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ARTS & CULTURE

The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival turns 5: Successes, failures, surprises and more

  • 13 min to read

If the first five years of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival were a Broadway show, the title could well be "Too Much, Too Soon."

Launched to leverage the success of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Owasco into a marquee regional tourist attraction, the festival was rolled out with much hype and fanfare. Four Auburn-area venues featuring musical theater on any given summer night. A $30 million economic impact, 400 jobs and 150,000 annual visitors. A sweeping Blueprint and golden shovels.

Though the festival has shown modest growth in its first five years, it has yet to hit those marks. As a result, the festival's new leadership has taken note of its audience's interests and adjusted its tune accordingly. The past two years have seen the festival scale back not only the amount of musical theater it produces, but the area stages with which it partners.

The festival still finds cause for celebration, though: After five years, its artistic reputation has risen at the pace of its loftiest projections, if not faster. With famous names and Tony winners coming to Auburn to work on the playhouse stage and off, as well as splashy new shows premiering there, the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's leadership believes that, creatively, it's been a smash.

The audience

If the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival is singing "Too Much, Too Soon," the chorus would be led by none other than Producing Artistic Director Brett Smock.

Brought aboard the festival in late 2012 as its general manager, 18 months later Smock succeeded Producing Director Ed Sayles when he stepped down after 33 years at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. Not only was Smock taking over a theater Sayles turned from a $180,000 operation into a $5 million one, but in the festival, a multi-venue brand expansion. First proposed in 2007's Call to Action: A Blueprint for Our Region's Future, the festival came with an economic forecast brightened by numbers from the Institute for Outdoor Drama in 2008 and Americans for the Arts in 2012.

It was "a very fast learning curve," Smock said.

Taking the helm with the festival's third season underway, Smock saw audience statistics painting an unfavorable picture of supply and demand — a picture he spent the rest of 2014 analyzing.

The festival brought the supply in 2012 and 2013, programming about 50-percent more shows than previous Merry-Go-Round seasons. The audience, however, didn't reciprocate with demand. After steadily surging from 34,922 in 2003 to 56,406 in 2011, ticket sales have risen and fallen by small percentages since. The festival isn't alone in its stagnation: The Theatre Communications Group's Theatre Facts 2015 report, a survey of the festival and 197 other nonprofit theater companies across the country, found that their average attendance decreased every year between 2012 and 2015. 

"The market hadn't risen yet to the degree that matched the supply," Smock said. "'12 and '13 were the two years where the festival launched out of the gate in a really big way — perhaps too aggressively. And '14 was our year to look at that, reflect on it and understand how not to make the same mistakes again."

Under Smock, then, 2015 and 2016 saw the festival decrease its show count by about 50 and its spending by about $500,000 each year. It ended its partnership with Auburn Public Theater after a shortened 2015 run there and cancelled its plans to build a downtown Auburn theater in 2016. And 2017 will again decrease the festival's show count by about 50, and mark its first season at only two venues: its flagship Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and The Cayuga Museum Carriage House Theater (formerly Theater Mack), the site of its musicals-in-progress series The Pitch.

Despite the drawdown, Smock said he has not lost sight of the festival's mission, which he has understood from the day he walked into his office at Westminster Presbyterian Church. That mission, he said, is twofold: To celebrate and explore the art of musical theater, and to energize downtown Auburn.

Though the festival now has no tangible downtown presence, Smock "totally" believes it continues to fulfill the second half of its mission holistically.

Downtown businesses appear to agree. Cayuga County Office of Tourism Executive Director Meg Vanek said the office has tracked an overall increase in recreational visitor spending during the five years of the festival, from $3.11 million in 2012 to $3.49 million in 2015, the last year for which statistics are available. Though the festival's role in the increase can't be unpacked from the figures, Vanek continued, the area hasn't seen any new sources of recreational activity in Cayuga County aside from the festival.

"The whole picture of downtown and Auburn ... from when the festival first started to now has gone in a positive direction," she said, citing the appearance of craft breweries, bars and restaurants, the Hilton Garden Inn and more tourist-friendly downtown businesses following the festival's launch.

Vanek added, "We've always been promoting the festival, or Merry-Go-Round before the festival, as something different that no one else has in the Finger Lakes."

Jessica Cantu, director of sales for the Hilton Garden Inn, said the number of festival patrons staying at the State Street hotel has "been increasing just a little" each year. 

