The curtain is down on the inaugural Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival. Now comes the review.
Long forecasted to drive economic growth in the Cayuga County area, the festival followed through with what its supporters consider promising figures in 2012. Based on budget numbers and ticket receipts for the year, festival organizers project significant growth over 2011 in expenditures, full-time equivalent jobs and local/state government revenue. Expenditures rose by about $1.6 million, jobs by about 60 and revenue generated for government by about $185,000.
Ticket sales also rose to 58,525, though with the caveat that 2012 saw almost 100 more performances than last year's preparatory season. Some downtown Auburn businesses have noticed the rise in traffic, having served those new patrons before or after this summer's 270 shows.
"It was a great, vibrant feeling downtown this summer," said Meg Vanek, executive director of the Cayuga County Office of Tourism.
The festival also found artistic success. The August production of "Cabaret" at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse earned the theater its first review in BroadwayWorld.com, which called the show "an impressive success." "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding," staged at the Auburn Public Theater in July, attracted the attention of New York City producers who are currently trying to stage the Canadian show's Manhattan debut. And the festival's experimental series for in-progress musicals, The Pitch at Theater Mack, has propelled "Neurosis: The Musical" to an Auburn Public Theater run in next summer's festival.
There's plenty of room for improvement, though. The festival is still far from organizers' predicted impact of 150,000 attendees annually, $30 million for the local economy, and 400 jobs. Part of that plan involves a fourth theatrical venue, the Schwartz Family Performing Arts Center in the former Kalet building space, which isn't projected to open its doors until 2014.
But the festival's organizers aren't waiting until then to close the gap on their goals. Motivated by how the festival fared this year, many changes will take effect for the 2013 season — such as the handling of more obscure shows. The varying degrees of success of this summer's lesser-known musicals have taught Producing Director Ed Sayles a few things about maximizing their appeal.
At Auburn Public Theater in particular, where festival shows lacked the familiarity of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse's Broadway classics, Sayles learned that longer runs could be especially fruitful, he said. He estimates that all three shows at the downtown theater — "Altar Boyz," "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" and "Fingers & Toes" — about doubled their average house numbers over the course of their three-week runs. He attributes those swelling audiences to word-of-mouth.
"It took a while for people to be able to explain the shows to their neighbors," Sayles said.
Titles also appeared to be a factor, he said, as the quirkily named "Wedding" fared much better than the other two APT shows. Showing before houses of 80-90 percent capacity in its closing week, the David Hein and Irene Karl Sankoff musical is considered by Sayles to be the inaugural festival's most surprising success.
However, the 2012 show whose turnout most disappointed Sayles is also a mouthful: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." At a loss to explain precisely why the 2005 comedy underperformed at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Sayles suggested that early-summer festival shows like "Altar Boyz" and "Wedding" may had saturated audience demand for parody and peculiarity.
Regardless, the two shows at APT next summer shouldn't have trouble with running too short or sparking enough intrigue with their names. Both "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" and "Neurosis: The Musical" are slated to run for three weeks, with the option of adding more showings if they build momentum. Being able to offer performers lengthier engagements could also land the festival finer talent, said Sayles, who noted that Equity actors gain more health insurance credits the longer they're contracted.
The downtown theater could also see more traffic in 2013 due to a new festival ticket price tier: $22 tickets for patrons 22 and younger, down from $33 this past summer. The measure could prove especially effective at APT, where crowds skewed younger than those of the playhouse, Sayles said.
No additional changes to ticket pricing are planned — adults will still pay as much for shows at the Merry-Go-Round as at Auburn Public Theater in 2013. People who can't see the rationale for the smaller-scale APT shows charging as much as the larger MGR ones may not understand some financial realities, Sayles said.
"The difference in sets and the cast are relatively minor," he said. "If you add in the fact that we're renting APT, the costs are similar. And APT only has 199 seats. ... So the max gross income on one show at the playhouse is only about 2.5 percent more."
Marketing the festival itself is another area where Sayles sees opportunity in 2013. This year, ads and other forms of outreach aggressively targeted central New York and surrounding counties. The group organizers forgot about, Sayles said, was people visiting the area from afar. Just 6 percent of the festival's 2012 audience lived outside a 12-13-county region surrounding Cayuga. But a new campaign next year could change that.
