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'Hamilton' Arrives This Week, Lifting Local Artists or Eclipsing Them? 

Follow the money

click to enlarge President Obama greets the cast of ‘Hamilton’ at the height of the play’s popularity.
  • President Obama greets the cast of ‘Hamilton’ at the height of the play’s popularity.

Lauded by Broadway critics as an artistic breakthrough, showered with 11 Tony Awards, celebrated and denounced by successive U.S. presidents and worshipped by millions wherever it has played, Hamilton has been an unprecedented sellout smash since it opened Aug. 6, 2015. It's the hottest ticket in New York City, and wherever it tours, it's big — capital boldface letters BIG.

And now the actors, the scenery, the technicians and the musicians have arrived in the Q.C., triggering an influx of ticketbuyers, hotel bookings, restaurant reservations and sheer I-got-to-see-Hamilton euphoria that will linger until the tour's final performance at Belk Theater on Nov. 4.

The hullabaloo peaked on Aug. 1 when non-subscription seats went up for grabs. Beginning at 5 a.m., three hours before tickets were scheduled to go on sale, over 110,000 hopefuls queued up to snag seats online — plus an estimated 8,000-plus bots that were poised to steal and scalp tickets, delaying sales until 9:20 a.m.

Another crowd lined up at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center box office on North Tryon Street, where wristbands were distributed starting at 5:30 a.m. Just four hours later, the box office allotment of seats had been doled out to proud wearers of 1,200 lucky wristbands, who could score a maximum of four tickets. It wasn't until 3:37 p.m. that folks still waiting in the online queue were told to abandon all hope.

But the financial impact of Hamilton — and the ticketbuying frenzy it brought to Uptown — really began more than a year ago. If you wanted first dibs on Hamilton seats, you had to splurge on a full Blumenthal's Broadway Lights Series subscription for 2017-18. Largely because Hamilton loomed so enticingly over the rainbow as part of the package, all subscriptions for the Broadway Lights Series, including eight other shows, were sold out by Aug. 1 of last year. A waiting list for those precious subscriptions was announced on June 24, 2017.

Not only did Hamilton enable Blumenthal to sell out its entire 2017-18 Broadway Lights inventory, it set the stage for them to launch an additional Encore Series, including reprises of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon and Lion King. Those also sold pretty well.

So more than a whole year of theatergoing at Blumenthal's big boxes — Belk Theater, Ovens Auditorium, and Knight Theater — was built on the public's insatiable demand for Hamilton tickets. That's some pretty heavy lifting.

But what kind of lift does Hamilton deliver for local artists and arts organizations? Around town, there are grumblings that the big-box successes at the Blumenthal suck audience, revenue and esteem away from local pros, shunting them into the shadows.

click to enlarge Carver Johns as Wilbur in 'Charlotte's Web' (Photo by Donna Bise)
  • Carver Johns as Wilbur in 'Charlotte's Web' (Photo by Donna Bise)

We heard from Carver Johns during the recent run of The Foreigner at Belmont Abbey College. Back when he was more active on the Charlotte scene, Johns had starring roles in Charlotte's Web at Children's Theatre, The Changeling with Innovative Theatre, Fool for Love with Off-Tryon Theatre Company and The Exonerated, the last show produced by Charlotte Repertory Theatre, aka Charlotte Rep, before it flamed out in 2005.

"The way [Broadway Lights] is framed and kept separate from local fare suggests that the Blumey shows are 'real theater' and the rest of us are Little Rascals throwing things up in a barn," Johns sais. "And this I believe was the long-term fallout of Angels [in America] and [Charlotte] Rep."

Shuttling back and forth from Charlotte Rep to Children's Theatre acting jobs — supplemented by gigs as a certified lighting, sound and AV technician and a fight supervisor — Johns could cobble together a livelihood in theater here in town. That can't happen anymore, unless you're on the payroll at ImaginOn with Children's Theatre.

When Johns was acting and directing Fool for Love, theater groups formed coalitions, advertised jointly and coordinated programming schedules. With the light rail's arrival, the construction of yuppie housing and the demise of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, the NoDa scene where all that happened has all but disappeared.

"Smaller companies have to own that we have eaten our own by driving one another out of business," Johns admits. "But the 'real theater' versus 'local loonies' comparison the Belksters and their programming creates will always be a negative impact until the city power structure becomes more progressive and truly embraces local artists."

Tim Ross was a mainstay at Charlotte Rep in leading roles onstage — and prominent at the pioneering Charlotte Shakespeare before that. Over the years, Ross found his lifeline behind the soundboard at the WFAE studio in Spirit Square, where he produced the Charlotte Talks broadcasts five days a week until 2015. What irks Ross is how feebly media has pushed back against the power structure. Even at arguably the friendliest media outlet for performing arts publicity in the Q.C., Ross found that local theater struggled for air.