Festival shows have also been a source of traffic for throwback cocktail bar A.T. Walley & Co., where not only patrons but cast and crew flock after shows, co-owner Nick Musso said. East Genesee Street restaurant Moro's Table, on the other hand, prizes the pre-show dining traffic the festival has driven there at the otherwise slow 5 p.m. hour. Owner Ed Moro added that the festival's extension of its 2015 and 2016 seasons with holiday shows staved off the slowdown he'd usually see in November and December.

2017 won't see a holiday show, however. Smock again cited supply and demand, though he added that the slot could return for "the right shows with the right demand."

It wouldn't be the first festival move that has been unkind to business owners like Moro: Osteria Salina owner Guillermo Salinas said he "put everything on the line" to open his State Street restaurant across from the downtown theater's planned site, and was dismayed by the project's cancellation. And Moro said the festival ending its Auburn Public Theater presence "no doubt" affected his 2016 traffic, though he said he's unsure how significantly it did so. Still, Moro continued, any festival is better than no festival.

"I would love to see them in town more, and doing more," he said. "I wish they'd stay open all year-round."

Among the general public, a recent unscientific Auburnpub.com poll suggests a more split consensus about the festival's impact on the Cayuga County area: Though 37.7 percent of the poll's 440 respondents said the festival has "absolutely" had a positive effect, the next biggest portion of respondents, 28.9 percent, said it has "not at all" had that effect.

Addressing the festival's critics, Smock said its staff is always working to tighten its ties with the community. It does that, he continued, through the Merry-Go-Round Youth Theater that has placed the festival in front of more than 100,000 young future theatergoers, a new scholarship honoring Tony Award-winning Auburnian Thommie Walsh, or its new backstage pass series, Festival 360°.

Still, Smock acknowledged that "for a lot of people, theater isn't their jam. And that's OK."

Smock also called the expectation that the festival would singlehandedly enkindle the local economy to the tune of $30 million "a very tall order to live up to." He still believes the festival can drive tourism to the Cayuga County area — but he also believes, now, that it can't do so alone.

Sharing that belief is Brett Egan, president of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

The institute was contracted to consult with the festival in late 2015 by the Emerson Foundation, which has granted the festival more than $2 million for operational and other expenses dating back to 2011, according to the foundation's filings with the Charities Bureau of the state Attorney General's Office.

After about half a dozen visits that extended into June 2016, DeVos shared its conclusions with the festival. Among them, Egan said, was that the festival should work with other stakeholders in Cayuga County tourism — historic sites, craft beverage producers, recreational businesses — to create a "package mentality" for prospective tourists.

"Remind people that a two-day or three-day weekend in Auburn would be a great choice," Egan said. "While Auburn may very well find a path to building a cultural destination downtown, it's not within the realm of feasibility, in my opinion, for the playhouse to shoulder the majority of that today."

DeVos also suggested the festival invest more into its marketing, which Egan said has yielded above-average returns for a theater operation of the festival's size. He suggested making that investment to tout not only the festival's tourism potential, but also the reach of its youth theater program, which he said is "without peer." 

Additionally, the DeVos Institute consulted with the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival on another aspect of its five-year plan: building a theater in downtown Auburn.

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'Late Nite Catechism'

Theatergoers arrive at Auburn Public Theater the afternoon of July 24, 2015, for "Late Nite Catechism," a co-presentation of the theater and the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival.

The stages

Golden shovels gleamed in the afternoon sun Sept. 24, 2013, as ground was ceremonially broken at 1-7 State St. in downtown Auburn.

Scooping gravel hip-to-hip with the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's leadership were representatives of Cayuga Community College, the festival's partner in building what they planned to occupy the lot where they stood: The Schwartz Family Performing Arts Center.

The $7.8 million structure would serve as both a festival venue and a college classroom. Though the theater would only seat houses of 384 to the playhouse's 501, its downtown location positioned it to anchor the festival as its fourth site of programming along with the playhouse, Auburn Public Theater and Theater Mack.

But that broken ground would remain nothing more. Attorney Joseph Camardo, whose 127 Genesee St. office neighbored the 1-7 State St. lot, repeatedly took the festival and the college to court. Camardo alleged that his building sustained damage during the winter 2011 demolition of the Kalet's department store that previously occupied the lot, that public funds were illegally used to support the project, and, principally, that the lot had not undergone a proper environmental review.

In June 2014 — three years, $200,000 in legal fees and more than $5 million in now-returnable raised funds later — the festival and the college cancelled the Schwartz project.

Ed Sayles, who stepped down as the festival's producing director at around the same time, said that the project's legal snags were catching more than half of his time toward its end.