Extensive signage — on billboards, on lawns — along main thoroughfares will not only let passersby know about the festival, it'll specifically highlight performers in scenes from the shows. This past summer, festival signs primarily featured its red-and-white stamp logo. Images of Don Lockwood in "Singin' in the Rain," for instance, would be much more evocative to visitors, Sayles said.
The festival's regional reach is still promising to Sayles. When he arrived at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in 1980, about 20 percent of audiences came from outside Cayuga County, he said. That figure has since grown to 72 percent in 2012. But Sayles is confident future festivals could pull in even more people from the farthest areas of New York state and beyond.
"We seldom get a visitor who's not pleasantly surprised by our shows," Sayles said. "It's about how we become visible to this group."
The 2012 festival dug in some national hooks through The Pitch, the child to Auburn Public Theater's teenager and the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse's adult in the life cycle of the musical. The series brought playwrights from as far as Los Angeles and Maine to Theater Mack to workshop their incubating shows for a weekend in front of a cabaret-style crowd.
It started slow, with some early performances taking place before audiences of about 10, Sayles said. But toward the end of The Pitch's 10-week run, people looking to catch possibly the next big musical often packed the former carriage house close to its 100-seat capacity.
The warm word-of-mouth pleased Sayles, who wasn't positive other festival organizers — let alone festival-goers — would appreciate the concept. He hopes its popularity grows in 2013 by giving audiences more opportunities to voice their opinions of what they see. The Pitch will feature only one show a night, rather than two, to allow patrons more time to ask the playwrights questions and praise or criticize their work.
Relaxing the time restrictions on the presenting teams could also lead to audiences seeing alternate endings or axed musical numbers, Sayles said.
"The teams usually went over their 45 minutes," he said. "And people had so much to say that we had to cut them off."
The change to a pay-what-you-can charge for The Pitch's last weekend of 2012 was wildly successful, Sayles said, with the average patron voluntarily paying more than the usual $20 fee. Whether this one-off experiment affects how the series charges admission in the future is undecided at this time. The Pitch will, however, switch its 5 p.m. Saturday shows to 2 p.m. due to low attendance during the evening time slot.
Allan Rice, Ben Green and Greg Edwards presented "Neurosis: The Musical" during week eight of The Pitch, and its promotion to an Auburn Public Theater run next summer is an early success story for the series — but not the only one. "Blindsided by a Diaper" by William Squier, Dana Hilmer and Jeffrey Lodin is likely to return to Auburn in 2014, Sayles said, and Jim and Deborah Schmitt's "Gettysburg" is another possibility for a future festival.
"My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" could also benefit from its 2012 festival appearance. New York producers ventured to Auburn to see the raved-about show, and are currently arranging to stage it in Manhattan, Sayles said. Should that happen, he continued, the festival could possibly lend its facilities for rehearsals.
"This could be a good try-out town for smaller Broadway shows," he said. "You could see a show mounted here for a three-night preview, then it goes to New York."
For all the adjustments to the way musicals will be presented and promoted in 2013's Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, little will change about their actual production. Sayles was very pleased with the quality of this summer's shows, and how smoothly they were staged despite the heavier schedule.
Part of that success stems from the addition of 15 full-time positions in areas like administration (two company managers, an assistant business manager) and production (a props master and a costume shop manager), along with the additional work for performers and other artists created by the increase from six to nine summer musicals.
Auburn businesses also felt the boost in attractions. Despite opening Aug. 2 — past the middle of the festival — the Hilton Garden Inn hosted about 60 lodgers who said the musicals brought them to Auburn, hotel sales director Rita Trenti said. The Cayuga County Office of Tourism, down the street from APT, often encountered visitors asking where the theater was — illustrating their being new to town, Vanek said.
Bambino's Bistro owner Guillermo Salinas estimates his Genesee Street restaurant saw 10 percent spikes in business on show nights, and Moro's Table owner/chef Ed Moro noticed his eatery entertaining more early-evening and Canadian guests than usual this past summer. Based on comment cards and conversations with customers, both restaurateurs sensed the festival brought them a dose of new diners.
"I think there was a slight increase," Moro said. "I think it's going on, but it's hard to track."
Though their metrics are imprecise and their anecdotes modest, downtown business owners like Moro felt more directly that the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival has, in its first year, brought to Auburn a renewed sense of optimism.
"There's a very positive vibe from everybody," he said. "There's an anticipation that things are going to keep getting better and better."