Van Ryzin: Long Center launches its own Broadway series

The Long Center for the Performing Arts is trying to buck the summer tradition of a slowdown on Austin’s cultural calendar.

Last year, the Long Center began a roster of summer programming, much of it free. And this summer there’s even more.

Onstage dance parties have found hundreds learning salsa, swing and even Bollywood moves. Austin’s ever-popular food trailers park on the Long Center’s City Terrace one Tuesday a month for an evening of communal noshing. More than 5,000 have turned up for the free “Sound and Cinema,” a new series with Alamo Drafthouse’s giant inflatable movie screen featuring movies that are paired with live music.

There’s even a series of exercise classes that’s had people flowing through yoga poses. And a live monologue showcase had writers and comedians revealing charming stories about the pop songs that had the most influence on their lives.

This week, however, the Long Center’s debuts perhaps the biggest element of its new programming: its own Broadway series.

Opening Tuesday for a seven show run through July 28 is the now classic “A Chorus Line.” The production comes from Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars.

For the past three seasons, the Long Center has teamed with UT’s Texas Performing Arts to share the roster of traveling Broadway shows produced by Broadway Across America, one of the North America’s largest presenters of new touring productions.

But with that joint agreement over, Long Center executive director Jamie Grant said a survey of the Long Center’s audience revealed what regular ticket-buyers want. More Broadway musicals.

“A Chorus Line” will be followed by Broadway-based national tours of “Godspell” (Nov. 26-27) and “Hair” (March 4-5) and an independent production of “Man of La Mancha” (Jan. 14-15),

Directed and choreographed by Mitzi Hamilton — the inspiration for the character Val in the original Broadway production — the TUTS production of “A Chorus Line” is slightly updated with a modernized storyline and some fresher pop culture references than the original 1975 show.

“We’re testing the waters with this series, but we have the indication that there’s room for these shows in this market,” said Grant.

Grant reports that Long Center attendance is up. For the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30, attendance was up 18 percent over the previous year, or 329,000 compared with 277,008.

Those numbers include audiences for the Long Center’s three founding resident companies — Austin Lyric Opera, Austin Symphony Orchestra and Ballet Austin — whose need for a permanent home drove the creation of the Long Center in the first place.

Adding to the overall statistics are the Long Center’s resident companies — Austin Shakespeare, Conspirare, Pollyanna Theatre Company and Tapestry Dance Company — local, medium-sized arts groups who regularly use either the center’s 2,40o-seat Dell Hall or the 230-seat Rollins Studio Theatre.

Though rental payments and other fees from the ballet, opera and symphony bring in $1.2 million of the Long Center’s $7 million annual budget, Grant said, the center relies on earned income for 87 percent of its budget.

There’s plenty to shoehorn into a calendar: Between rehearsals and performances of the ballet, opera and symphony, Dell Hall is already occupied some 180 nights per year, leaving not a lot of flexibility to book shows.

But some of the Long Center’s past programming — which has included everything from “National Geographic Live” to a Michael Jackson tribute show — has left many puzzling as to the organization’s artistic direction.

Answers Grant: “We made a decision that we wanted to be a place for everyone.”

Of course, that desire to broaden the Long Center appeal is also behind the recent free summer programming that while not a direct income generator, nevertheless has brought new people to the prominently sited, architecturally impressive venue, Grant said.

The Long Center’s upcoming season includes jazz master Wynton Marsalis, Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, Broadway songstress Audra McDonald and comedian Kathy Griffin, among others. And Grant said the schedule later in the season is lightly scheduled now in order to keep some flexibility to book shows that pop up.

And those movie-watching crowds on the Long Center’s City Terrace? They’re here to stay.

“Going forward, summers will never be dark at the Long Center,” Grant said.

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