Curtains for Boston’s Theater District?

The city's historic stages are in crisis. Why isn't Marty Walsh, the self-described 'arts mayor,' doing more to save them?

The fight over the Colonial Theatre is a different story, but it’s another example of how the city’s complex arts ecosystem is increasingly under great stress. It’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for the clash between the city’s theatrical past and present: The Colonial, after all, is the playhouse where Oklahoma! was rewritten (and renamed), where Stephen Sondheim debuted Follies and A Little Night Music. The Colonial, Sondheim told me, is “not only beautiful but acoustically first-rate, two qualities which are rare in tandem, even on Broadway. For those of us involved in musical theater, it’s a treasure, and to tear it down would be not only a loss but something of a crime.”

Emerson isn’t going to tear the Colonial down, but drastic changes are clearly in the works. The plan unveiled this fall—which Emerson president Lee Pelton insisted was just one of many potential outcomes—involved taking the seats out of the orchestra section and replacing them with dining tables. A cafeteria was slated to be installed in the adjacent Walker Building, and the main stage would be transformed into a black-box theater. The “ladies lounge”—a.k.a. the women’s bathrooms where Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers rewrote Oklahoma!—was reserved for additional dining space.

Public outrage over Emerson’s plan was quick and fierce. In just a few weeks, more than 7,000 people signed a petition to keep the Colonial intact. In Emerson’s ensuing PR disaster, most of the criticism was directed Pelton’s way, and on social media, there were frequent calls for the city to intervene. But the mayor’s voice was not heard.

The Emerson faculty, which had not been consulted about the plan, urged Pelton to reconsider, and the local theatrical unions joined the outcry. “When you are a college that gives out degrees in the performing arts, it is sacrilege to eliminate one of the most beautiful theaters in the country,” said Chris Welling, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 11. “That’s like a college giving out automotive engineering degrees in Detroit and shutting down General Motors.” In recent years, the theatrical unions have worked out tiered contracts with the city’s commercial theaters in an effort to keep the venues alive. And since the mayor is, famously, a friend of Boston’s unions, one would have expected him to join the union’s cause—loudly.

Perhaps not as widely understood, though, is the web of political interests and connections at work in the city’s relationship with the Colonial. Pelton, Emerson’s president, is a cochair of the Boston Creates leadership council that is overseeing Walsh’s arts master plan. Linehan, Walsh’s chief of policy, is a former publicist for ArtsEmerson, the college’s presenting organization. (Last summer, in an interview for this magazine, ArtsEmerson’s artistic director, David Dower, was transparent about his organization’s ties to Walsh’s administration. “I have the conversation with City Hall that some of my colleagues don’t have,” he told me.)

Even as Emerson’s plan was stoking national outrage, the Walsh administration refused to weigh in with an opinion about the Colonial. John Barros, Walsh’s chief of economic development, issued a carefully worded statement saying the city was “fully supportive and confident that [Emerson] will arrive at a solution that meets the community’s expectations.” Two weeks after the news broke, I had a conference call with Barros and Linehan. I asked three times if either one of them felt, given the public outcry, that Emerson’s proposed plan met “community expectations” for the Colonial. No answer. Three times.

Emerson’s Pelton has pointed out that the Colonial was lit, at most, 25 percent of the time over the past three years—proof, he says, that it isn’t viable as a commercial showplace. The Colonial and Shubert are appropriate venues for touring Broadway shows, but Broadway tours are booked primarily at the Opera House, which at 2,600 seats is more of a moneymaker than the smaller Colonial and Shubert. The Wilbur Theatre has found a niche with concerts and comedy acts, while the 3,500-seat Wang, next door, serves as a venue for midtier musical acts and Elf: The Musical.

But some producers say they can still make money even with limited bookings, in part by raising ticket prices in cases of high demand. “With some clever management, the Colonial could have a fairly rich life,” says award-winning Broadway producer Ted Chapin. In the days just before Emerson’s plan became public, Pelton asked for a lunch meeting with Broadway producer Jon Platt, who had run the Colonial for years and invested his own money to refurbish it. (In 2010, he’d been in discussions with Emerson to lease the Colonial, but the deal fell through.) Platt immediately chartered a plane to fly from the Caribbean to Boston. He has a fatherly devotion to the Colonial: In addition to running it, Platt had bankrolled a sumptuous book about its history to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2000. But then Pelton canceled the meeting at the last minute and never rescheduled. That left some observers wondering: Why would Emerson’s president ask for a meeting with a Broadway producer if he truly believed the building wasn’t viable as a commercial theater?

Before the Colonial debacle, Emerson was known as a steward of historic theaters—the college spent $92 million to renovate the Paramount, on Washington Street, which reopened in 2010, and another $11 million to update the Cutler Majestic, on Tremont. But now Emerson is facing the same challenges as other downtown colleges looking to expand: Real estate prices are skyrocketing. Thanks to a flurry of construction projects—the college is rehabbing the Little Building, at 80 Boylston, where students are housed and fed, and is building a new dormitory on Boylston Place, across from the Boston Common—Emerson is $306 million in debt, and still needs a place to feed its students in the interim. So Pelton is presumably looking to make due with what the college has left: the Colonial.

Pelton insisted that his plan for the Colonial isn’t a death but a rebirth, and downplayed criticism of constructing a dining hall there. “Calling it a cafeteria is like calling Boston Symphony Hall and the Pops a cafeteria,” he told me during a phone interview. The college, he said, would be able to put seats back into the space for a main-stage production. That still seemed like a dubious plan: The main stage could operate only when the dining hall wouldn’t interfere with rehearsals and productions. Did that mean the first touring production of Hamilton would play the Colonial in July, when the hungry students are out of town? As it turned out, the college’s board of trustees stepped in, and in early November, Pelton announced the cafeteria idea was on hold—though the Colonial remains closed indefinitely, apart from the American Repertory Theater coming in to rehearse one of its productions. Interestingly, the A.R.T. has a track record of producing pre-Broadway tryouts in Cambridge—the kind that used to play the Colonial.

In the meantime, the city’s cultural-planning process continues. At a time when the city is listening to the people’s voices, it’s time for one person’s voice to rise up, loudly and decisively. One more time, Mayor Walsh: Pick. Up. The. Phone.

Watch below to see Patti Hartigan discuss this story on NECN: