From a staging of worldwide phenomenon Cats in 1987 to the 11 productions it staged last year, Best of Broadway has given Spokane big, big theater.
In the 25 years since Best of Broadway started bringing touring musicals to Spokane, more than 2 million people have been seen classics like South Pacific and Les Miserables, along with more contemporary productions like Rent and The Lion King.
But unpacking a major musical for a short run of dates is no easy task.
“I always tell people that putting together the Broadway season every year is kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” says Jack Lucas, president of WestCoast Entertainment, which produces the Best of Broadway series. “You have to coordinate the dates that are available with the dates that some of these shows are going to come through.”
That’s why it took three years to finally land Wicked last spring. And the puzzle grows by pieces and colors once the shows arrive in town.
“Lion King traveled here in 24 semis,” Lucas says.
“Trust me, that’s a lot of equipment to put in the back of a theater.”
Coordinating what Lucas calls the “moving parts” is also a challenge. The audience may see the actors as the faces of a production, but the workforce behind the scenes is huge.
“When you do a mega-musical, you’re hiring about 100 local stagehands, ushers, building people, marketing, ticketing,” Lucas says. “It takes a great deal of technical know-how to pull these shows off. You have to have the infrastructure … You can’t pull off Phantom of the Opera with a small, nonprofit theater.”
Incidentally, when Phantom came to Spokane in 2000, it was the smallest city that production had ever played. The INB Center needed major renovations just to accommodate all the backstage equipment Phantom required.
“We were able to take the financial risk, because we thought we’d be supported and — knock on wood — we’ve been supported,” Lucas says.
Many of those 2 million people Lucas estimates to have seen the shows have come from outside Spokane, meaning they’re spending outside dollars. And that’s an economic boost he’s proud of.
“For every dollar spent on a Broadway ticket, we believe there’s a $3 return,” he says. “And a good portion of our audience is outside of a 100-mile radius.”
In some ways, Expo ’74 paved the way for the Best of Broadway. As planning committees met and deliberated on how to present the city to the world, it was decided that a performance venue needed to be built. Designers soon realized that this space, if large enough, could potentially draw national acts, according to The Fair and the Falls, the definitive history on Spokane’s World’s Fair. Fueled by about $10 million in state funding for the fair, they decided to go big: more than 2,000 seats, box-office space, lobbies, stage facilities, dressing rooms and administrative office spaces. It’s been an investment that has paid big dividends for Spokane.
But it was Cats that gave local boosters the idea for Best of Broadway. The production, based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, premiered in 1981 with its elaborate costumes and became one of the most successful musicals of all time.
“It was almost a guaranteed success, the show was that popular at the time,” recalls Michael Kobluk, who was then the city director for entertainment services, including the Spokane Opera House (now the INB Center). But he couldn’t see the city shelling out the $350,000 required to bring the production to town.
“I could not risk taxpayers’ dollars for that expense,” Kobluk says. “I racked my brain a bit and finally decided there was a company in Spokane … they had just within the past few months of that, had received the rights to sell computerized tickets.
“I sat down in my office and made a list of reasons why Don Barbieri, who was the principal of [the company that started TicketsWest], should consider it.”
Kobluk made an appointment with Barbieri and made his pitch — the “opportunity to sell eight performances of the most popular show in the country,” Kobluk says.
Barbieri was taken with the idea but flew to New York to consult some experts on whether the operation would be feasible.
“He came back three days later willing not only to do Cats but determined to bring a series of Broadway shows to Spokane,” Kobluk says.
Kobluk, who had moved to Spokane in 1968, was a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio and later became director for performing and visual arts for Expo ’74, says Best of Broadway filled a niche not even seen during Expo.
“No big musicals [came], but a couple of Shakespearean shows, only there for one or two performances each,” Kobluk says, recalling Expo’s performance roster.
For Kobluk, the magic of Best of Broadways emerges in the flourishes and all the amazing moments that have happened on that stage.
“Phantom was and still is one of the finest kind of productions,” says Kobluk. “A chandelier hanging over the audience literally appears to fall.”
There was Miss Saigon, in which a helicopter lifts off the stage and into the sky.
And, of course, there are the animals of Disney’s smash 1994 movie, which later graduated to the stage. “Amazing things happen in The Lion King,” Kobluk says.
There is no shortage of iconic Best of Broadway moments. Jerry Lewis absolutely bringing down the house in Damn Yankees as Mr. Applegate, aka the Devil. Baritone legend Robert Goulet in Man of La Mancha, the rotating barricade in Les Miz, the sparkling costumes in The Will Rogers Follies, the amazing dance numbers in Chicago — everyone has their own unforgettable moments.
But Kobluk is especially proud of having helped bring Broadway productions more than 2,500 miles west of the Great White Way. It’s a tradition he thinks is integral to American culture.
“It truly does give a cross-section of all the performing arts possibilities,” Kobluk says of musicals, adding that the genre is, “all-American. It truly is. Like jazz, it was invented in this country. Some of the finest tunes that you have heard come from Broadway shows.”
Lucas also believes Best of Broadway has contributed to the overall quality of life in the Inland Northwest.
“They’re not having to go to Seattle, they’re not having to travel to Portland,” he says, referring to theatergoers.
What productions would Lucas like to bring next to Spokane?
“I’d love to do Jersey Boys — that’s the story of the Four Seasons,” he says.
But whatever the next smash hit is, he wants to bring it to Spokane.
“What’ s the next Phantom? What’s the next Cats? What’s the next Lion King?” he asks. “Somebody someplace is coming up with an idea.”
Kind of like Don Barbieri and Mike Kobluk did all those years ago.