Our continuing Q&A series allows Rich Baker, Starlight president and CEO, to share his thoughts and insights about topics related to our Broadway season, venue, industry trends and more.
Q. How do recent changes in Broadway touring productions impact Starlight audiences?
A. It’s important to discuss how changes in the offerings coming out of Broadway affect the experience of our guests at Starlight.
• The first change involves how scenery has evolved over the years and the current state of the art in scenic design. In the past, most scenery in Broadway plays and musicals was either hard physical pieces made of wood, nails, fabric and glue OR fabric drops, curtains and scrims. Over the past 10 years, however, projections and LED screens have significantly changed what we’ve come to expect of background scenery. This is mostly a good thing because it has expanded the quality of imagery we can put on stage while, at the same time, keeping costs under control. Rather than construct intricate scenery items from physical materials, designers now can craft them with video software and take theatre-goers to places they otherwise couldn’t be – at least not for a reasonable cost. Such technology allows designers to try out different ideas as a show is built, ultimately yielding a final product that is more polished for audiences. There are, however, a couple of issues with this — and one is unique to Starlight. First, video designers sometimes try to accomplish too much with projections, which can result in a distracting production in which audiences feel like they’re watching a video game rather than a theatrical presentation. Secondly (this is the Starlight exception), when a show is presented outdoors, some projections, if not done correctly, can be washed out by ambient light and be virtually undiscernible until well after dusk. Last season Starlight experimented with changing the start time for shows with major projected pieces, but our guests’ feedback indicated the majority preferred the earlier start time of 8 p.m., even if it meant some first-act projections were less than ideal.
• Another very real issue is that more adult content and language is included in the new Broadway shows available to tour. To a certain extent, this is simply a factor of societal norms evolving over time. I remember whenA Chorus Line debuted, and it was seen as scandalous by all but the more open-minded. Today, it is considered tame by societal standards. What is deemed acceptable often varies even with the quality and type of show. In the hit musical Jersey Boys, for example, the usually offensive “f-word” is spoken more than 50 times but very seldom results in guest complaints. I’m not exactly sure why that’s the case, but my guess is that not only does the language replicate how the true jersey boys talked back then, but the show and the music are so spectacular people tend to focus on that rather than the language. I recognize that what is acceptable in New York doesn’t always fly in the Midwest, but show producers and creative teams are almost always unwilling to change their “masterpiece” to accommodate the different sensibilities regionally, so we, as a presenter, often have to swallow hard and take the show as it is offered. I do pledge to you that while we can’t censor touring productions, we will include all advisory information pertaining to our Broadway shows on the Starlight website (e.g. adult language, sexual situations) so our guests can personally decide whether a particular show is suitable to attend. Also, our new “Swap One” program allows Starlight subscriber to trade out of a particular show they might find offensive.
• Finally, we occasionally get questions as to why some of the Broadway shows look so small on the Starlight stage. Actually, it’s not that the shows are small – it’s that our stage is just so big! Our stage is one of the largest ones in the industry. The only one I can think of that compares is Radio City Music Hall in New York. Touring Broadway shows are built to allow them to play everything from the smallest road house to the biggest, so it’s not surprising the productions sometimes look like they don’t quite fill Starlight’s immense stage. We accommodate this size disparity in several ways. First, we mask in the show’s proscenium opening with our drapes so extra open space is not visible on each side of the show set. Next, and more importantly, we kill (the theatre term for seats you remove from sale) those seats at the extreme edges of our seating area that would have limited views or sightline problems. We only sell those seats when all others are gone, and we clearly mark the tickets and explain to purchasers that these are limited-view seats. For 2015, we have instituted new policies to sell tickets from the center section outward to maximize guests’ viewing pleasure and avoid sightline issues. I’m pleased to see that some of the newer shows are creating sets with the flexibility to expand or contract to fit various size stages, but because of added costs, so far this change has been applied mostly to “blockbuster” shows that will tour for a long time. At Starlight we are very fortunate to have a stage large enough to guarantee we’ll likely never have to turn down a show because it won’t fit! Here’s proof: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of theatres were forced to expand the size of their stages at great cost (the Fox in St. Louis where I was previously was one) just to be able to play such mega-musicals as Miss Saigon and Les Miserablés. When the Cohen Community Stage was constructed at Starlight in 1999-2000, our management and board had the foresight to ensure that would never be a problem here. Join me in applauding them!