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More Thoughts on Those Feuding Musical Groups

by Jerome Weeks 6 Apr 2010 11:29 AM

Mike Granberry’s Sunday story in the Dallas Morning News confirmed in detail what some people saw  two years ago when negotiations failed between the Dallas Summer Musicals and the AT&T Performing Arts Center (then called the Dallas Performing Arts Center): We would have two presenting organizations and two separate facilities competing over touring musicals, and […]


Mike Granberry’s Sunday story in the Dallas Morning News confirmed in detail what some people saw  two years ago when negotiations failed between the Dallas Summer Musicals and the AT&T Performing Arts Center (then called the Dallas Performing Arts Center): We would have two presenting organizations and two separate facilities competing over touring musicals, and whether both presenters could draw enough of an audience to succeed remains an open question.

Mike goes into welcome detail about ticket sales and some of the backstage competition going on, but I think it’s safe to say North Texas has (or will soon have) enough people to fill the seats in both the Winspear Opera House and the Fair Park Music Hall. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is more populous than Chicago — and that city supports a lot of theater.

No, Mike’s story (and the commentaries that have appeared) misses the real competitive dilemma that faces these groups: Are there enough quality touring shows to fill both their seasons?

And when the Lexus Broadway Series books the Blue Man Group, the answer would seem to be:  Um, not really.

Years ago, for instance, the longstanding dearth of good shows had already led Dallas Summer Musicals head Michael Jenkins to start producing his own revivals and adaptations. He’s now one of the leaders in those ventures — working together with other regional presenters.

Initially, it also seemed as if the DSM and the AT&T PAC would wisely carve out overlapping but somewhat separate audiences. For the well-established Summer Musicals, it would be family-friendly, middle-of-the-road material, while the PAC newcomer opted for more mature fare like Spring Awakening. Divvying up the product like this was welcome — competition making for more diverse offerings and all that — plus, it made sense because the Winspear is a smaller house, therefore it doesn’t have to draw as widely as the DSM, and it charges more for tickets, too, so a more ‘mature’ audience would be likely. It’s one thing to pay $75 for a ticket but when you’re paying that price for you, your spouse and your two kids, the DSM’s lower costs and kid-friendly material look attractive.

All of this is why the AT&T PAC’s second Lexus Broadway season was a disappointing development. Gone was any ‘adult’ material — except for the gay sub-plot in Billy Elliot. Where once we had August: Osage County, we now will have Young Frankenstein.

But that’s actually my point: Rather than reading into this a major retreat from more adventurous fare (which, admittedly, it may well be, given the local response to Spring Awakening), the selection can also be viewed as Simply What’s Available Out There Given The Necessary Dates. The Blue Man Group tour has been around how long?

These are two related but different issues — supply and demand: whether the two groups can draw sufficient audiences and whether the two groups can find enough (and the right) material to draw those audiences. Which is why another question Granberry misses is one that Lawson Taitte asked: Given the tight supply of material, why did both the Lexus Broadway Series and the Dallas Summer Musicals decline to book the touring show of the 2008 Tony winner, In the Heights? After all, both Austin and Houston are seeing it.

With all of this, the AT&T PAC’s CEO, Mark Nerenhausen, has always stayed with the friendly, optimistic approach: Competition is healthy. and it has certainly worked out OK where I’m from (Florida). But then, as Granberry reports, it wasn’t his group that lost the tour of South Pacific (which Michael Jenkins thought he had for the Summer Musicals).

In terms of facilities, the situation is not dissimilar to the face-offs between Reunion Arena vs. the American Airlines Center and Casa Manana vs. Bass Hall in Fort Worth. And we’ve seen how well competition helped to maintain those outlets and the different fare they offered.  The face-offs were powered partly by a public vs. private struggle over control of the future of downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth. And, surprise, the billionaires won — more or less.  Reunion is doing splendidly these days, isn’t it? And you can compare the shows coming to Bass Hall vs. those coming to Casa Manana — Casa even feeds tours to Bass but Bass doesn’t feed tours to Casa.

What’s different with the PAC and the Summer Musicals is that the city owns the Music Hall but supports the PAC, too. So whether you care about musical tours or theater at all, the fact is that Dallas’ taxpayers are invested in both halls.

And speaking of taxpayer-funded facilities, we’ve already seen what happens when a presenter can’t get enough of the right kind of shows — with the Majestic Theatre.

  • Matt Dominguez

    I certainly see the LBS going conservative this year and its such a shame. I remember last year when the list came out I didn’t hesitate to order my seats. I thought to myself, “OMG there are actual shows here!”. I have a subscription and I would love to see most of the shows coming next season as well but, they’re nothing terribly challenging or different for the Disney fare at the Music Hall.

    And I flatout refuse to pay to spend 2 hours watching some guys in face paint bang on pipes and throw paint on each other. This isn’t 1997 after all. I’m even considering not renewing mine and my boyfriend’s subscriptions this year and I’m so sad about it.

