The Salt Lake Tribune

May 25, 1996


Does `Phantom' Foreshadow Bigger S.L. Theater?




An estimated 120,000 Utahns and others have plunked down plenty of money to see the touring production of Phantom of the Opera, now at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City.

Yet, those who assume the popularity of Phantom will pave the way for other big hits such as Miss Saigon or Sunset Boulevard, or revivals like Damn Yankees, should think again. Better that you jump on a plane and fly elsewhere, because it may be a while before those shows make it to the Beehive State.

The problem is space -- there is not enough of it.

To squeeze the Phantom into a 16-week schedule in Salt Lake, the resident and regular performing arts groups at Capitol Theatre had to shift their schedules. Utah Opera, for example, ran two seasons back-to-back before the Phantom crew arrived. The dance companies -- Ririe-Woodbury, Repertory Dance Theatre, Ballet West and Children's Dance Theatre -- took some of their performances to the University of Utah-owned Kingsbury Hall.

Getting another blockbuster there a year or two from now might require similar adjustments.

``That's what it boils down to,'' says John Stasco, operations manager for Salt Lake County Fine Arts, which runs Capitol Theatre. ``If we are going to bring in the big production for several weeks, the resident tenants would need to be consulted first.''

Salt Lake City currently has three medium-sized performing arts centers: the 2,800-seat Abravanel Hall, 1,900-seat Capitol Theatre -- both owned and operated by Salt Lake County -- and the 2,000-seat Kingsbury Hall.

Abravanel was designed for concerts and would require substantial changes to accommodate touring stage productions. The recently-refurbished Kingsbury is geared more to handle resident performance companies, concerts, lectures and U. student productions. However, it will play host to a one-week run of the musical ``Tommy'' in late June and could provide a home to the musical ``Stomp'' next spring.

That leaves Capitol Theatre as the main venue for touring stage productions. But to bring in the Phantom, crews had to add some electrical and structural features and alter the proscenium arch -- which separates the stage from the audience -- to accommodate the huge sets.

No surprise. The building opened in 1913 as the Orpheum, featuring largely vaudeville acts. Special effects back then meant magical acts and quick changes of clothing.

These days, equipment for Phantom and Miss Saigon move from one North American city to another packed into 28 semi-truck trailers. Crews needed a week here to get everything in place.

``We have one loading dock at the Capitol Theatre,'' says Stasco. ``With a 20-truck show, it's time consuming and expensive to empty the trailers. The Theater League of Utah has to hire people to push boxes through the First Interstate garage.''

Then, there's the seating capacity. Because it has fewer than 2,000 seats, the Capitol Theatre had to charge more per ticket to ensure the production made a profit. At $71 each, Phantom tickets in Utah were among the highest of any tour stop in the United States, even with a 16-week run.

Tour presenters look at theater size, length of run and improvements needed before they sign a contract. And they often look first at newer buildings that have plenty of room.

``That would be the best long-term way to go for Salt Lake -- creating a space that is user friend for the community, and with a minimum of 2,500 seats'' says Miles Wilkin, chairman of Pace Theatrical Group, a New York-based company that produces Broadway play seasons in 22 American cities. ``Those kinds of spaces in other communities have attracted theater companies long and short term.''

Plenty of theater-industry firms would benefit if a new performing-arts center -- dedicated to stage productions -- were constructed in or near downtown Salt Lake City.

Theater League of Utah, which is presenting the Phantom run in Salt Lake, believes there is a growing demand for high-quality touring plays. But, as the productions become more elaborate and expensive, League President Jon Ballard says he finds that older and smaller theaters have a difficult time competing for the productions.

``To bring in Miss Saigon, they are asking us to demolish the front boxes on the side, because they would need the space to get their set in,'' says Ballard. ``We said `no.' ''

``Sunset Boulevard is too heavy for the Capitol Theatre stage,'' he says. ``We would have to spend $100,000 to $150,000 to destroy the floor, then rebuild it after the production leaves.''

Ballard and Stasco, among others, say a feasibility study would determine if the demand exists for a new theater, what it would cost, where it should go and who should pay for it.

Chris Lino, managing director of Pioneer Theatre Co., agrees. Pioneer, which performs on the University of Utah campus, is the only fully professional theater company in the intermountain west.

He concedes that big touring musicals take business away from his productions, especially if the outside groups perform in the nearby Kingsbury. But Lino is skeptical that a new performing arts center with 2,500 seats would serve the interests of the city or county.

``Who can argue with Phantom coming to town? The quality is quite high,'' says Lino. ``Did Phantom have an adverse effect on our ticket sales? Absolutely. But I don't know that you need to build a facility just for those shows.

``How many big productions are there out there? When you build a new theater, you may have a monster you have to feed.''

(c) 1996 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.
Record Number: 102D3B2D1CDE6DF7