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Seattle Theatre Group - (The Paramount) & Mel Brooks birth Young Frankenstein
Seattle Theatre Group - (The Paramount) & Mel Brooks birth Young Frankenstein
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

How is Seattle becoming a jumping off point for Broadway bound productions? In the last few years, shows like Hairspray and Light in the Piazza have been incubated here and gone on to national and international acclaim. Huge theatrical productions need huge amounts of money and talent and investment. Seattle appears to have grown in theatrical circles to meet the needs of those looking for supportive cities to preview their work and develop the final product before Broadway gets a look at it.

The Paramount Theatre has had an illustrious history as a venue for national acts, starting from the 1930s as vaudeville tours came here from New York. Part of the draw for acts and movie presentations was the Paramount's huge organ. Paramount's web site says "It was the biggest impressive orchestra-unit organ built in 1928, and included an entire grand piano and drum set built into the side panels of the auditorium, together with hundreds of pipes, bells, chimes, whistles, and horns. It cost over $100,000 to install (it would cost over $1 million today)." Variety was always present in the Paramount's presentations, from tap dancing to ventriloquists to contortionists. After an early 90's refurbishing of the entire aging structure by Ida Cole and The Landmark Association, they were able to bring the touring company of Miss Saigon into town. As the Landmark Association changed to Seattle Theatre Group, they continue their tradition of variety, today, hosting comedy shows, dance and other presentations.

I talked about the latest effort of developing the new Young Frankenstein, The Musical with Josh LaBelle, Executive Director of STG. I asked about the significance of STG being able to compete effectively to bring a preview Broadway bound show to Seattle. I noted that another Broadway bound musical, Lone Star Love, will also be previewing at the 5th Avenue Theatre this fall, and performing on Broadway in the same month (November).

Why do you think two shows are going to Broadway from Seattle, so suddenly?
I think it's the resources here in the community. People, first and foremost, and historic theaters, the Paramount and the 5th Avenue Theatre. "People" includes not just patrons, but it also references the creative community that lives here. The folks that work on stage, the designers, musicians; we have a really wonderful community. Also, the city's leadership is being very active in supporting the interest in bringing some major productions here.

An example, the process of bringing Young Frankenstein here is as much a comparison of Seattle versus other cities around the country, and I'm proud that after reaching out to the Mayor of Seattle, we got fabulous support. We're relatively small compared to populations such as Chicago and San Francisco, so we need that extra support.

How did this process for Young Frankenstein start?
In January 2007, I got a phone call from the management office of Mel Brooks' production company in New York. They said, "I know it's short notice, but we're talking with some cities about (previewing) Young Frankenstein and we want to know if you're interested." There were at least four other cities in consideration. It was over a three month consideration process. We're honored that they're here. The Paramount had already presented Mel's work, we worked with Thomas Meehan on the last national tour of Annie, and he was here to work on Hairspray at the 5th Avenue. So, there were prior connections for them to consider Seattle.

What were the kinds of issues that needed negotiation?
Three things were negotiated: financial terms, physical issues with the property, and last and probably most important community support. Going to some of our leaders and getting that support and demonstrating to Mel that we had that support.

Can you describe some of the details of what goes into financial terms?
It's a complex financial deal. We cover things as specific as ticket pricing, estimating what the cost of labor will be over a long period of time. Very thorough and detailed.

Would STG not have been ready earlier in its development?
This is a major step. A production of this scale that required us to close the theater for two months causes great issues for our little nonprofit. The last time we closed the Paramount was to install the flat floor system that allows us to change the seats and make it a flat floor. That was about 11 years ago. And we closed for about a month and a half. And that was the last time we closed for any significant period of time.

There are significant risks for the not for profit operation. Five to six years ago, I don't think our operation was ready for this kind of engagement. We've made a lot of progress in these last five seasons. All due to our fabulous staff and board to get our company to a place where we can make a step like this. In the end, we're trying to make Seattle a more viable place to live. We're not just stepping up to Young Frankenstein; we're stepping up to this community.

