‘My Shot’: A montage from ‘Hamilton’
Back in 2017, theater-loving Wichitans got their hopes up.
The massively popular Broadway show, “Hamilton,” was expanding its national tour and cities like Kansas City and Denver were among the first regional markets to secure the show.
Mark Edelman, then-president of Theater League — which brings traveling Broadway shows to cities across the country — told The Eagle at the time he was “optimistic” the musical would come to Wichita eventually.
“I’m sure the season will come — not soon — but I’m sure the season will come when ‘Hamilton’ plays Century II,” he told The Eagle then.
Emphasis on “not soon.”
Four times in the past three years, a major touring Broadway show — in this case, “Hamilton” — has decided to skip Wichita, and officials are pointing the finger at Century II.
The “Hamilton” tour will stop in Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Omaha between June and September. In 2020, it will come to St. Louis and Denver for repeat visits.
Des Moines got the musical last summer.
The city of Wichita, through social media, has said that it was passed over for the “Hamilton” tour specifically because of Century II.
It turns out the reason is more complicated.
Century II’s stage is technically too shallow — by about 11 feet and 2 inches — for “Hamilton,” said John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services. If Century II got “Hamilton,” it would have to be scaled to fit.
The tour could someday arrive at Century II.
But here’s why “Hamilton” isn’t coming to Wichita now, according to Amy Hamm, executive director of American Theatre Guild — which books Wichita’s annual slate of touring Broadway shows.
The national tour is currently only booking in “full-week markets,” she said.
That means it’s only coming to cities where every single show of the traveling Broadway season plays for at least a week (Tuesday-Sunday), and there are season-ticket holders for every performance — like how Music Theatre Wichita sells out seven performances for each of its summer shows.
“Hamilton” is not alone. The popular “Dear Evan Hansen” only books in cities that can offer at least eight performances.
In Wichita, touring Broadway shows have historically played three mid-week shows from Mondays to Thursdays.
It’s rare for a traveling show to play on a weekend in Wichita — though it’s not unheard of. The city supported multi-week runs for “The Lion King” 10 years after it first started touring and “Wicked” four years after it hit the road.
Hamm said it all comes down to demand.
If there aren’t enough ticket buyers in the city to support more than four or five performances of each show, the city is not going to get shows on the weekend, she said. That means it won’t get the most popular hits, either.
Companies like American Theatre Guild use those blockbuster hits to sell season tickets.
“We might be able to do well with ‘Wicked’ or ‘Lion King’ — we just have to find that demand for the other three shows on the season to be able to expand.”
The guild would “love to work to grow (Wichita) to be at least a back-end” market, Hamm said, meaning a city that can sell out four or five performances and perhaps get weekend dates.
“We just have to have the demand to do it,” she said.
All of Wichita’s regional peer cities (Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines and Denver) have the demand to support 8-performance runs for their Broadway tours.
Hence Des Moines can get “Mean Girls” and Tulsa can get Disney’s “Frozen” — both popular shows that aren’t booking in markets with only 3-performance runs.
“The producers of these tours are always looking at how much support there is in the market for the title,” Hamm wrote in an email. “That’s the number one factor (and if it will fit in the building).”
Passed over again
“Hamilton” marks the fourth time in the past three years Wichita has been passed over for a major Broadway tour, according to Hamm.
Tours of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables” “all studied Century II and have determined that the building cannot accommodate these tours,” she said.
Neither “the stage house nor the actual stage itself are big enough,” Hamm wrote in an email.
For “Phantom of the Opera,” a heavy chandelier sunk Wichita’s chances, as Century II structurally could not support the set piece, according to D’Angelo.
Years ago, being able to host the scenery-intensive “Phantom” was considered the sign of an up-to-date center.
“When we started (designing) performing arts centers in the late ‘80s, we had an anecdote in the office that it had to be ‘Phantom’-approved,” said Bob Campbell, an associate principal at Fisher Dachs Associates, a New York-based theater planning firm that examined Century II in 2014.
“It was the ‘Hamilton’ of today. When it was out there, people were jumping on it, and if you didn’t get ‘Phantom,’ you were missing out.”
Century II’s Concert Hall underwent a $2.3 million renovation in 2010 partially to accommodate a four-week run of “The Lion King” in 2012.
But even with that renovation, the tour had to scale back the production to fit Century II, said Campbell, the theater designer.
That tour “left scenery on the truck,” he said.
“(‘The Lion King’) had pieces of scenery that were not in that production, because they did not fit on the limited stage, and that’s a shame,” Campbell said.
An inconvenient place
Every year, multiple touring Broadway shows stage in Century II’s Concert Hall and perform for at least a couple nights.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy or convenient.
Flint Hawes is the associate music director for the national tour of “Wicked,” which has played at Century II twice.
He started his professional theater career with Music Theatre Wichita in 1999 and performed with the group through 2007, when he started work for national Broadway tours.
He said he has “such a soft spot” for Wichita — though that feeling may not be mutual for everyone coming through Wichita on tour.
