Colonial Redux

Seats are going fast for Daughtry at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston.

Is Daughtry a pre-Broadway tryout of a play or musical? That’s what the Colonial was accustomed to having right up to the ‘90s when producers thought they’d better face out-of-town audiences before they braved New York’s seven-or-so newspapers. National tours sauntered in from time to time, too.

And while the theater re-opened this summer with a smash break-in of the new musical MOULIN ROUGE! – the first production of any kind to play there in three years – the 118-year-old landmark will see a change of pace with Daughtry. It’s a rock group that’s headed the Billboard charts twice, has sold eight million hard copies and 30 million digital ones.

Also on tap to be part of the Boylston Street showplace are Michael McDonald (on Sept. 22), Heather Headley (Nov. 3) and Mannheim Steamroller Christmas (Dec. 8).

Headley certainly has a stage pedigree, not to mention a Tony for AIDA and an Olivier nomination for THE BODYGUARD. The others have indeed played Broadway – only literally, though, for they’ve performed at 2124 Broadway in the Beacon Theatre.

Erica Lynn Schwartz, general manager of the Emerson Colonial, is quite happy  to welcome all of the above. “Yes, part of the Ambassador Theatre Group’s application when seeking this theater was to have pre-Broadway tryouts as in the days of old,” she says. “But one-night concerts of all kinds were on the company’s list, too. If Nine Inch Nails wants to play here, we’d be happy to have them as a guest in our home.”

I saw a preview of MOULIN ROUGE! on the condition that I wouldn’t write about a show that was still changing this, that and the other thing. Nevertheless, I don’t think that either Schwartz or Robert Jones, the Director of Marketing and Communication, would mind my saying that the sold-out audience was absolutely crazy-in-love with the show, wildly applauding and laughing boisterously.

But I can report that the restoration of the theater, now owned by the ever-expanding and increasingly successful Emerson College — is a smash-hit, too. What “Oohs!” and “Ahhs!” the patrons gave while they glanced at everything from the carpets to the ceilings and to the chandeliers (even if they didn’t know that they’d been rewired).

Says Jones, “We call it ‘History meets Modern.’”

The facelift, as Schwartz and Jones call it, took into consideration access accommodation even down to the shelf at the box-office. There are now 1,624 seats as opposed to the original 1,646  so that the house-left aisle could be widened. A near-the-stage box for people who use wheelchairs avoids their being relegated to the last row of the orchestra as they are in most theaters.

Seats in the orchestra were replaced, most of them measuring 22 inches wide, making them a bit bigger than they used to be. In the balcony, seats have been put at a pitch that encourages a theatergoer to automatically lean forward a bit to enhance his viewing pleasure.

The Ambassador Theatre Group has considered actors, too, and has installed new dressing rooms as well as more back-of-the-house space. But more profound changes had to happen, too.

“In olden times” says Schwartz, “shows traveling here used to bring in their own equipment. Now we have our own sound and light system for rock acts and comedians. We have a new rigging – all the old hemp is gone – and a new grid has replaced the one that was here since” – and she stresses every one of the four syllables to show how much that new grid was needed – “Nine. Teen. Hun. Dred.

“Part of the reason that the Colonial was dark so much,” says Schwartz “is because it couldn’t be flexible in programming. Now we can accommodate different programs that will please different aficionados.”

So will the expanded and refurbished lounges, including one downstairs for VIPs. Even if theatergoers see none of those, they’ll have to be impressed by the myriad of improvement.

“Goodbye chipped paint, tears in the wallpaper, wires hanging out from poor electrical repairs, dust that obscured colors and water damage, too,” says Schwartz. “There were some Band-Aid fixes but we’ve gone well beyond that.”

The main lobby has a Hall of Mirrors effect reminiscent of Versailles. “The original mirrors are still here and some look a little distressed,” admits Jones. “But the way they were set into the plaster would have made replacing them very difficult.” He shrugs. “Let’s think of it as a way of showing the theater has been here a long time.” (Besides, many interior designers consider this distressed look a desirable one.)

That’s about it for shabby chic, though. Instead of mere wallpaper, many of the walls have been painted and then embossed by stencil. So walls by the staircases were first painted in a yellowish ochre ground color and then stenciled with a greyish taupe top color.

“We didn’t want it to feel like EPCOT,” says Jones. “Everyone should experience this grandeur and elegance that informs the type of evening you’re going to have. We’ve even seen to it that our bars use real glass glasses and not plastic ones.”

Getting people comfortable enough to walk through the doors of an “important” theater isn’t as easy as it may sound. “Ancient, forbidding structures” is what William Goldman called legitimate theaters in his landmark book THE SEASON, and there’s something to be said for the description.

Many blue-collar Bostonians I’ve met – I’m originally from Massachusetts – have told me that “I just wouldn’t feel comfortable there. It’s too high-class for me.” Now, to paraphrase a line from the 1964 musical FADE OUT—FADE IN (which also played here prior to Broadway), “Democracy can come to all girls, boys, moms, dads, nieces, nephews, grandparents and great-grandparents.”

Dotting the upper lobbies are framed window cards that remind us that the Colonial played host to such tryouts in the ‘40s as MUCH ADO ABOUT LOVE (eventually renamed THE FIREBRAND OF FLORENCE), CANDIDE in the ‘50s, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (then with Louis Jourdan) in the ‘60s and HELLZAPOPPIN’ in the ‘70s. But to celebrate that FOLLIES had had its world premiere here, a mere window card just wouldn’t do. At the end of the main lobby is a three-sheet trumpeting the 1971 legend that has the greatest logo in Broadway history.

“And then,” says Jones, “there’s a window card of AWAY WE GO! which inspired us to make that phrase our mantra for this season: ‘Away we go!’ in letting the public see what we’ve done here.”

Here’s hoping that the Emerson Colonial will be as big a hit as AWAY WE GO! was after it had changed its name to OKLAHOMA! But making the place look marvelous won’t mean much if bookings don’t come the Emerson Colonial’s way. Schwartz isn’t just hoping for the best; she’s become a State House lobbyist who’s aiming to see the theater get tax credits for shows that start in the Bay State, be they pre-Broadway tryouts or national tours.

While she mentions the usual (and correct) argument that lit theaters means that its patrons will probably dine at nearby restaurants and perhaps do a little shopping too, Schwartz points out that MOULIN ROUGE! also inspired people from out-of-state to attend to the tune of more than 50% of its tickets. Jones adds that many of them belonged to the 25-34-year-old set because they were rabid fans of the original 2001 film.

And of in-staters Schwartz says, “Maybe some forty-year-old beer drinker will bring his girlfriend here to see, say, Louis C.K. and she’ll notice that CINDERELLA is coming and want to bring her niece to it.”

In fact, RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA will be here from Dec. 18-30. See, there’s still room at the Emerson Colonial Theatre for a Great Big Broadway show.