Like Smock, Sayles also looks back on the first five years of the festival with the benefit of hindsight. However, his review centers on the Schwartz — which "as the visible representation of the festival was very important" and "would have given (Auburn) a real theater district," he said.

The reason the festival has yet to realize its potential, Sayles contends, is because it couldn't build that fourth venue.

"Maybe it would have been better to hold off (on the festival) until that was a done deal," he said. "If I had to do it all over again, I would have been much more conservative."

Following news of the Schwartz project's cancellation, festival leaders pledged that they were still committed to building a downtown theater. Speculation that their gaze shifted down the block to 9-15 State St. was stirred in early 2016, when festival backer the Stardust Entrepreneurial Institute bought the neighboring lot.

The DeVos Institute, meanwhile, had a different opinion. As it concluded its consultation with the festival in the spring of 2016, it told Smock what he said he all but already knew: Don't build the theater. DeVos President Egan called the project a "bullish and beautiful idea," but given current conditions, not a sustainable one.

At the suggestion of DeVos, then, the festival has not only cancelled its plans to build a downtown theater, but also frozen its plans to program at pre-existing ones, Smock said. And until the playhouse begins routinely selling out its 501-seat house, he continued, that will remain the festival's position on adding stages to its lineup.

"We believe that right now, we've found the right balance between what we offer and who's coming to see shows," he said. "As that grows, then we'll have the conversation about another venue."

That means no musicals on the stage of the West Middle School auditorium. The festival looked at the redeveloping property four years ago, Smock said, but has no plans to program there.

That also means no musicals in Rochester. In 2014, the festival planned to partner with the Rochester Association of Performing Arts to stage Merry-Go-Round shows at the 1,964-seat Kodak Center for Performing Arts after their initial runs that summer. But the association didn't meet its financial end of the partnership, Smock said, and the shows were cancelled before the first curtain rose.

The festival returned to Rochester in 2016 to stage "Austen's Pride: A New Musical of Pride and Prejudice" at Nazareth College, with whom the festival partners to give musical theater majors professional training experience. The show was a "terrific artistic success," Smock said, but the Rochester market would take more time and capital to grow than the festival can currently commit.

Lastly, that means no musicals at the Auburn Schine Theater. Despite continued overtures from the stewards of the 1938 movie theater's restoration, the Cayuga County Arts Council, as well as the community, Smock said the Schine's 1,700 seats would be far too many for a festival that has yet to sell out 501 with any regularity.

The city of Auburn appears to have been making similar overtures to the festival about the Schine. A recent Freedom of Information request by The Citizen produced a May 13 email to Smock from Christina Selvek, the city's director of capital projects and grants, with four documents outlining the Schine's redevelopment plan, square footage, programming feasibility and history. The documents were sent amid discussions between the city and Smock about the festival's involvement in Auburn's application for $10 million in state Downtown Revitalization Initiative funds.

"Knowing (Smock) was relatively new to the position," Selvek said, "I wanted to be sure he had seen the various historical and recent Brownfield reports for the building completed by the city."

Asked about the email and the Schine, Smock simply reiterated the festival's support for the project and recognition of its "overwhelming costs and scope."

Less ambiguous is the festival's relationship with Auburn Public Theater. After a pilot run of "Cooking with the Calamari Sisters" in 2011 followed by four years of summerlong programming at the Exchange Street theater, the festival suspended its only downtown presence in 2016. 

Today, Auburn Public Theater Artistic Director Angela Daddabbo sees many positives in the arrangement — even in the festival's amicable exit. 

"Calamari" introduced the bickering Italian sisters to a market with whom they've been such a hit, Daddabbo said, that Auburn Public Theater has brought them back six successful times.

The seventh will be June 7-10. In another positive for her theater, Daddabbo said, the festival's run there led her and Executive Director Carey Eidel to realize that there is an audience for summer theater in downtown Auburn. So when the festival declined to renew its rental contract, Daddabbo continued, she and Eidel took what they learned watching the festival produce shows at their 200-seat theater and applied it to producing their own.

Daddabbo also believes the festival has strongly contributed to raising the Auburn area's cultural literacy. She cited The Pitch, which follows the presentation of its 60-minute musicals in progress at The Cayuga Museum Carriage House Theater with an audience feedback session. By the series' second year in 2013, Daddabbo said, that feedback was becoming noticeably more sophisticated.

Smock said The Pitch — which "wouldn't be possible" without support from Generations Bank — has remained part of the festival because of not only the monetary capital it requires, but the creative capital it yields.