Two critical things needed to happen. People and finances. We have a great staff, about the best staff a little theater can wish for; stage hands and technical crew have extraordinary ability to be able to work with Mel's crew who are incredibly technically sophisticated. We've unloaded 23 semi trucks, to give you an idea of scale. We have crews working from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week. Other people issues involve our presenting staff: marketing, development, public relations, who work vigorously in the community in order to present this as a benefit to our community. Of course, we have a board of directors that can look at the big picture to utilize a historic theater to create new work that in turn will make our region a more vibrant place to live. There's nothing more important for an historic theater to do than support an effort like this.

Do you mean to say that it's not important to support more local efforts?
I'm not trying to differentiate supporting local versus other artists. I find it important to support great artists doing great work. There are a lot of local artists working on this show, as well.

I have every belief that a production like this benefits local artists, costumers, musicians, designers. A theater of this size and scale is really being well-utilized when artists from all over the world are working in it. When we start analyzing what's greater value, local artists or international talent (that may be the wrong perspective). The size of our theater and our commitment to diversity in performing arts also plays into serving patrons and local artists. Spectrum Dance Theater has been an anchor partner of ours for several years and rehearses at the Moore Theatre (the companion venue to The Paramount), doing two to three engagements a year. It's important to serve the local community, but one of the ways we serve is by bringing in other talent. More support of local artists is done here than you might realize. Donald Byrd (Spectrum) has created three pieces of new contemporary dance in the last two years at the Moore Theatre, some of those pieces have gone to Europe and other parts of the nation, and have created great opportunities for these dancers.

You were saying that people and finances are important to realizing your goal to bring Young Frankenstein type shows here.
Finances have to have a stable, secure financial setting. We've been operating at or better than budget for the last five seasons straight, we've developed the financial reserve, we have a 5-year strategic plan that is intended to make us more financially stable. Have you seen the Seattle Times article about Intiman Theatre? Here is Intiman, with Bart Sherr creating unbelievable work, not just for this city, but all around the world and I imagine that their own shows do rather well. They've created The Light in the Piazza that went on to Broadway and Metropolitan Opera, but here's one of our most important creative institutions in trouble.

The arts are a fragile community. Theaters depend on 50 percent of their income from contributed revenue down to maybe 10 percent. Sponsorships, corporations, gifts from individuals and grants from foundations and government support - money from city, county and state and national governments through endowments from the arts. I think it's time the media start covering just how poorly the Washington State government is supporting arts organizations across the region for their operations. I don't think people know that the state of Montana gives more money for their arts operations than Washington State. State contributions have been flat for the last ten years. This needs to change. We need to tell our legislature that Washington State's arts budget needs to increase. How do arts organizations make this work? It's not going to work unless we see more support from the contributed side.

We (STG) do need less from our contributed income than an organization like Intiman, but none of us are stable without state support. Our (STG's) business model balances popular cultural engagements with fine arts engagements and education programs, because we're in the business of Broadway theater, concerts, dance, so we generally need a smaller percentage of contributed revenue to our budget than an Intiman theater. They don't have the benefit of being in the concert business. It's not just a financial choice, but to operate in the way that we're the people's theaters. We should be able to support a diverse array of presentations to the public. We (STG) have dance, Broadway& the whole idea behind our business model is to stay committed to diversity of art forms. That's helped us by being a little less reliant on contributions.

I want to stress a good part: The state budget has been very generous in supporting infrastructure and capital improvements for facilities in a program called Building for the Arts. There's a difference, though, between capital improvements and general operating funds. We all want to applaud BFA and that budget continues to be increase. For the Paramount's renovation, the State contributed a good million dollars to this historic facility. Without that contribution, our theater could not produce technically difficult theater and couldn't have been ready for a Young Frankenstein. What needs to increase is the support for the general operating costs... for all arts organizations in our state.

When Young Frankenstein leaves Seattle for New York, is that the end of STG's involvement?
Yes. We're really caring for the birth here and hopefully we'll be involved as it makes its way out of New York back on tour. These are longer term relationships (we're building), so it's hard for me to say it's the end. We'll be back in touch with Mel and his people. We are interested in supporting the creation of new work; for us it's not just Broadway. But, yes, we're interested in helping Broadway and musical theater. We'd like to be able to do it. This is not a small step for us, it's pretty large, it's two months of our time and effort and we're excited to be able to get to this level of production.

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