David Armstrong has spent nearly two decades transforming the 5th Avenue Theatre from a landing pad for touring shows into a launching pad for new musicals and theater careers. Now he’s announcing his exit.
This is a musical-theater story, but let’s skip the overture, the predictable puns on famous Broadway titles and proceed directly to the exposition.
After 18 years, David Armstrong is stepping down as artistic helmsman of the 5th Avenue Theatre. The 5th Ave will not hire a replacement, but shift leadership between the current managing director Bernadine “Bernie” Griffin and producing artistic director Bill Berry.
A nearly two-decade tenure for any executive producer/artistic director is a long one. Even Armstrong admits: “It’s the right time.”
Even if you’re not a musical-theater fanatic, consider how far the 5th Ave has come:
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Before 2000, the theater was mostly a landing pad for touring shows. “Back then,” Griffin said, “the only time I came to the 5th was to see ‘Les Miz’ when it came to town … it had little or no real artistic profile in the community.”
When Armstrong took over (along with Griffin and Berry, who all showed up between 2000 and 2002), the 5th went from landing pad to launching pad for both shows and individual careers.
“Our achievement in producing new musicals is far beyond what I would have predicted,” Armstrong said. “When I started, I saw an opportunity for developing new work and immediately started talking to people in New York. But I would have been crazy to have said to myself: ‘We’re going to do full productions of 17 new musicals in 18 years or less, nine will go to Broadway, two will win Tony Awards.”
The theater became a national proving field for work on new — and newish — musicals: “Hairspray,” “Shrek,” “Aladdin,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “Memphis,” “A Christmas Story” and “Come from Away,” which had a formative workshop period at the 5th Ave before it went to Seattle Repertory Theatre and New York City, where it won a fistful of awards, including a Tony for best direction of a musical.
“When I saw the opening night of ‘Come from Away’ on Broadway, I saw the bones of that workshop,” Griffin said.
“These kinds of things wouldn’t have happened without David’s involvement,” said longtime 5th Ave board member Kenny Alhadeff. “David has the courage to try things, to take risks. The foundation of this great city are those courageous leaders in the arts and civic life — David Armstrong is one of those people..”
Armstrong also invested deeply in local talent. “He takes significant risks on people who have great potential but need experience,” said music supervisor and director Ian Eisendrath, who came to the 5th Ave from college and now has a thriving career in New York. “He was a complete game-changer for musical theater in Seattle.”
During Armstrong’s tenure, the 5th coaxed established stage favorites like David Pichette, Suzanne Bouchard and Timothy Piggee into singing and dancing on its stage.
“David gave me my first actual directing job when — oh God, was I just 25?” said Brandon Ivie, associate artistic director at the Village Theatre, who now splits his time between projects in New York and the Northwest. On one hand, Ivie said, handing him the keys to “Cinderella” was relatively safe for a young director: a family-friendly show, with costumes and sets already made, and hours-long meetings with Armstrong. But it was still a risk.
“I can’t believe they gave me this insane amount of money, this huge cast and their holiday show which, if I screwed it up, would’ve been a huge mess,” Ivie said. “People see photos of the pyrotechnics we used and are like, ‘that’s ridiculous — how would anyone let a mid-twentysomething do that?’ ”
Ivie didn’t appreciate how much Amstrong incubated local talent until he starting working in New York: “I assumed every city was like Seattle where there’s an acting pool and you’ll hire one or two out-of-towners. I didn’t know that not a lot of theater towns give local folks a shot like that.”
Armstrong also made Seattle unique by helping to cultivate a producing musical-theater house the size of the 5th Ave — especially after the 2008 financial crash, when several of its peer institutions went under. “There’s nothing quite like it in the country,” Ivie said. “Lots of towns have places like the Paramount that bring touring shows in — not places that are producing houses, at least not on the same scale.”
Armstrong won’t be leaving the 5th Ave altogether. He’ll stick around for the end of this year’s season and work for three years on a contract basis for the theater as a director and consultant
But he said he’s been feeling the pull of other projects — from directing to writing — that he’s been stuffing in his “idea drawer” over the years.
“You hear these stories about people who have a day job, but get up at 6 a.m. every morning to work on their novel,” Armstrong said. “I don’t know how people do that. I’m not one of them.”
The biggest challenge on the 5th Ave’s horizon, Armstrong thinks, is the continual push to downsize. “Like opera, ballet and the symphony, musical theater has that magic of a large number of people coming together to make the art,” he said. “You can’t downsize ‘West Side Story.’ It takes the same number of Sharks and Jets as it did in 1957. Less resources is not the answer. It’s not the answer to many of the issues in our culture at the moment.”
Especially, he added, in a culture where “communal moments of people coming together all in one room to experience something are fewer and fewer — we need to celebrate that.”