    I don’t know for sure why it is that Dallas didn’t flock to see “August” or “Spring Awakening” but it frustrates me to no end that they didn’t. Especially when I KNOW there is an audience in this town for these kinds of shows. I do, however, have a theory.

    Every time I go to see a show I turn around and check out the audience and, I’m sorry, but I’m usually the youngest person there. Every where else it’s a sea of bald and grey heads. Most of them, when I talked to them, didn’t even know what “Spring Awakening” was about, much less that it had nudity and adult language in it. Imagine their surprise.

    In my opinion, this says to me that maybe ATTPAC needs to work on it’s marketing a bit, especially in regards to getting younger people into those empty seats. I know this may seem ageist, and maybe it is a little bit, but let’s face it, youth and the energy they bring are an important ingredient when trying to create a buzz about a place. I mean, I don’t care how old you are, nobody wants to do something that they think only their grandma is doing. And they certainly don’t want to pay $75-$95 to do it.

    I think if they want to get younger people in then they need to start by offering better incentives. Student discounts would be nice. Maybe promoting a discount ticket night every once in awhile or even discounting unsold tickets a few hours before the show. At the very least it would get those tickets out and people in those seats. To be fair, I did get an email offering a discount on tickets last week but it was only about $10, which would have maybe covered the purchase fees. Certainly, not enough of a difference to get me to go again.

    They also need to reevaluate the pricing structure for their seats. I know that the venue has great sightlines, but I still have a problem with paying the same price for the seats in Orchestra Terrace and Mezzanine (not to mention the side orch and mezz seats, which I hear have limited views) as I do for my seats in the 4th row center. I imagine that someone my age in their 20’s, with limited funds, who doesn’t see shows often and who probably hasn’t visited the Winspear would be hesitant to drop $75 on one ticket for a seat in the back row. It doesn’t have to be a major adjustment, but maybe enough to where it seems a bit fairer. And should I even have to mention cheaper tickets at matinee’s, which every other venue I’ve ever been too offered? That should have been a given.

    They could also work on the web presence more and maybe improve their website a bit. The site is actually pretty good-especially compared to DSM- but it would be nice if they offered 360 views of the venues so that people can better determine, and feel better about, exactly what it is that they’re buying. Right now, they don’t even really have photos. Just the same artist renderings that were there before the venues were done.

    And, I’m sorry, but their social media is kind of pathetic. I can’t speak for Twitter, because I don’t even know if they have one, but their Facebook is never more than “Hey check out this review!” or “Hey! What do you think of the show coming this week”. How about utilizing that access you have to people and maybe creating some buzz about what is going by having contests or posting videos or offering coupon codes or something? Maybe offering something special for facebook friends that come to a show?

    I know I’m no expert and God knows I know that times are tough, but I really do feel passionate about this place. It’s such a wonderful place and has excellent potential to be a cool place to go. I just think it needs more vision and ingenuity from the people that are running it. Otherwise, you may as well just move the DSM and it’s Disney park shows right in.

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  • Mark Nerenhausen sent this comment to the post:

    Good article, and I think you identified a lot of the issues that have an impact on programming. Just wanted to let you know that “In the Heights” is one of those shows we wanted to get but it was victim to the calendar alignment problem – the dates it’s available in the area weren’t consistent with the dates we have available in the hall. Unfortunately, for this year’s routing, the answer was “no”. We are hoping to have better luck with some future dates.

    I asked him about some of Matt Dominguez’s suggestions (above), and he replied:

    I did read the comment and thought there were some good ideas. I find comments like these (positive, negative, or neutral) helpful in that they point us to areas of concern, help us see the Center as others see it, and give us lots of ideas for improvements.

  • I’m glad to see he was interested and I certainly hope that its sincere.

    Just to prove a point, however, I did a little looking around on the ATTPAC Facebook. I wanted to see how often the page was updated with info or promotions about events and the venue. The newest post from the ATTPAC was on Feb 26th. For a 21st-century performance venue/ org, that is just ridiculous. If you’re trying to sell people on spending money at your place you need to be updating EVERY SINGLE DAY with videos, reviews, discussions, contests, whatever so long as it keeps your name in their head. That’s how you create a buzz and build a community.

    I mean, you’re trying to make musicals look cool to a community that hasn’t really seen any, at least not any that weren’t written for kids. That means you gotta hustle and work hard to change minds. You’re not gonna do that relying on a post a month and some newspaper reviews. ATTPAC and the LBS need to innovate and go where the audience is rather just taking the “if we build it they will come approach” that they seemed to adopt in this first season.

    As I’ve stated previously, I feel so very passionate about these new venues, I wouldn’t spend so much time commenting if I didn’t. They are truly magnificent, magical places that are nothing less than world class. I just hope that ATTPAC could figure out how to show people what I see.

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