Shubert finds niche

Conn. Venue nixes nostalgia, hopes to stage comeback

As the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Conn., prepares to mark its 90th anniversary this season, one thing is clear with the management now in charge of the famed pre- and post-Broadway touring house: No more nostalgia.

Institutional infatuation with the bygone Golden Age, when the theater was “The Birthplace of the Nation’s Hits,” nearly destroyed the Shubert under previous management configurations — twice.

Its Columbus, Ohio-based CAPA management now is focused on a different programming strategy, one that other presenting houses short on product and long on debt may have to consider as they look at a reduced menu of shows going to or coming from Broadway.

Since the city took over the shuttered Shubert in 1984, nearly two decades of management had tried to recapture the past. Trouble was, that show has long left the stage with no hope of revival.

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Home to scores of glorious Broadway-bound premieres from the 1940s to the ’60s, the Shubert faced in the ’90s the reality of the death of the out-of-town circuit, coupled with its inability to compete with increasingly high guarantees for touring shows because of the theater’s size (small, unable to do the mega-shows), market (limited, unable to sustain monthlong runs) and gross potential (modest, unable to bring in the revenue with just 1,600 seats).

The “new New Haven,” as a Variety headline touted recently, is not in Connecticut but in cities such as Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco, which offer state-of-the-art theaters; huge markets that can support long runs so producers can recoup at least some of their investment; and box offices that can bring in millions for their shows either heading into New York or out on the road.

“We’re not the home of the Broadway musical anymore,” says William B Connor Jr., president and CEO of the nonprofit CAPA, whose organization also owns or manages theaters in Columbus, Ohio (it recently lost the management gig of the Chicago Theater in that city). “That was a unique moment in time that is no longer here.”

What is here, unfortunately for the Shubert, is more competition with Tony Award-winning regional theaters, other nonprofit and commercial presenting houses, amphitheaters, arenas, sporting events and casinos. Southeast Connecticut casinos have not yet ventured into theatrical productions like their brethren in Las Vegas and Atlantic City — this year’s Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q” bypassed a national tour in favor of a long residence in Las Vegas — but the possibility still looms.

And when the economy shifts — as is happening now — the disposable-income leisure sector is the first to be affected.

Connor and John F. Fisher, exec director of the Shubert, say the current season is one of the toughest in years. Whether because of competition, corporations merging, layoffs, uncertainty in the economy or, more likely, a combination of factors (including programming that audiences are not responding to), times are tough for presenting houses.

Unless there’s a new wave of fundraising or higher-than-projected turnouts for shows at the theater, which has a $5.9 million annual operating budget, the Shubert is looking at its first red ink in the four seasons CAPA has been managing the theater. Because of the shaky economy and consumer trends, industry insiders see potential deficits at presenting houses like the Shubert around the country as being well into six figures — or more. Still, Connor remains optimistic. “It’s going to be a killer year,” he says, “but we’re going to be fine.”

Helping the theater stay afloat is the Shubert’s participating in the Greater New Haven Arts Stabilization Project, which assist arts institutions in better managing their finances and contributes funds to these efforts: In the Shubert’s case, as much as $1 million over several years. And New Haven, under an arts-friendly mayor with gubernatorial ambitions, supports the theater with a $450,000 subsidy plus the $200,000 fee for CAPA’s management.

“We’ve been very pleased with CAPA,” says Mayor John D. DeStefano Jr. “Our investment in the Shubert and other arts groups makes sense to us and one that has been paid back many times over. We credit the growth of our retail and residences downtown to the arts.”

Henry Fernandez, the city’s director of economic development, says the city will be entering into negotiations next year to extend the five-year contract with CAPA.

“The Shubert is now truly a performing arts center,” says Connor. “We’re eager to simply let the facility be available to a wide variety of arts organizations, from the symphony, the ballet, the Gay Men’s Chorus. We don’t see the Shubert as having one audience but many.” CAPA also manages the summer jazz festival on the New Haven Green.

Connor says the Shubert’s new strategy is to offer a greater variety and a greater number of presentations of all types. He introduced a Hispanic series this year and he plans on an African-American series next season, as well as “an eclectic classical series” that would feature concerts, operas and ballets. “That’s a niche that doesn’t exist now,” he says.

He also says he will continue to program pop music, something that has a strong audience in the college atmosphere of New Haven. He particularly targets acts that are too big to play Toad’s Place nightclub but not big enough to play Oakdale Theater, owned by Clear Channel Entertainment, in nearby Wallingford, Conn.

The “Broadway” series has become more of an eclectic “theater” series, with most shows never even having played New York. Some are non-Equity musicals, and there are a few co-productions mixed in, such as “Anything Goes” a few years ago, which the Shubert presented with the summer theater Cape Playhouse.

One of the most daring programming strategies is CAPA’s presenting non-musical “prestige” plays, such as Peter Hall’s acclaimed production of “As You Like It” from England last year and the Abbey Theater’s 100th-anniversary production of “The Playboy of the Western World” last fall.

Following the New Haven premiere, these shows toured to other CAPA theaters and other smaller venues around the U.S. Connor says he is eyeing several high-profile shows from England for the 2005-06 season.

But he understands it takes years to develop new audiences, even those with “boutique” appeal. With prime product at such a premium — and being snapped up by larger theaters — Connor offers a counter-strategy. He believes the Shubert’s future is in originating and co-producing shows that can easily tour (and create a new revenue source) as well as developing wide-ranging entertainment for local auds, many of whom never felt particularly welcome in the largely white world of the Broadway theater.

And finally, he hopes, nostalgia will give way to a new, broad-based community connectiveness, one that will have its own golden-era glow.