“(Century II) certainly isn’t the worst hall overall nationwide, but when you roll into cities that have newer facilities and are just up to today’s standards as far as restrooms and backstage accommodations, the show travels a lot easier,” Hawes said. “It makes life a lot better for the week or two a show is in town.”
Two main issues for shows touring through Century II are cumbersome load-in and load-out, and backstage space limitations.
To set up a show such as “Wicked” at Century II, 13 semis have to back over Kennedy Plaza and crews have to carry – or wheel – the set pieces about 160 yards across the Exhibition Hall to get to the Concert Hall stage.
When they’re not in use on the stage, the pieces have to be stored in the Exhibition Hall — meaning stage crews have to haul pieces from halfway across the building while the show is going on.
In most other cities, well-placed loading docks allow stage workers to unload pieces directly onto the stage.
Century II was designed with a circular drive-in loading bay, complete with an elevator to stage level, intended to simplify the load-in and load-out processes. Standard-sized semi trucks in the 1960s were 44 feet long. Now they are about 53 feet, and they can no longer negotiate the curve of Century II’s loading bay.
And the more time load-in and loud-out takes, the more a tour has to pay in labor costs.
“Any theater or performing arts center of this magnitude that works for Broadway touring needs that stage to be directly in line with the truck bed,” said Campbell, the theater designer. “One of the things that Century II has working against it is the lack of a proper loading sequence. ... It’s just more financial risk for Broadway promoters to use the facility.”
The tours for “Phantom,” “Les Mis” and “Miss Saigon” cited “the length, complexity, and difficulty of the push (the literal pushing of set pieces and cases from the trucks to the stage house and storage) ... as a prohibiting factor,” Hamm said.
Another issue is the limited room in the wings. Some larger set pieces — that would normally fit in a rectangular space — don’t fit with the curved walls of the Concert Hall, which is a pie shape under the round building.
“All of our backstage spaces move down to a triangle rather than being a square or rectangular space,” said Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director for Music Theatre Wichita.
Music Theatre Wichita constructs all of its own sets on site. They are built to easily break apart, fold or otherwise be stored when not on stage — because in many cases they can’t fit in the curved wing space, Bryan said.
Because the company creates its own sets that work in the building, it’s had no problem staging shows like “Miss Saigon,” and “Les Miserables.”
“We have gotten very good at using the space available to us and ... learning how to break our scenery apart when it comes offstage, but these tours that are designed for more standard spaces don’t have the option of configuring themselves for the uniqueness of Century II,” he said.
The Concert Hall stage can also cause issues at times for the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, said its CEO Don Reinhold.
“The stage for us is cramped on certain productions — there’s not really a lot of room trying to put a big orchestra and a chorus on there,” Reinhold said. “If you do a true ... good-size professional stage, it would certainly help shows like ‘Hamilton’ and any of these other big ones that may be coming down the pike.
“I’m not suggesting we build a new performing arts center because we need to have ‘Hamilton’ come to Wichita. Let’s not get carried away. But at the same time ... we’re finding this to be more of a problem.”
The arts groups that are based in Century II are saying it’s time to move on from the 50-year-old building. That doesn’t mean it has to be demolished.
“I have lived my waking hours in that building for more than 30 years now, and I have loved it and I have defended it, and I think now it’s really time to move out of there and move onward,” Bryan said.
Would a new performing arts center boost ticket sales?
Hamm says that’s exactly what’s happened in American Theatre Guild’s other markets. She referenced Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2011 and is where the guild stages some of its Broadway tours.
“With a building that can support all big shows and blockbuster titles, you see season ticket bases grow, you see single ticket sales increase and the presenter can entertain options of adding performances,” she wrote in an email. “New buildings create a lot of excitement, improvements to customer experience create loyalty and all this ties back to sales.”
Hawes, the “Wicked” associate music director, said new facilities “garner a lot of excitement” for traveling Broadway shows.
The city of Greensboro, N.C., expects to open its new $78.1 million performing arts center in June and host “Wicked” in 2020.
“People on the tour are already talking about that,” Hawes said. “They’re excited to experience a new city and see what new architecture has been done to create a new space.”
Studies have shown a robust arts industry generates more than just excitement.
A landmark study released a couple years ago by Americans for the Arts showed that the arts and culture industry in Wichita injects $94.7 million into the local economy.
A massive four-week run of Disney’s “The Lion King” in 2012 made Wichita history for drawing 60,000 people and grossing $4.3 million in ticket sales alone. The first time “Wicked” came to Wichita for a 24-performance run in 2009, the show drew 45,000 and pumped an estimated $5.5 million total into Wichita’s economy.
“The arts generate quite a significant economic footprint and we’re not fully capitalizing on that in Wichita because of these various restrictions that we have,” said Reinhold, the symphony CEO.
“If we envision and dream of the possibilities that a new venue could have, assuming it is done well, (is) properly sited and has the amenities and the capacity for 21st-century productions .. it could really open up some amazing possibilities for this city.”