"I had a constant struggle trying to get the host or the other producers to get on board with doing more shows about local theater," Ross recalls. "I don't know how Hamilton helps beyond motivating people to go to the theater in general. There might be three or four interesting productions going on at exactly the same time as Hamilton but I'm pretty sure that Hamilton is going to get an absolute ton of free local press that it doesn't even need while these other productions will barely get mentioned."

Banding together might help local theater companies accomplish more advertising and promotion, and it would be immensely helpful if local media gave them more of an airing, but a change in outlook could also provide a lift.

click to enlarge Tom Gabbard
  • Tom Gabbard

Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts, scoffs at the notion that Hamilton and Broadway Lights are the natural enemies of local theater.

"My arts colleagues who get wound up about this don't understand that their real competition is not the blockbuster shows or other arts events," Gabbard insists. "It's Netflix, brew pubs, the Panthers and a million other things that people do besides go to theater. All of us in the arts, big or small, are together in needing to get the public who aren't going to the arts to watch less Netflix and go to a show. Worrying about competition within the arts is delusional and misses strategizing on what are solutions."

It's also delusional to presume that BPA isn't already reaching out with help, promotional and financial, to local arts groups. After paying staff and maintaining facilities, BPA plows plentiful monies into tilling the soil for local artists and arts groups — then enriching it.

But of course, you want to know how much cash we're talking about. As we began digging into this, BPA issued a press release proclaiming that the sold-out run of The Lion King that began in August grossed more than $4.8 million over a three-week, 24-performance engagement. Using a multiplier of 3.66 supplied by the Touring Broadway League, promotions manager Brandon Carter estimated an economic impact of well over $17 million.

click to enlarge On Aug. 1, hundreds showed up outside the Blumenthal box office for a chance at ‘Hamilton’ tickets.
  • On Aug. 1, hundreds showed up outside the Blumenthal box office for a chance at ‘Hamilton’ tickets.

Set to run for 32 performances, Hamilton will have an even larger impact. Compared to Lion King ticket prices, which averaged $100 each, the range for Hamilton was $75 to $175 a shot, with select VIP premium seats going for $434.50. So ticket sales won't merely be 33 percent higher because of the longer engagement. Factoring the higher sticker prices, Gabbard predicted last week that Hamilton would gross over $9 million for a total economic impact of more than $30 million — or a less gaudy $23.5 if you go by the more conservative 2.5 multiplier that Gabbard prefers.

And that's not counting all the additional subscription tix — an additional 5,000 subscriptions compared to 2016-17, a 50-percent increase — and encore programming that Hamilton has carried on its back.

So BPA has plenty of profits to play with, about 10 percent of the Broadway Lights gross for starters. Some of these proceeds go into helping local resident companies like On Q Performing Arts, Three Bone Theatre and Caroline Calouche & Co. pay rental fees at smaller venues under the BPA umbrella, namely McGlohon and Duke Energy theaters in Spirit Square and Booth Playhouse up in Founders Hall. By day, Community School of the Arts gets a break at Spirit Square.

Fully itemized, subsidies and rental waivers approached $1 million in 2016-17, since beneficiaries also included users of BPA's bigger boxes: Opera Carolina, Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Ballet, who all used the Belk and Knight theaters. These companies would pay nearly 22 percent more to perform in St. Paul, Minnesota, and more than 200 percent more to perform in Dallas, Texas, according to Gabbard.

That not only impacts opera, symphony and ballet, it also impacts music lovers and balletomanes who subscribe to their performances, keeping ticket prices down.

Companies that rent BPA's venues can also take advantage of their databases to reach out to their untapped market. Whether or not they rent space at BPA's facilities, companies that have the necessary hardware can utilize Carolina Tix, the ticket-selling engine launched by BPA that's offered free to all local companies.

All of the above may sound a bit under-the-hood or behind-the-scenes, but BPA also ventures into sponsorships of high-profile events. About the same amount of money that goes annually for subsidies and slashed rentals goes into putting up unique events — or bringing in young people to see shows that would otherwise be way beyond their means. The Charlotte Jazz Festival and Breakin' Convention, a three-day break-dancing showcase, were each launched locally in 2016. Both required outlays of at least $200K annually before they could happen.

click to enlarge Abby Corrigan (right) in 'Fun Home' (Photo by Joan Marcus)
  • Abby Corrigan (right) in 'Fun Home' (Photo by Joan Marcus)

And have you heard of the Blumey Awards? High schoolers go insane watching their classmates perform onstage at Belk Theater, unleashing deafening cheers for winners of Best Acting, Design and Musical awards and scholarships. Two Charlotte winners have gone on to New York and won the national Jimmy Award for Best Actress, and two of Charlotte's best actresses, Eva Noblezada and Abby Corrigan, have gone on to Broadway fame, Corrigan in the national tour of Fun Home and Noblezada in the title role of the Broadway and London productions of Miss Saigon.

