Pioneer saw the challenge coming in the Eccles’ 2016 opening, it told Salt Lake County officials last year. It had planned to cover an expected budget shortfall in its 2016-17 season with cash reserves.
“Unfortunately, the impact was greater than expected: Total ticket sales for 2016-17 will be at an all-time low,” theater officials wrote last year in their application for county Zoo, Arts and Parks funding.
Pioneer reduced expenses, raised more in private giving and still had to tap more cash reserves, it said.
But the next season — as blockbuster musical “Hamilton” packed the Eccles despite what Pioneer noted were “unprecedentedly high ticket prices” — Pioneer’s ticket sales ticked up, and even surged for individual shows.
Going into its 2018-19 season, Karen Azenberg, PTC’s artistic director, looks back with some relief.
“You know what? We survived ‘Hamilton,’” Azenberg said last week, between rehearsals on Pioneer’s season opener, “Oslo.” Last year’s Tony winner for best play, “Oslo” opened Friday.
“We’ve had some challenges, for sure, and I’m not sure that they’re over,” she said. But she added that fears that the Eccles Theater would be unbearable competition for PTC may have been overblown.
The theater has approached the friends of its season ticket holders and pitched a deal to younger potential patrons. And Azenberg is optimistic that this season’s slate will satisfy a variety of audiences.
She’s excited that she got the rights to two of the hottest plays off Broadway, “Oslo” and last year’s Pulitzer winner, Lynn Nottage’s working-class drama “Sweat” (set for March 29-April 13).
“You don’t get bigger prizes than that, and no one else is doing it,” she said. “Those are both plays that I think are going to outlive much of what we’re seeing around the country right now.”
Between Eccles and Hale
If the Eccles Theater is the rock, the Hale Centre Theatre’s expanded new venue in Sandy is the hard place.
The Eccles is owned by Salt Lake County, but programmed by the for-profit Broadway Across America with splashy national tours of musicals just off their New York City runs. The Hale, a community nonprofit, offers family-friendly comedies, musicals and other plays for suburban audiences.
Pioneer, also a nonprofit, mixes the current with the classics, and crowd-pleasers with more challenging fare. The company has scheduled musicals as soon as national tours are done and has snagged other plays — such as “Oslo” and “Sweat” — soon after they’ve closed on Broadway.
“Different kinds of competition entering the market changes the way you need to think about doing business,” Azenberg said. “It has been an opportunity for us to look at our programming and just shake it up a little bit. … If we do the same thing all the time, then you’re the same thing all the time.”
Pioneer survived previous competition from Broadway shows, she notes.
“The Eccles, it’s a new name, but there’s always been touring shows in Salt Lake City,” Azenberg said, noting that productions of “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Book of Mormon” and “Les Misérables” were all the rage when they played the Capitol Theatre.
The April timing of the “Hamilton” run at the Eccles helped blunt the impact on Pioneer, she said. It overlapped PTC’s production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” but was over before PTC’s popular spring musical, “Mamma Mia!”
Pioneer even rode “Hamilton’s” coattails a bit, staging a concert version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s earlier musical, “In the Heights.”
“We were lucky, because it landed in a good time for us,” she added. “It wasn’t up against a big musical.”
Ticket sales for last season were up from the year before’s low, with 6,143 season tickets and 26,298 individual tickets sold, mostly on the strength of musicals “Newsies,” “Bright Star” and “Mamma Mia!”
That was up from 2016-17, when 5,833 season tickets and 13,490 individual tickets had sold.
Salt Lake County awarded Pioneer $557,526 in Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) funding based on the application that had described that challenging season; this year, PTC is projected to receive more, about $595,787.
Spreading the theater bug
Pioneer doesn’t surrender the family audience to Hale; it offers holiday shows and other programming to try to draw families in.
PTC will end its season next May with the much-loved musical “Grease.” Its holiday offering, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” is a story spun from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
“I’m not averse to family-friendly options at all,” Azenberg said. “For the Hale, that is their calling card. But that is just a portion of what we do.”
While some arts groups perform the same holiday shows every year as a December cash cow, “I really do think people look at Pioneer as the arts institution that doesn’t do that,” Azenberg said. “So if you’re tired of ‘The Nutcracker,’ you’re tired of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ but you want to do something over the holidays, we will offer you something you haven’t seen before.”
Going to plays with their families can help give young people the theater bug — growing them into the next generation of ticket-buyers, she said.
“If you’re able to impart that into your kids’ life, the likelihood is they’ll come back to it when their finances and schedule permits,” Azenberg said.
The aging demographics of theater audiences has “been an issue for 40 years. … It says something about the psychology of when people actually become theatergoers,” she said.
“When my kids were little, I went to the theater for work. [Otherwise] I didn’t go to the theater or a movie or out to dinner. You can only do so much when you have toddlers and babysitters and schedules and soccer and ballet lessons.
“Then there’s a shift. Your kids can stay home alone, and there’s something you want to see. Or there’s something you want to share with your kids.”
PTC this year started offering a discount for theatergoers under 35, with half-price season tickets. (Technically, the discount was long offered through the University of Utah Alumni Association to the public, but few people knew about it.) So far, PTC says, 300 people have taken advantage of it.
Murder and swear words
The other musicals on this season’s lineup are Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” — a grim tale of murder and meat pies that Hale seems unlikely to touch — and the set-in-Ireland romance “Once,” which requires actors to play their own instruments.
And it will offer the royal shouting match “The Lion in Winter” in January.
“Oslo” and “Sweat” have a problematic element for Salt Lake City audiences: They’re loaded with swear words.
“We try to be extremely respectful of what people are sensitive about, and put very extensive content warnings on our plays and musicals,” Azenberg said. “I can’t have six shows that have strong language warnings. That’s just not practical.”
Chris Lino, PTC’s soon-to-retire managing director, writes those warnings. “Poor Chris Lino’s head probably exploded counting the ‘f---s’ in ‘Oslo,’” Azenberg joked.
“Oslo,” now playing, is a tougher sell than, say, “Grease.” It’s a nearly three-hour drama — “two hours and 47 minutes,” Azenberg insists — about the behind-closed-doors negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians in 1993. But “you don’t have to understand the history of the Israeli and Palestinian relationship to appreciate and enjoy this play,” Azenberg said.
“It’s really much more about if you throw two, four, 20 people in a room who don’t know each other and don’t like each other, how do they find commonality?” she said. “And how do they realize they’re maybe not so far apart?”
Pioneer Theatre’s new season
The 2018-19 season of Pioneer Theatre Company kicks off with J.T. Rogers’ Tony Award-winning play “Oslo.”
Where • Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
When • Plays through Sept. 29
Tickets • pioneertheatre.org
Here is the slate for Pioneer Theatre Company’s 2018-19 season:
Sept. 14-29 • “Oslo,” J.T. Rogers’ play about the 1993 negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Oct. 26-Nov. 10 • “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical of a murderous barber.
Nov. 30-Dec. 15 • “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” a play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, a holiday romance spun off from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
Jan. 4-19 • “The Lion in Winter,” James Goldman’s play centering on Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Feb. 15-March 2 • “Once,” a musical based on the Irish movie about a Dublin busker and a Czech immigrant finding romance through songs.
March 15-16 • A concert performance of the musical “La Cage aux Folles.”
March 29-April 13 • “Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning play about working-class people in Reading, Pa.
May 10-25 • “Grease,” the beloved musical about high-schoolers in the 1950s.