After more than 20 months of fear, frustration and postponements, Denver’s Broadway fans are finally getting the chance to step back into theaters.
But will they do it? Judging from ticket sales, subscription rates, refund requests and unscientific public polling, the answer seems to be yes — however provisionally, given that Colorado leaders are considering rationing health care amid an alarming COVID surge.
“We’re on our third ‘Hamilton’ reschedule and just gave up the option to (reschedule) again or refund, so really hoping we feel good about going when the day comes,” wrote Denver resident Kandra Hosselkus, in a message to The Denver Post this week, about the Tony-winning musical’s current Buell Theatre dates, Feb. 16-March 27, 2022. “Giving them our money and attending is only an option because DCPA is taking prevention measures.”
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts hosts all of the city’s touring Broadway productions at downtown’s Buell Theatre. But DCPA leaders aren’t taking for granted the changes they made, announced in August, to make theatergoers feel safe — and that are now standard in the industry: mask requirements, proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests, and new filtration and enhanced cleaning in the building.
Those will, ideally, ensure that nothing stops the rollout of these badly needed revenue-generators for the DCPA, especially when it comes to ticketholders still sitting on the fence. They also inject money into downtown Denver restaurants, bars and parking garages before and after shows.
“I regretted having them at first, and would have sold (them) if the pediatric vaccine wasn’t available,” said Denver resident Emily Insalaco Frankovitz of her tickets for “The Lion King,” which returns for its rescheduled dates Dec. 2, 2021-Jan. 2, 2022. “But now I am feeling more comfortable potentially going.”
Other shows include rescheduled runs for “My Fair Lady” (pushed to Nov. 15-27, 2022) as well as regular Broadway series and “added attraction” productions. At this point, many of them are 2022 titles that have played Denver in the past: “Jersey Boys” (April 15-17), “Cats” (May 24-29), “Dear Evan Hansen” (May 31-June 5) and “Come From Away” (Oct. 4-9, 2022), alongside various returning DCPA cabaret and Theatre Company shows.
“The survey data we collected over the 18 to 20 months since we shut down informs us that people were super excited to come back, but they also wanted to feel really safe in doing so,” said Janice Sinden, president and CEO of the DCPA. “We’re going to learn a lot here with this first set of shows.”
While some guests will be wowed by the return to public culture, others may quickly take it for granted. That’s not a bad thing, said John Ekeberg, executive director of Broadway at the DCPA, if it means vaccinated people are getting comfortable indoors. His first experience back in a theater was for the October run of “Improvised Shakespeare” at DCPA’s Garner Galleria Theatre.
“I thought, ‘OK, it’s been a year and a half. Am I just going to sit in this theater? Are the heavens going to open up?’ ” he said. “I thought I was going to see a light and be crying and have this whole emotional experience, but it was the opposite. Five minutes in, I was laughing my head off and it felt oddly normal.”
Denver is an important Broadway market, despite its geographic isolation. Pre-pandemic, a number of touring shows made their debut here, working out kinks in affordable public previews and launching ambitious national jaunts from the Buell.
Think “The Lion King,” which began its national tour in Denver in 2002, and which celebrates 20 years on the road next year, or “The Book of Mormon” and “Pippin.” Pre-Broadway tryouts for big-budget musicals that went nowhere with audiences — such as the stage adaptations of Disney’s animated “The Little Mermaid” and “Frozen” — have also set up shop for Denver test audiences.
“More than 200,000 saw that first touring production (of ‘The Lion King’) in Denver, and many of them remember it like some might recall the wedding of Charles and Diana,” wrote Denver Post theater critic John Moore in 2011.
But starting in March 2020, every planned tour was shelved due to state health mandates as theaters shuttered, cast and crew were furloughed (or outright laid off) and revenues plummeted. The DCPA enjoys a large and enthusiastic — if aging — subscriber base, with 23,500 subscribers for its full seasons of Broadway and locally produced theater. (Subscriptions are still on sale, BTW.) State and federal assistance, donations and philanthropy have helped keep the cash-strapped organization afloat, despite deep and painful cost-cutting.
“It was heartbreaking that we laid off 40 people, furloughed 130 people and ended 96 contracts,” Siden said. “Some folks were away for as long as 18 months.”
DCPA has been able to bring back many of those folks, particularly contract players and crew, in recent weeks as it prepares for its winter and touring Broadway productions. But as renowned and daring as its Theatre Company and other original shows are, the splashy, mainstream Broadway series is the organization’s golden egg, polished anew after nearly two years in storage.
“We need a predictable experience for everyone involved,” Sinden said. “That’s how we’re going to come back.”
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