Ironically, the judges who decide the Jimmy Awards up in New York are more aware of the high level of talent we're training in Charlotte than most people who live here.

High school theater programs across the Metrolina region have been galvanized and incentivized. But without a thriving regional theater company in Charlotte, how can the best talent incubated here stay in the city and build professional careers? How can Corrigan and Noblezada go home again?

"We have, as a community, allowed so many of our local arts organizations to close, shut down, wither and wilt with very little pause or remorse," Karina Caporino declares. A fixture onstage at CAST before it abruptly folded in 2014, Caporino has been a leading light in the Machine Theatre and XOXO guerilla groups, and she'll be at Spirit Square at the end of November in an Actor's Gym revival of Noël Coward's Fallen Angels.

click to enlarge Karina Caporino
  • Karina Caporino

With a viewpoint mostly taking in the scene beyond the BPA's big and small boxes in Uptown, Caporino doesn't see the Hamilton "lift" extending to the artists and companies she has worked with in the past. She was shaken after seeing the frenzied queue for Hamilton tickets in a city that neglects its own.

"The values of our community unnerve me," she posted on Facebook the following day. "We have the opportunity now to really take a moment to evaluate and reconfigure our values as an arts community. We have the opportunity to refocus ourselves and to push up our own creators. I recognize my chance to change trajectories and push our community in a more productive and inclusive direction, and I'm not throwing away my shot."

Gabbard also sees this Hamilton moment as a ripe one. Calling upon his own experience running an affiliated League of Regional Theatres company in the Denver metro, he advises local groups to ride the lift rather than fighting against it.

"I used the success of someone else's big shows as a launch point for my own success," he explains. "I'm not spinning to say that the whiners need to get more strategic about leveraging off the success of these big shows. In Denver, I grew the subscription from 500 to 10,000 by carefully researching the Broadway series and building my LORT seasons off it, and off of what some consumers found missing in the experience."

Does that sort of thing happen in Charlotte? Not so much. We thought it was a promising sign that CPCC Theatre and Charlotte Symphony were both staging shows later this month steeped in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber — just six weeks after Webber's Love Never Dies played the Belk.

In his 35 years on Elizabeth Avenue, drama department chair Tom Hollis has seen precious little overlap between the audience that turns out for Broadway Lights and the crowds that line up for CPCC's musical offerings. He fondly remembers the time at Belk Theater when someone sitting in front of him turned to a friend and asked, "Have you ever heard of this Theatre Charlotte?"

Likewise, Symphony executive president Mary A. Deissler described the alignment of the Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber concert with the Love Never Dies tour as serendipitous rather than designed. "We didn't plan it that way — just coincidence," she confides. "But as we know our Pops [Series] audience loves Broadway, we viewed it as a great additional option."

click to enlarge Charlotte Symphony performs at Belk Theater, where audiences will see ‘Hamilton.’
  • Charlotte Symphony performs at Belk Theater, where audiences will see ‘Hamilton.’

Less hand-wringing and more strategic planning couldn't hurt, that's for sure.

Whether or not local arts organizations take advantage of next-big-things like Lion King, Book of Mormon, and Hamilton, Gabbard maintains that BPA is still benefiting theater companies around town. As a member of the Independent Producers Network, BPA invests in many of the shows that wind up opening on Broadway, touring across America and popping up again on college campuses or community theaters. Shows produced by IPN that have played at Theatre Charlotte, Actor's Theatre or CPCC Summer Theatre in recent years include 9 to 5, Memphis, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Mountaintop, Spamalot, and The Addams Family.

Among the IPA shows still headed for the Belk — and Broadway — are Dear Evan Hansen, Matthew Bourne's Cinderella, Donna Summer The Musical and Tootsie.

Closer to opening night, Caporino was striking a more balanced and conciliatory tone. "It's a 'yes and ...' situation," she begins. "Yes, it is super exciting that Hamilton exists, is coming to Charlotte, is getting all this attention for and engagement with the arts, and we should use this opportunity to examine how we as a community value our local artists. Do we provide them with ample funding? Do we provide them with marketing and media coverage? Do we provide them room for errors? Are we making sure what we are providing is being done consciously and with great intention across broad spectrums of identity, race, class, gender? And do we value what is made here in Charlotte?"

On the Charlotte scene since 2007, when she was still finishing her college degree, Caporino still wrestles with student loan debt as she tries to balance work in the organic grocery industry with a career as a performing artist.

Optimistically winking, she acknowledges that the artistic career of her dreams isn't possible here yet — and that she thinks about leaving.

"I'm also rather stubborn," she adds, "and don't want to throw in the towel on the Queen City just yet."

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