Mark Shenton: Theatre owners need to love buildings, not just empire-building

The Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston. Photo: Wikimedia Commons The Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire, who founded Ambassador Theatre Group and built it up into an international theatrical empire, parted ways with the company last year. They started with a single theatre, the Duke of York’s, before going on to amass buildings all over the UK, the US and Australia. In leaving ATG behind, the pair dropped from the top spot in The Stage 100 to number 30.

But it seems their expansionist zeal has not departed with them, and the new management team – headed in the UK by chief executive Mark Cornell and in the US by Stephen Lewin – has just added another American theatre to its portfolio. The historic Colonial Theatre in Boston, currently called the Emerson Colonial, opened in 1900 and was the original try-out home to such Broadway musicals as Anything Goes, Carousel, Follies, A Little Night Music and La Cage Aux Folles.

No wonder Kristin Caskey, ATG’s executive vice president of content and creative in North America, commented: “The Colonial is a wonderful venue: a big, opulent theatre with a long and impressive history, one that’s rich in names like Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim. It’s impossible to think of a theatre that’s been as important to Broadway that’s not actually on Broadway.”

ATG will soon unveil its latest Broadway acquisition with the reopening of the Hudsons next month, when it will host the Broadway return of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George in a production seen last year for a few concert performances at City Center featuring Jake Gyllenhall as Georges Seurat.

Their other Broadway house, the Lyric on West 42nd Street, has been announced as the likely Broadway home for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, with ATG committing to remodel the theatre to a more intimate 1,500 seats from its current 1,950.

As Harry Potter’s co-producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender remarked: “ATG’s plans will provide Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with a bespoke home that will be intimate enough for a drama, yet big enough for us to deliver on our commitment to provide audiences with access to low-priced tickets throughout the auditorium.”

No doubt, though, audiences will confront the usual ATG uptick in ancillary charges and upselling revenue opportunities to offset against those lower-priced tickets. Of course, a global, private equity-funded operation needs to maximise its profit opportunities, but the onward march of this behemoth must eventually give cause for concern. The theatre industry thrives on diversity of ownership, not a concentration of it, and the buildings flourish under owners who genuinely love them: Cameron Mackintosh and Nica Burns in the West End; on Broadway, Philip J Smith, who presides over the Shubert Organization, Nick Scandalios who is executive vice president of the family-owned Nederlander Organization and Jordan Roth at Jujamcyn are dyed-in-the-wool theatre people.

As Phil Smith told Playbill in 2005: “The theatres are kept in pristine condition. We’re very proud of them.” They’re not simply cash cows to be milked, and it is one of the enduring pleasures of going to see a show on Broadway to marvel at the condition of those theatres.

Some of London’s theatres are catching up, at last, too, but there’s still a long way to go. While ATG is evidently investing massively in expanding its portfolio, it also needs to attend to the theatres it already has. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but ATG has owned many of these theatres for a very long time now. They should all be as pristine as the Shubert’s.