Curtains for Boston’s Theater District?

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When he campaigned for the top job at City Hall, then–Dorchester State Representative Marty Walsh billed himself as the “arts mayor,” promising to add a cabinet-level arts position if elected. It certainly helped that he had Joyce Linehan, a longtime veteran of Boston’s culture wars, in his corner. After Walsh was elected, he swiftly made good on his campaign promise and hired Julie Burros, a Chicago arts administrator, as the city’s first arts commissioner in many years. It made for positive headlines and good optics. But as a series of troubles erupted in the Theater District this fall, Mayor Walsh was curiously absent. So was his arts czar.

Over the course of just three days in October, the Huntington Theatre Company announced it had dissolved its partnership with Boston University after 33 years, leaving it potentially without a main stage; Boston Lyric Opera revealed that it was leaving the Shubert Theatre, where it has performed for 18 years; and it became public that Emerson College planned to convert the fabled Colonial Theatre into a student activity center, complete with a dining hall. These startling events came on the heels of the announcement that Citigroup is skipping town and ending its sponsorship of the Citi Performing Arts Center, which includes the Shubert and Wang theaters.

It suddenly looked as if the city’s theater ecosystem was imploding under Walsh’s watch. Boston desperately needed City Hall to wield its clout so that a pair of long-standing institutions would not be left dark. But in the crucial weeks after the announcements, where was the arts mayor? Where was the bully pulpit? Arts czar Burros did not emerge as a public warrior. Instead, she issued noncommittal statements saying the city was looking for “creative solutions.”

The timing of the Theater District’s crisis couldn’t be more ironic. Walsh’s administration is currently in the middle of a yearlong process to formulate a comprehensive arts master plan—which it calls “Boston Creates.” That project has focused on what the city’s residents want from the arts scene—but it has also taken City Hall’s eye off the larger problems in plain view. That was abundantly clear in early November, when Walsh spoke at a packed Boston Creates town-hall meeting at the Boston Latin School. Walsh said he hadn’t been engaged in the planning process himself—he said he wants the people of Boston to decide the future of the city’s arts landscape. “I don’t have a vision,” he said, quickly adding, “I am not going to tell the people what I feel the arts and culture community should be doing in the city of Boston.”

Compare Walsh’s response with what happened in 2003, when the city faced another crisis in the Theater District. Back then, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts—now the Citi Performing Arts Center, the same one Citi is pulling out of—summarily booted the Boston Ballet’s beloved production of The Nutcracker to make room for a carpetbagging production of New York’s Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The next morning, Mayor Thomas Menino was on the phone trying to secure the Hynes Convention Center as a new home for the ballet. (Thankfully, that never happened—right sentiment, absolutely wrong venue.) Menino worked behind the scenes for months to seal a deal for the ballet, which leased the newly restored Boston Opera House at affordable rates and eventually took its toe shoes and tutus there for its entire season.

And that wasn’t the only time Menino used his political muscle to foster the arts—he was no aesthete, but he knew that Bostonians cherished the theater. He used his considerable influence to ensure that the Huntington and the Boston Center for the Arts were able to build the Calderwood Pavilion, which opened in 2004 and helped revitalize the South End. When Menino first ran for mayor, in 1993, he proposed a one percent hotel tax to generate arts funding, and he was publicly supported by a coalition of arts leaders including Citi/Wang president Josiah Spaulding. The point being: If Walsh wants to tout himself as the arts mayor, he needs to act swiftly and publicly when a crisis emerges.

Instead, the mayor’s office offered only weak platitudes. Weeks after the Theater District meltdown, I called Julie Burros to find out whether any city involvement was forthcoming. She told me she is adding a staff person in her office who will be tasked with studying the city’s arts spaces. Joyce Linehan, who is both an advocate for the arts and Walsh’s chief of policy, told me she was pushing her boss to greenlight a new “facilities study.” That study, which Walsh officially announced in early November, will take at least six months to complete, and is almost certain to tell us what the arts community has known for decades: The city sorely needs a multiuse performing-arts center, the kind of venue that could provide a home for the Boston Ballet and the Boston Lyric Opera. (It hasn’t had a proper home for opera since the original Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue was razed in 1958.)

But a facilities study doesn’t mean a solution is coming. As we head into the winter, the fate of several major Boston arts institutions are still up in the air. The Shubert can’t accommodate large-scale opera, which requires sophisticated technology, grand sets, and, above all, excellent acoustics. “Why is there not a venue or home for some of the major cultural performing-arts institutions that produce their work here?” BLO artistic director Esther Nelson asks. The BLO has performed in unconventional spaces in the past, and can do so again until it lands an appropriate home, but that is a short-term solution.

At the Huntington Theatre, managing director Michael Maso now says he wants to partner with a private developer to buy the Boston University Theatre and create a mixed-use complex—a plan that could help the city by livening up a tired block of Huntington Avenue. Maso has done it before—the Huntington raised $24 million to pull off the Calderwood project. He’s already rolling up his sleeves, but he is not depending on the city’s help: “Ultimately,“ he says, “the Huntington needs to solve our own problems.”

Linehan told me the city was caught off-guard by the breakdown of the relationship between Boston University and the Huntington Theatre—even though talks between the two organizations had been ongoing for two years. That’s not a good omen, since as the Huntington goes, so goes Boston theater. The Huntington, after all, operates the Calderwood at an annual $400,000 loss in order to give affordable rates to some of the smaller yet vital troupes in town, such as SpeakEasy Stage Company and Company One. If it loses its main stage and has to produce all of its work at the Calderwood—even intermittently—those smaller companies, which provide a training ground for local actors and playwrights, could be left homeless. If they go away? “It would cause a rupture in the ecology of the theater,” Maso says.

Linehan, who has been a fixture on the local arts and music scenes for decades, agrees. “If a company goes dark for a period, usually it just stays dark. That can’t happen,” she says. At the town-hall meeting, Walsh said he is now having “conversations” with all of the players, but that he can’t tell them what to do. His predecessor felt differently. Note to Marty Walsh: Pick. Up. The. Phone.


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:

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