From The New York Times:
EDMONTON, Alberta — The road to Broadway has rarely been this cold.
Throughout the fall, the team behind the promising new musical “Hadestown” was sequestered here, trying to figure out how best to stage its folk-and-politics-infused riff on an enduring Greek myth.
The strategy was classic: Find a theater outside New York with a solid subscriber base and a big proscenium stage to test ideas in front of an open-minded audience. But the choice of this oil-rich provincial capital was unusual, and an illustration of how a musical-theater boom on Broadway is rippling across the stage world.
“More people want in the game,” said Tom Kirdahy, one of the show’s producers. “A lot of out-of-town theaters recognize that they can be stakeholders in the future of a show if they’re accommodating of new works.”
Given the high cost and higher risk, musicals aiming for Broadway usually have at least one preliminary production — sometimes in New York or London, but often in a smaller city.
A handful of nonprofit theaters, like La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, regularly develop Broadway shows, but the pool of theaters eager to work on commercial projects is expanding to less traveled destinations. Nonprofits that regularly stage developmental productions of shows aiming for Broadway can get $1 million or more from producers to support big shows; newer players, with smaller shows, are more likely to get $250,000 to $500,000.
Asolo Repertory Theater, in Sarasota, Fla., has done five such shows over the last nine years (among them: “Bonnie and Clyde”), and Delaware Theater Company, in Wilmington, has done four in the last four years (the best-known: “Diner,” with music by Sheryl Crow). No Broadway smashes have resulted, but “it’s been a great way of bringing the audiences back to this theater,” said Bud Martin, the Delaware executive director.
Edmonton — the northernmost big city in North America, known for its cold winters, petrochemical industry and ginormous shopping mall (21 water slides and a triple loop roller coaster) — is growing fast, increasingly youthful, and home to a thriving arts scene, including a sprawling annual fringe festival.
The 52-year-old Citadel Theater, housed in a five-stage glass-and-brick downtown playhouse, tried developing shows for Broadway in its early years. But it largely got out of the game after a series of disappointments, including two plays, “A Life” and “Mister Lincoln,” that transferred in 1980 but then flopped, as well as “Pieces of Eight,” an ambitious musical adaptation of “Treasure Island” that sank at the Citadel in 1985.
Last year, when Daryl Cloran was appointed the theater’s new artistic director, he knew he would try to change that. He wanted his audiences to see large-scale productions he could not otherwise afford to stage; he wanted local artists to get to work with Broadway talent; and he wanted the Citadel to be part of creating ambitious new work. (The unexpected success of “Come From Away,” a Canadian musical now on Broadway, has stimulated enthusiasm, too.)
So he started cold-calling producers. He tried several, but quickly zeroed in on the backers of “Hadestown,” a contemporary retelling of the tragic Orpheus and Eurydice love story, which had a well-reviewedOff Broadway run in the round at New York Theater Workshop last year, but needed at least one out-of-town production to be reconceived for a traditionally framed space and an uptown audience.
Mr. Cloran, who had never even seen the show, became an admirer of its director, Rachel Chavkin, after seeing her pre-Broadway staging of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” and loved the “Hadestown” concept album, written by the singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell.
The producers were initially not all that interested. “We were not looking to go to Canada,” said Mara Isaacs, who said her team was focused on more well-trod pathways in the United States and Britain. Mr. Cloran knew he faced an uphill battle: “They were always very polite, but it didn’t sound like anything was going to happen,” he said.
Over time, however, Edmonton’s location — and, in particular, the lack of direct flights from New York — came to feel like a plus, rather than a minus.
“There was something attractive about doing it in a place where there wouldn’t be a whole set of eyes seeing the work and judging it before it’s fully baked,” Ms. Chavkin, who had never been to Edmonton and had never heard of Citadel, said.
Then there was the money.
The American dollar stretches further in Canada. And Citadel was not asking for much — the theater agreed to spend what it usually spends to stage a musical (about $600,000 Canadian) and also agreed not to seek a royalty from future productions (nonprofits that help develop commercial shows often get a percentage of Broadway profits).
The commercial producers would pay the rest of the costs, and bring their own sound and lighting equipment, a revolving stage, and significant set elements to upgrade what they would find at Citadel.
“There was no question it was financially in our interest to go to Canada,” said Ms. Isaacs, who is producing the show along with Mr. Kirdahy, Dale Franzen, and Hunter Arnold.
During just three weeks of rehearsal and four previews, Ms. Chavkin restaged the show several times over, with new cast members, including Reeve Carney (“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”), in three of the five main roles. At first, a rail line bisected the stage; the creative team scrapped that design after a single performance. There were several experiments with how best to deploy characters added for the Edmonton production in an effort to bring to life, as it were, those toiling away in hell.
“We’re trying to walk this line between maintaining the metaphorical and poetic world, and also trying to deliver a satisfying story,” Ms. Mitchell said. “The only way we know where it comfortably wants to sit is by going too far in one direction or another.”
The Citadel says that if it worked on a Broadway-aimed show again, it would dedicate a staffer to managing relations with the commercial producers, because immigration and budget issues proved more time-consuming than anticipated.
“One reason a lot of shows go to the same trusted venues is those theaters really know how to work with commercial partners, and the Citadel did not have a series of practices in place — plus they’re Canadians, so they’re very polite, and it took a lot of figuring out who would be leading a production meeting,” Ms. Chavkin said. “But all of that was balanced by how desperately they loved the show.”
And it was an unqualified success — buzz strong, attendance high, feedback positive.
The final performance in Edmonton was Dec. 3; now the producers must decide whether to have another pre-Broadway production (several American regional theaters are wooing the show) or to have a developmental workshop and then try to go straight to Broadway next fall.
If it gets to Broadway, the show is likely to have Edmonton money behind it: Penny Ritco, the executive director of the Citadel, is trying to put together a group of Edmontonians to invest. If “Hadestown” were to become profitable, her investment group would give a share of its profits to the hometown theater, she said.
Meanwhile, Citadel administrators are already talking with producers of other shows in the Broadway pipeline, hoping to lure another one to Edmonton.
Among the benefits: a chance for Edmonton actors and artists to work with Broadway cast and crew.
“Here in Canada, there are not that many opportunities to do a new work of this caliber, and to capture a show on its journey,” said Vance Avery, one of two Edmonton natives — among seven Canadians — in the Citadel’s “Hadestown” cast.
Kira Guloien, who at 14 appeared on the Citadel stage in “The Sound of Music,” and now lives in Toronto, was thrilled to be back in her hometown performing as one of the three Fates in “Hadestown.”
“People are coming that have never been to this theater before, because there’s buzz,” she said. “How cool is that?”