A look behind the curtain at Charlotte’s Blumenthal performing Arts Center.
When the Broadway smash hit Hamilton takes the stage in Charlotte during the 2017/2018 season, local fans will be so busy congratulating themselves on scoring tickets, they may not consider just how much goes on behind the scenes in assuring Broadway’s best acts to come to the city.
And that’s OK for Tom Gabbard, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s president and CEO. He’s thrilled to set and execute the strategy at Blumenthal, making Charlotte one of a handful of cities across the country Broadway producers place atop their touring list season after season.
“I have six hungry mouths to feed,” says Gabbard. “Fortunately they are stages, not children. We are constantly out there looking for new things for our stages, particularly on the Broadway side.”
One of the country’s premier performing arts centers, the Blumenthal is home to six touchstone performance spaces and pumps more than $56 million into Charlotte’s regional economy. Blumenthal employs 100 full-time staff, has an army of more than 350 volunteers, and provides regular work for nearly 350 local stage hands.
A nonprofit, the Blumenthal operates with an independent board of directors and holds long-term management contracts with the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County to operate the Belk, Booth, Stage Door, and Knight theaters, as well as Spirit Square’s McGlohon and Duke Energy theaters, respectively.
This unusual relationship of a single management organization responsible for so many community theaters offers significant economies of scale and economic advantages that benefit local arts organizations and touring productions alike.
A premier Broadway tour market
Charlotte is considered a premier stop for touring Broadway shows, according to Gabbard. He noted producers leave Charlotte making more money than they do in most any other city on the tour due to lower production costs and a consistently high volume of ticket sales relative to other cities.
“What’s also unusual is we are not simply a landlord; we create activity with 40-50 percent of the shows on our stages representing activity generated by us,” says Gabbard, who’s headed the Blumenthal since 2003.
Many performing arts centers across the country have financial partners and act only as essential landlords. But the Blumenthal is different, taking sole responsibility for booking, negotiating deals, and marketing its events and performances. “Profits on these shows are are put right back into the organization and offset support of local nonprofits, education programs and events like Charlotte Jazz Festival and Breakin’ Convention,” says Gabbard.
Gabbard’s national leadership role and reputation as a savvy producer is a boon for the city. He is president and founder of the Independent Presenters Network, a consortium of leading touring presenters across the country and serves on the Board of Governors for the Broadway League, a national trade organization.
“Broadway, of course, begins in New York but the road is a very important part of the equation for all of our Broadway shows,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. “Many of our shows do not recoup on their investment solely on their run in New York. When they go on the road, they will often recoup with that effort.”
St. Martin noted the Blumenthal enjoys a solid reputation nationally and Charlotte is viewed as a desirable economic market for touring productions.
“Blumenthal is seen as one of the first-class, must-go to locations in the country,” she says. “They are known for doing things right and as a successful first-class venue. Producers see other shows go there and have success, and they want to share in that success as well.”
The impact of Blumenthal’s participation in the Independent Presenters Network allows them to leverage a limited amount of funds into a show, have a seat at the table and ensure the show will play in Charlotte.
Gabbard noted Blumenthal has been an early backer and shared in the success of many mega-hits such as The Color Purple, Spamalot, and Kinky Boots. He is a Tony Award voter and frequently called upon by major producers for strategic advice in the earliest stages of a show’s development. When people see a Broadway show here, four or five years earlier Gabbard was likely in the room when they did an initial workshop or first reading of it.
“We are in a golden era for Broadway,” says Gabbard. “The pipeline is rich with great shows that we are excited to bring to Charlotte.”
Photos by Justin Driscoll