In 2002, Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre scored its first Broadway hit by launching “Hairspray,” a zesty, warmhearted musical romp that snapped up eight Tony Awards.
Can lightning strike again? “Marie, Dancing Still” is a much-anticipated, also Broadway-bound new show debuting this month at the 5th Avenue, which has a new artistic director eager to make his mark with his first pre-Broadway pick.
The creative forces behind this dance-rich period piece are well-established movers and shakers in musical theater: Susan Stroman, a five-time Tony Award-honored Broadway director-choreographer, whose credits include the blockbuster musical “The Producers”; and writer-lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, collaborators whose output includes the perennially popular tuners “Ragtime” and “Once on This Island.”
Ballet fans should also take note: the title character in “Marie, Dancing Still” — about the young ballerina immortalized in a famous Edgar Degas sculpture — is played by a real-life ballerina, touted New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck.
All are installed in Seattle currently, revising and polishing their show at a theater nationally respected for nurturing big-deal new musicals.
“We’d love for the theater to continue to be a pipeline to Broadway,” said Bill Berry, the new producing artistic director of the 5th Avenue. Though he was careful to add: “The Broadway landscape is changing and shifting in some ways” that may make it less advantageous for New York producers to choose Seattle as a launching pad.
Berry should know. He spent 17 years as the 5th Avenue’s associate artistic director before succeeding David Armstrong (his husband and longtime creative partner) in the post of producing artistic director.
Over his and Armstrong’s tenure, the ornate downtown showplace and former movie palace has nurtured and unveiled 20 new musicals. Nine have made it to Broadway, and three (“Hairspray,” “Memphis” and “Aladdin”) became crowd-pleasing hits. (Disney’s “Aladdin” is still playing to near-capacity on the Great White Way, five years into its run.) A few others (“Shrek the Musical,” “The Wedding Singer”) had modest Broadway runs, but spun off national tours and regional productions.
If the percentage of success seems underwhelming, it is plenty impressive to theater people. They know the myriad obstacles to propelling a fresh musical to high-stakes Broadway — and the dismal odds of hatching a hit. Anita Waxman, the seasoned Broadway hand who is a lead producer on “Marie, Dancing Still,” has backed both hits (the recent revival of “Hello, Dolly!” starring Bette Midler) and flops (“Escape to Margaritaville ”). And she considers the 5th Avenue’s Seattle-to-Broadway track record “massive.”
Still, according to Berry, the rising costs of jetting in and housing a large New York-based company (more than 60 people, for “Marie”) for weeks may deter some producers of new musicals from a Seattle tryout. And another showplace much closer to Manhattan, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, has recently become a stiff competitor for shows en route to Broadway.
Another concern: how the internet has figuratively erased the 2,800-mile distance between New York City and Seattle. “This used to be a safe, private space for developing a big show,” said Berry. Now patron and critic reviews, photos, even (unauthorized) videos of pre-Broadway performances are swiftly posted online these days — resulting in either positive East Coast buzz, or buzzkill.
But that has not dissuaded Waxman, who took on “Marie, Dancing Still” after its mixed but encouraging reviews for the premiere (under the initial title “Little Dancer”) in a limited 2014 run at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. Set in the heady ballet and art world of late 19th century Paris, it offers an imagined dramatic account of a plucky young ballerina with the Paris Opera who becomes the model for the well-known sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” by artist and ballet-lover Degas.
“At the Kennedy Center, I thought it was a beautiful show,” Waxman said, “and unlike anything I’d seen before.” Reviewers suggested it needed some revamping. Washington Post critic Peter Marks, for instance, found fault with the plotting and characters in “Little Dancer,” writing, “[It] feels as if [the musical] has only scratched the surface of possibility of its story.”
Waxman and the creators agreed that more work on the show, away from the bright lights of Times Square, was essential. And extra costs and risks notwithstanding, “Bill Berry was the first person I called,” Waxman recounted. “I said to him, do I have a deal for you.”
As a backer of “Bombay Dreams,” a Bollywood-style musical that visited the 5th Avenue on tour over a decade ago, Waxman was introduced to “this big, beautiful theater, with an incredible support system. The board of directors, Bill and [managing director] Bernie [Bernadine Griffin] have all been so helpful. Now it’s kind of like home in a funny sort of way. It just feels safe — not from critics or the internet, but safe for something we can develop and move along to Broadway.”
It has taken five years for “Marie, Dancing Still” to ripen, and in that time Waxman says the musical “has changed a lot.”
“It’s now truly a story about Degas, and the inspiration from Marie, and you see a kind of father-daughter relationship that develops between them. But more importantly you see the lives of people who are artists through and through, and what they give up when they lose their ability to do what they love to do.”
Berry quickly took a chance on the work. Waxman “just had to say Stroman, Flaherty and Ahrens, and I said, ‘Of course!’ I also believe it’s a very touching story, a very human story, about what we leave behind to others when we leave this world.”
Berry flew to New York to see a workshop of the revised version, and gave notes to the creative team “about a few things I was confused by, or I thought could be better. It’s a collaboration.”
He continues to weigh in as the show progresses. “We don’t just say to producers, ‘Come and rent the 5th Avenue.’ We want to be part of the process. It’s our responsibility to be sure our 20,000 season subscribers and our single-ticket buyers get the best show possible.”
One thing his theater is not responsible for is raising the entire production budget, which includes payroll for a cast of more than 20 and fees to designers, musicians and other personnel. The total tab adds up to roughly $12 million to $14 million (of which $6.5 million is targeted for just the Seattle engagement) to get the show to Broadway. And most of it is coming from commercial investors, including Waxman.
But the 5th Avenue isn’t getting by dirt cheap, either. Of that $6.5 million, the theater’s share is about $3 million. That’s still considerably more expensive than the production costs of every other show in the 2018-19 season.
So what’s in it for the 5th Avenue? Obviously, the potential for bragging rights. Every regional theater wants to be associated with a box-office smash in New York — which it can later publicize and use as subscriber and fundraising bait.
Also, if a musical is a crowd-pleaser in New York, on tour and via royalties (generated by later professional and amateur productions), the 5th Avenue will get a slice of that. The percentage varies from show to show, based on numerous factors. The Kennedy Center (which commissioned the piece) will get “a very small sliver” of any profits, said Waxman. The 5th Avenue would accrue more — that is, if its expected New York run can pay back the backers, turn a profit (the vast majority of Broadway offerings don’t), and hit the road on an extensive national tour.
The 5th Avenue has already raked in more than $1 million from its small piece of the “Hairspray” pie.
But whatever the ultimate fate of “Marie, Dancing Still,” Berry plans to continue his theater’s role in incubating musicals, if and when promising ventures come along. The recently announced 2019-20 season features two new shows with Broadway aspirations: “Austen’s Pride” (a musical version of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”), and a revamp of “Stu for Silverton,” a musical tale of social tolerance, which Intiman Theatre debuted here on a much smaller scale in 2013. (Former Intiman artistic head Andrew Russell will again direct.)
But “Marie, Dancing Still” is special for Berry: “I feel personally a lot is riding on it because it’s the first show I’ve said yes to here.” He added with a laugh, “Actually, I feel a mixture of things — pride, responsibility. And fear.”
“Marie, Dancing Still,” book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. March 22-April 14; The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $29-$155 (prices subject to change); 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org
This story has been updated to clarify that the $6.5 million targeted for the Seattle engagement is part of the $12 million to $14 million total to get the show to Broadway.