New Haven Shubert Chair Divines ’96 Shortfall

A new board of directors chairman has swept into the Shubert Performing Arts Center and, new-broom fashion, gone public with the fact that though the SPAC’s 1994-95 season is one of its most successful to date and is projected to break even, the nonprofit venue faces the strong possibility of a $500,000 shortfall for its 1995-96 season.

Why? Because of the ever-escalating cost of touring Broadway product and the immutable fact that the SPAC’s 81-year-old Shubert Theater has a mere 1,600 seats, 400 of which are less than user-friendly.

The new SPAC chairman is Ronald Shaw, the president and CEO of Pilot Pen Corp. of America who, along with his board and SPAC executive director Caroline Werth, is now pondering what alternatives the venue has in its future. One possibility being raised is somehow enlarging the stage and seating capacity of the Shubert, though that doesn’t seem to be a viable option.

But if the SPAC could increase its stage and its seating capacity to 2,700-2,800, it would then be in a position to book in the big box-office bonanzas it now misses, such as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Show Boat,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

According to Werth, the irony at the Shubert is that its future looks bleak at a time when it’s having one of its most successful seasons to date, with all-time high single-ticket sales and more money being raised from corporate and individual donors than ever before.

“But can we raise another $500,000 a season?” asked Werth. “It’s an unreasonable expectation.” And so Shaw, the SPAC board and Werth are working with the city and state, and its contributors, to come up with a viable strategy for the future. At this point nobody knows what the answers to the SPAC’s built-in problems are, though Werth continues to put her 1995-96 season together. She adds that the SPAC is a “lean and mean” operation with a much smaller staff than other performing arts centers. Its annual budgets fall somewhere in the $6.5 million to $7.5 million range.

The SPAC’s 1994-95 Broadway series subscription season of five shows consists of two weeks each of “Grease,” “Blood Brothers,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” and “Jelly’s Last Jam” plus a non-subscription March 17-26 run of the touring version of “Angels in America” sponsored by Pilot Pen. For this season the top ticket price for most of the musicals is $50, the highest to date, $45.50 for “Angels” and $40.50 for “Laughter.” Meantime the SPAC is facing the fact that it will have to raise its 1995-96 top ticket prices to $52 or even $55 – and still lose money.

Shaw and Werth point out that weekly guarantees for touring Broadway shows have increased dramatically in recent years. Werth says right now the average weekly guarantee for a touring musical is around $300,000. She adds that such product mostly plays venues with seating capacities twice that of New Haven’s Shubert, pointing out that “essentially we are a 1,200-seat house,” the other 400 seats being way up in the top balcony.

“We’re playing to an average capacity of nearly 80%, higher than the national average,” Werth said, adding that this meant that the theater always sold out all its good seats, the 400 others adding very little to the potential gross even if they do sell.

Werth says that the Shubert’s single ticket sales have increased as subscriptions have dropped somewhat in the past two or three years to 8,000, certain subscribers pointing out that they can’t afford to commit to a full-season subscription in advance.

Shaw and Werth are both worried about the continuing Broadway trend of fewer, but bigger, musicals, Werth pointing out that “today’s megamusicals won’t fit on our stage.” It’s a painful fact that the Shubert is too small for the touring “The Phantom of the Opera,” which could be a financial boon for it.

The only Connecticut venue large enough for it is Hartford’s 2,800-seat Bushnell, which has already extended its originally announced four weeks of “Phantom,” starting Aug. 24, to six weeks. Shows can take in as much in one week at the Bushnell as they can make in two weeks at the Shubert.

Werth also points out that unlike many big municipal performing arts centers, the SPAC cannot rely on heavy subsidies from its city. “The City of New Haven picks up most of our mortgage,” she explains. “But because it has a very real urban-blight problem we can’t expect it to come up with any additional financial support.” This means that unlike many performing arts centers around the country the SPAC has to come up with the money to cover ongoing upkeep costs and so on, costs that are also escalating as the historic 1914 Shubert continues to age.

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