"One of the main reasons it's so important to me is that it provides the audience a voice," he said. "We're so freaking proud of it. It speaks to mission, and it speaks to community."

For all its own creative success, however, The Pitch has played but a small part in that of the festival with respect to the other half of its mission: celebrating and exploring the art of musical theater.

The shows

Without the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, Smock said, those famous names might not have found their way to Auburn. And they certainly wouldn't continue to maintain that connection, whether it's Dayne and Wendt emailing Smock to ask how his next season is shaping up, or Smock working with Rice to mount his musical adaptation of "From Here to Eternity" in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December and in Ogunquit, Maine, this summer.

Smock said casting Dayne ("CATS"), Wendt ("Hank Williams: Lost Highway") and Tom Wopat ("The Will Rogers Follies") had a significant effect on those shows' sales. And though the festival has scaled back spending in recent years, he continued, it is not closed off to casting more stars. The name — and their effect on selling a particular show — just has to be the right package, Smock said.

Though name value is a new kind of investment in the artistic product of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Smock said, it's far from the first. Personnel, facilities and other forms of investment in the theater's product made by Sayles in the 1990s and 2000s have helped turn that product into "our single most important asset," Smock said.

That's why the festival can cast Dayne, Wendt and Wopat atop an ever-increasing number of auditioners in both Auburn and New York City, Smock said. That's why it can bring the legendary Tony Award-winning lyricist Rice ("The Lion King," "Jesus Christ Superstar") to Auburn to groom his newest work in "Eternity." That's why it can world-premiere a hot property musical like "Saturday Night Fever" in 2015 and, today, "have the conversations we're having now" about making even more headlines in the industry, Smock said.

"With the exponential gains in our artistic profile and our reputation, inclusion and consideration in the industry at high levels, the festival's nothing like what it used to be," he said.

Despite the inroads the festival has made with the theater industry, Smock said, it's still as focused as ever on programming to its home audience.

One major front in that effort is ticket prices. At an average $31.46 across adult, senior and next-generation pricing tiers, the festival's average subscriber ticket price (which doesn't include its fall Blue Light Special discount) is lower than the average for theaters its size: $33.97, according to the Theatre Communications Group's Theatre Facts 2015 report. The festival's average single ticket price for Merry-Go-Round Playhouse shows, on the other hand, is $43.60 to the national average of $36.12 — though the average drops to $37.75 when factoring in tickets to The Pitch.

Capturing those next-generation sales is another challenge for the festival. They remained about 5 percent of the audience from 2012 to 2016, while senior citizens went from 65 to 74 percent and adults from 30 to 20 percent. This demographic data is based on sales, however, which doesn't account for the ages of people who have tickets purchased for them.

Age, Smock said, can affect the other major front in programming to its audience: the shows themselves. Boy band sendup "Altar Boyz" underperformed in 2012, Smock believes, because the festival had yet to develop its younger demographic. Meanwhile, "CATS" and the Sun Studio jukebox musical "Million Dollar Quartet" "just kept selling and selling" beyond Smock's expectations.

Even that pattern doesn't always hold, though. "Menopause: The Musical," which the festival slotted for about 10 weeks at Auburn Public Theater in the summer of 2014, wasn't so hot at the box office, Smock said. But it was bookended by surprising successes at the downtown theater in the form of "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" in 2013 and "Late Nite Catechism" in 2015.

Amid that unpredictability, Smock sees a consistent positive trend: audience trust. For instance, when he announced in 2015 that the festival would work with Rice to stage "From Here to Eternity" the following summer, the artistic producing director was met with "oohs" and "aahs" from the audience, he said. But advance ticket sales were slow — until the show opened in June 2016. It then strung together four consecutive record-breaking sales days, Smock said.

This year, he continued, occupying that "risky, darker" slot of the season's second show is "Parade," the Tony-winning true story of Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank's trial for murder in 1913 Atlanta. Despite being as adventurous a property as "From Here to Eternity," Smock said, the show's sales are trending higher. Movie adaptation "Ghost" is also resonating surprisingly well, he said.

Smock chalks up those changes to the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival improving its regard among audiences alongside its reputation in the theater industry. And as the festival continues onward, from five to 10 and 15 years, Smock hopes the rest of its forecasted growth — economic, physical — follows suit given the right strategy and the right timing.

For perspective, Smock pointed to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. It did achieve global recognition, he said — after 70 years of working toward it.

"It's a great, comparative moment to say that this place can do incredible things, it just needs time," Smock said. "It's slower than we anticipated, but it is still happening."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.