Ordway Goes Solo In Twin Cities

Bombshells are dropping all around St. Paul’s Ordway Music Theater these days.

The Minneapolis Community Development Assn. severed its relationship with the Ordway last month by awarding exclusive rights for presenting Broadway shows at the Historic State and Orpheum theaters to Minneapolis-based Theater Live!/Jujamcyn Production Co.

Then, on Feb. 23, Ordway president Bill Conner quit to become senior vice president of national touring companies for Toronto-based Live Entertainment of Canada (Livent). Conner’s resignation, coupled with the theater’s loss of control over Broadway bookings in Minneapolis, has forced the Ordway to rethink its mission.

“The Jujamcyn deal has really thrown the future of Broadway at the Ordway up in the air, and Bill’s departure throws it still higher in the air,” said Minnesota Opera president Kevin Smith, a member of a committee looking for Conner’s successor.

Conner, 43, came to the Ordway in 1990 and made it a major regional presenter, almost single-handedly turning the Twin Cities into the country’s seventh-largest market for touring shows. But starting in 1996, when the Ordway’s agreement with Minneapolis ends, the 1,830-seat house will be left to compete for Broadway shows with the much larger Orpheum and State theaters, which boast a total of 5,000 seats. Reduced chances of booking first-rate tours for the Ordway, currently the premiere presenter of Broadway shows in the Twin Cities, could cost the theater, and the city of St. Paul, millions in lost revenue.

Darin Narayan, head of the transition committee set up to develop a strategy for the Ordway’s future, estimates that the theater could lose as a much as $1 million from its $30 million annual operating budget if it can’t find any suitable revenue-replacing alternatives. The impact on St. Paul could be far more devastating. A three-month run of “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1993 injected $23 million into the St. Paul economy, and an upcoming run of Livent’s “Show Boat” is expected to bring more than $20 million to St. Paul hotels, restaurants and businesses – money the city will sorely miss if the Ordway is unable to attract such blockbusters in the future.

Conner is optimistic. Despite the Jujamcyn setback, he insisted that the Ordway is still in an excellent position to compete for Broadway product. He points to the record-breaking sales for “Show Boat,” which begins a three-month run at the Ordway in July, as proof that St. Paul can compete with Minneapolis for the best shows even though the Ordway has fewer seats. Nevertheless, others dealing with the Ordway’s problems are more cautious.

“Bill’s leaving is a great loss, no question,” said Narayan. “But we have 18 months to get our act together.

“We still believe that it is a strategic imperative for us to have a Broadway season.”

Groups that use the Ordway when Broadway shows aren’t in town – the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Opera and Schubert Club – say that bringing Broadway shows to the Ordway has been good for the theater overall, making their own situation more stable financially. But because they must sometimes adjust their own schedules to accommodate Broadway shows, even after the events have been advertised and tickets sold, they wouldn’t mind a new president who is more sensitive to their scheduling needs.

“We like the Broadway shows,” said St. Paul Chamber Orchestra president Bill Assink, who had to move a world premiere of Chinese-American composer Evan Chen’s “Bok Choy Variations” up a month to accommodate “Show Boat” in July. “We just want to be able to schedule activities in a way that minimizes conflict.”

With fewer shows to juggle, the Ordway’s main users may soon get their wish. But the Ordway’s relationship with Broadway is hardly over, says Conner, and it remains a crucial source of support for diverse cultural programming presented under the Planet Ordway banner.

“When I came here, the Ordway was playing to 50,000 a year,” Conner said. “Now we play to 50,000 a week.”

Conner said he would have taken the Livent job under any circumstances, because “great opportunities don’t come along all that often in this business.” True, perhaps. But those staying behind at the Ordway are hoping that it isn’t.

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