Posted by Bruce Miller
If someone were to ask me to name the #1 reason TheatreVirginia went out of business way back in 2002, I'd say declining ticket sales. If he or she further asked why TVA sales decreased from a peak of 12,000 subscribers in the early 90s to 2,300 subscribers on the date of closing, I'd speculate that the main reason (not the sole reason) was that TheatreVirginia allowed Broadway Under the Stars (the touring road show season at the Landmark) to "own" the name and the perceptions associated with "Broadway."
Not only do I believe this mistake was fatal, I think it was unnecessary. Had TheatreVirginia continued to do big musicals (perhaps two a year) and bring in actual Broadway actors (as they sometimes did), they could have been just as deserving of the name "Broadway" as was the so-called Broadway Under the Stars.
The great secret in mid-size markets around the nation, markets like Richmond, is that many of the so-called "Broadway" road shows that come to town are produced in neighboring states like Maryland, and feature performers who have never worked on a Broadway stage. Ticket buyers don't know this because tens of thousands of dollars are being spent to convince them otherwise. Theatre marketing is an art as well as a science. The fine folks who market the various "Broadway series" around the country are doing exactly what they should be doing. They're doing everything they can to sell tickets. That's their job, and they're good at it. I commend them.
Wicked, I hasten to add before someone seeks to correct me, was an exception. It really was a national tour of a Broadway production. But some (not all) of the touring shows that come to mid-size markets like Richmond represent "Broadway" more in name than in reality. There is nothing wrong with this. That's just the way it is.
No one should be surprised that ticket buyers misunderstand. When one subscription series is labelled "Broadway in Richmond" and commonly called "the Broadway series," and countless ads tout "Broadway is Back," ticket buyers naturally believe that the actors they will be seeing in this series have appeared on Broadway. Certainly the prices are high enough.
So what is a resident professional theatre to do, when it produces big Broadway musicals, staged and choreographed by Broadway directors, and starring actual Broadway performers? The one thing we mustn't do, and shouldn't do, is roll over and play dead.
In a metro area the size of Richmond, the resident professional theatre must market to the general audience with just as many bells and flourishes as are employed by the road shows. The word "Broadway" is not owned by one company and off limits to another. Firehouse Theatre has been marketing itself as Richmond's "Off Broadway" theatre for years--and with great effect. TheatreVirginia should have held on to that magic word, "Broadway," because in many ways, their Broadway musicals were more connected to the Great White Way than the road shows that came to Richmond for a weekend and then headed on to the next burg.
At Barksdale, we're hoping not to repeat the mistake. In anticipation of what was to come, we began producing major Broadway musicals in the Empire in 2008. We're promoting these major productions (Guys and Dolls, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Sound of Music, White Christmas, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, etc.) as "Broadway at the Empire." Or perhaps we will use some other, similar catchphrase. Our marketing department is working out the language, and there will be more details forthcoming regarding our specific Broadway connections.
We invite and encourage anyone who cares about professional theatre in Richmond NOT to cede the word "Broadway" to any and all shows that are booked in from out of town. In my opinion, it's in ALL of our interests to celebrate and elevate the excellent, professional, "Broadway"-caliber theatre that is created right here at home.
We applaud CenterStage and its work. We respect them enough to take them seriously. They're doing their jobs quite well. Our JOB is to keep Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV growing and going strong, even as CenterStage also thrives.
A commenter to a previous post referred to Wicked and CenterStage's "Broadway in Richmond" season, saying, "Behold, the Broadway behemoth is back." I would phrase it differently. The road shows are back. Many of Richmond's strongest connections to Broadway never went anywhere.