've done a lot of comedy shows there, a speakers bureau with famous speakers, rock shows and other musical entertainment. It's been a great investment for Denver."

It was the DPAC, and the Buell Theatre, that convinced John Ballard, CEO of NewSpace Entertainment, the company that brings Broadway shows to Salt Lake City, to give his full support to the concept of a new theater.

"I was in Denver on a tour 10 years ago and we said, 'This is fantastic!' That was 10 years ago. Now I hope I see this theater built while I'm still alive. It really is important to the community."

Theater size

Ballard argues that Utah is long overdue for a state-of-the-art performing space. Denver was in the same boat with the old Auditorium Theatre.

"Dated from the 1950s," Finlaw explained, "it needed to be updated. We couldn't have done the big Broadway shows in the old facility. The stage wasn't big enough, the technology wasn't there."

Touring shows have the same struggle with Capitol Theatre's limited backstage space and lack of loading docks. And every female theatergoer has tales of lengthy restroom wait times. Besides, as a theater built for vaudeville and later movies and not Broadway-style stage, many seats in the house have poor visibility — a disappointment to theatergoers after paying top ticket prices.

"We run a Broadway series in eight cities. Every one of them has a theater with more seats than Capitol at 1,800," Ballard pointed out. "Even Akron, Ohio, has two theaters with 3,000 seats each."

But the size of a 2,500-seat theater is what has Chris Lino, managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company at the University of Utah, raising an eyebrow.

"They keep calling it a Broadway-style theater, but nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

The average size of a Broadway house is 1,234, half the size of what's being discussed, Lino pointed out. "The experience of seeing theater in a 2,500-seat venue is worse because you lose the intimacy and beauty of the actor/audience relationship."

Jerry Rapier, producing director of Plan-B Theatre Company, agrees. "I feel like people throw the term 'Broadway style' around very loosely, and I don't think people are really clear on what that means. I, personally, as someone who is an avid supporter of Broadway work, would not ever buy a ticket to see a show in a 2,500-seat venue. It's not the same intimate experience."

Broadway in New York is totally different from Broadway on the road, NewSpace's Ballard countered. "The economics are different. When you run a show for two to five years, it's very different than running for a week."

Randy Weeks, president and chief operating officer of Denver Centre for the Performing Arts, the primary tenant of the DPAC, is familiar with the Capitol Theatre. "Unfortunately, in the world of touring Broadway, the Capitol is becoming a little theater. It's just not quite big enough, unless you don't mind paying $125-$150 a ticket."

Broadway's monster hit, "Wicked," will be in Salt Lake City in 2009 with ticket prices that will probably break records. "It might be a bit of sticker shock for some," Ballard said. "If we had a 2,500-seat theater, we could lower those prices."

Weeks explains how that's possible. "When you've got a limited capacity like the Capitol, you can't capitalize on the opportunities from time to time to make enough to subsidize other shows."

Denver's Buell Theatre has the space to add a premium seating chart where the best seats in the house come at a higher cost.

"There will always be a segment in the market that does not care what the cost is. If they can get the best seats in the house, they don't care, they'll pay it," Weeks said. "With that, you have the ability to go in the balcony and subsidize $10 student tickets. Then other people can come, too. When you don't have the capacity, you lose that ability."

Still, Lino of PTC is not convinced. "Can we fill it? Can we fill a 2,500-seat theater? There are only so many blockbuster shows to go around. When we did 'Les Miserables,' we sold out every night. But there aren't that many shows that will fill a 932-seat theater (the size of Simmons Pioneer Theatre), let alone a 2,500-seat theater."

That sounds a bit short-sighted to Ballard, who admits that currently Salt Lake theaters usually have empty seats. He uses this example: "Would you consider building an airport only so it runs at full capacity the week that it's built? No. Build for the future. The arts are growing here so much, in a few years it'll be jammed."

Weeks, who points out the venue can also be used for graduations and conventions, added, "We often don't fill the seats. But the theater with 2,000 people in it is fine. The shows that we do that we don't sell out, we do 60 percent capacity for two weeks. That's enough to get the bills paid. The shows that blow out, then you're able to generate enough revenues to cover up any shortfalls that you have within a season."

Theater location

Another debate is the location of a new theater.

Those asked by the Deseret Morning News, except for Sandy's Mayor Tom Dolan and the project developer, almost universally agreed — downtown is the place.

"Keep everything together," Weeks said. "It creates synergy. In Denver there are more people living downtown than ever before. The core city of Denver is extremely vibrant. And that comes from grouping all of your stuff, entertainment, sports, and keeping it in an area where you create friction and create critical mass."

Ballard agreed, "A concentration of performing arts venues is best for the community."

Dolan has been quoted as saying, "I think (a theater) would be a wonderful thing for the Sandy community and a good thing for the Wasatch Front."

Yet a majority of the theater-going Wasatch Front lives north of Sandy. Meaning that, in order to make a 7:30 p.m. curtain and have dinner beforehand, ticket holders would be traveling southbound on I-15 during rush hour. Downtown has the better infrastructure for handling large capacity crowds.

Denver's Finlaw added, "From a transportation and parking standpoint, it's really wonderful. And it supports restaurants, a night life and a vibrancy to the downtown area. The synergy of having all of these venues together creates a real boom."

There is another benefit to a cultural hub. "Good theater here allows people to become educated about theater," Finlaw said. "Those who become educated become experimental about other types of theater."

"The rising tide raises all boats," Weeks added.

Local folks, such as Sally Deitlein, vice president of Hale Centre Theatre, agree. "The main thing is, we've always felt that good theater begets good theater. If the theater is good, people tend to experiment and go back for more theater."

Arts dollar

Though always competing for the arts dollar, Salt Lake City, like Denver, is able to support a Broadway touring season, the Utah Symphony, Ballet West and Utah Opera Company, along with numerous other theater and dance companies along the Wasatch Front, and the population increases daily.

"Build it now. In a few years, it's going to cost twice as much," Weeks said. "As the Salt Lake City area grows, you'll be glad that you did. You need it now, you needed it 10 years ago."