When the Arizona Broadway Theatre staff started planning for the fall, there was something they knew they needed to do—provide a place for patrons to see shows in person.
Kiel Klaphake, ABT’s CEO and executive producer, said that when the venue shut down, it created virtual cabarets and youth programs.
“As time went on, we were exploring whether there was the ability to do (continued) virtual programming,” Klaphake said. “I talked to my colleagues, and while virtual programming is a really awesome thing, it is not what we do and who we are.”
ABT built its reputation on large musicals served with multicourse meals. Now, it has mostly canceled food service and scaled down audience sizes—without losing the ambition.
With curtains going up and running through December, the fall interim programming includes six shows:
•ABT Broadway Concert Series: Set on the mainstage, these concerts pay homage to Broadway, Hollywood and holiday melodies. Concert themes will include “Music of the Night: A Tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber,” “Hooray for Hollywood: A Salute to the Movie Musical” and “Home for the Holidays: Celebrating the Spirit of the Season.”
•TAD Management Concert Series: Also on the mainstage, there will be eight tributes with TAD Management. “Piano Men: Generations” launches the series this weekend. Concerts pay tribute to Billy Joel, Elton John, Journey, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Garth Brooks and “Jersey Boys.”
•Broadway Bingo! Set in the Encore Room, this is a new cabaret concept where the song list will be determined by the bingo numbers called. Winners get to pick their favorite Broadway hit along with other prizes.
•The “Unplugged” Concert Series. Also in the Encore Room, this series showcases local musicians, including Nicole Pesce (7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15), Jared Mancuso, Nick Gallardo, and Josh and Lexy Condon.
•Midweek Movie Musicals. David Appleford, a Valley film and theater critic, will host these matinee performances in the Encore Room. After a discussion on the differences between the movie and stage musicals, patrons will watch such classic movie musicals as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Paint Your Wagon,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “White Christmas.”
•Murder Mystery Series. The one exception to the no-food rule, Murder & a Meal Mystery Theatre is coming to the Encore Room to present a fully interactive entertainment experience including “Clue” and “Murder on the Movie Set,” beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, with “Get a Clue or Die.”
Klaphake hopes these shows will pave the way for when they are able to get back to big musicals, with “Chicago” set to return in the winter of 2021. This is a chance for audiences to get used to new protocols and ways of seeing theater.
“We are giving smaller audiences something to do and hopefully help grease the skids for the community to get used to coming to our theater with a mask on and have to be spaced out from each other so when we get to our main productions, they’re more familiar with what to expect,” Klaphake said.
Behind the scenes, there will be stringent sanitation protocols. The building will be aired out between each show using a modified ventilation system to recycle air when patrons aren’t there, and shorter shows will be chosen.
Patrons will notice they can’t linger in the lobby, with fewer people in the audience and on-stage.
The plan is to have only four or five artists on stage so that ABT can control the aerosol spread. ABT will have a mask mandate.
“We hope people are eager to come out and have live experiences so that they will accept some of these inconveniences,” Klaphake said.
As more temperate weather rolls in, staff is brainstorming outdoor activities.
“It will allow people to sit on a blanket in the grass,” Klaphake said. “We’re exploring this to give people a real, live shared experience that I think is fundamental to what theater is all about.”
Meanwhile, interim programming is being billed as fundraisers to help keep the theater alive at a time when its big revenue makers are on hiatus.
“We all need to make money,” Klaphake said. “Fortunately, with the collaboration we have, everyone has been very cooperative in finding creative solutions to putting things on stage. Obviously, we’re having to pare things down to some basic fundamentals. Our concerts will be focused on talent, which is a really great thing for us as a company.”
The series starts Oct. 14, but Klaphake said the response was enthusiastic as soon as tickets went on sale in September. If they sell out, he said there is capacity to add shows, but occupancy won’t be increased, so the venue can maintain safe distances between patrons.
No matter what the challenges, Klaphake knows that people still need to be together and to experience art together.
“It is the great thing about our industry,” Klaphake said. “This pandemic is not going to be the end of theater.
“It’s going to create more of the thirst to go out and see people again. That can’t be replaced."