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June 13, 2019
For years, the Washington Pavilion has wanted to bring the sounds and storyline of the French Revolution Broadway smash hit “Les Miserables” to a Sioux Falls audience.
Now, for a seven-show run through this weekend, Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine and the rest of the touring cast will take over the Mary W. Sommervold Hall. Pavilion leaders hope it will be the latest in a series of well-attended performances that demonstrate the venue’s ability to host even more.
” ‘Les Mis’ is a show that’s been on our radar for three to four years,” Pavilion president and CEO Darrin Smith said. “When we first considered bringing it here, we were having internal discussions about it, and we weren’t quite sure it was in our price range or that the market could support it. But we’ve seen tremendous growth and support from the community, and now we’re in a place where we can sell seven shows successfully.”
On the heels of its 20th anniversary celebration, the Washington Pavilion is entering a new stage of attracting the sort of touring shows that Sioux Falls theater-goers used to have to travel to larger cities to enjoy. Names such as “Hamilton” and “Phantom of the Opera” aren’t out of the question, either, leaders said, if shows keep selling the way they have experienced in the past couple of years.
Smith described the process of how the Pavilion brings shows to its venues, one which he said can be “complicated and technical at times.” When he accepted the position in 2016, he said he was completely new to much of the business side of the arts world, but his background as the community development director under former Mayor Mike Huether helped him learn quickly.
The Pavilion hosts four categories of shows, each with its own financial and logistical specifics. The first are “rentals,” which are as simple as somebody paying the rental fee to have the building for the night. John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson’s respective concerts were rentals, with the musicians taking on all of the financial risk, as well as all of the profit.
The second category is “co-pros,” where the Pavilion works with a third-party promoter to bring in a show. The Steve Martin and Martin Short comedy show “Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t,” which became the highest-single grossing event in the Pavilion’s history June 8, was an example of a co-pro event. Smith said these types of shows usually come with high costs and, therefore, high risk. The Pavilion doesn’t want to take on that risk alone, so they share it with a promoter or two.
Many of the shows that run at the Pavilion’s smaller venues — the Belbas Theater and the Orpheum Theater Center — are “door-deals.” These have no guaranteed fees attached, with the Pavilion and the performers splitting the profits 50/50.
The final category, which applies to “Les Miserables” and almost every show in the Pavilion Performance Series, is called “presenting.” The Pavilion takes on all of the risk of hosting these Broadway shows but also reaps all of the rewards when attendance is high.
Smith said with each of the categories, the Pavilion has to work with the “relatively small” number of agencies and promoters that represent entertainers to curate its performance schedule.
“We have relationships with each of them — they know who we are, we know who they are and what shows they have,” he said. “Then, just like any business relationship, we’re constantly in contact. (We ask) what do they have coming up next year, the year after; (they ask) what do we have for availability.”
In the case of a large, complicated show like “Les Mis, which has been booked for about a year-and-a-half, Smith said these conversations between promoter and venue start multiple years in advance of the actual performance dates. There are many logistical elements to work out, including the exact dates of the event. That decision often is outside of the Pavilion’s control because the production likes to set its touring schedule by region.
Regina Ruhberg, director of performances and events, said that with the Pavilion’s packed schedule, her staff often has to turn away big-name entertainers because of previous bookings.
“We will get quite a few calls for the top-level artists,” she said. “Sometimes, we are completely booked already or have another large show that’s too close in proximity to make it work. You have to factor in turnaround time at the theater; it’s hard to do one big show after the next. So we have to turn artists down sometimes, which is a good problem to have.”
In general, after an agency contacts the Pavilion to broadly discuss the financial terms and viability of bringing a show to the Sioux Falls market, the Pavilion sends an offer sheet, and the negotiation process begins. Smith said this final stage of the process is usually the quickest, as deals tend to come together quickly after an offer sheet is sent.
“A lot of these early discussions quickly went nowhere, especially in the case of a show on the level of ‘Les Mis,’ because we simply weren’t ready for a show that large at that time,” he said. “It is a long term thing — you have to have some patience. You’re planning anywhere from one to two years out at all times, especially with shows this large.”
That the Pavilion is able to bring a show like “Les Miserables” to Sioux Falls demonstrates the center’s continued growth, according to Smith. As recent as 2010, the Pavilion had less than 1,000 subscribers to its performing arts series. That number has expanded to over 3,000 and is growing 10 percent to 20 percent annually. The Pavilion also made the jump to a “three-night venue” last year, meaning it can expect to host at least three successful performances of a typical production.
Smith credits subscriber growth to the ever-increasing population of Sioux Falls and the Pavilion’s aggressive marketing and selling of subscriptions. Smith also said there’s a snowball effect with what shows it can bring in; as subscription numbers grow and shows have success at the Pavilion, that allows it to bring in even more fan favorites and attract more subscribers.
“The more these shows we do that have success, it just breeds more success,” he said. “Folks know you’re doing good stuff, high-quality stuff. They’re more and more willing to pay the price of tickets to support shows like this (Les Mis).”
During the initial stages of negotiation, agencies and promoters will look at the hard information about ticket sales and other financial data generated by shows at both the Pavilion and the Denny Sanford Premier Center to determine what they think the Sioux Falls market can support. The overwhelming success of a show like “Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t” has an immensely positive impact on the process of attracting other big-name entertainers and Broadway productions to the market, Smith said.
“The folks who represent these shows pay very close attention to performance of these facilities like ours and markets like ours,” he said. “So believe me, they know where tickets are being bought, and that’s where they want to be. They don’t care if it’s Alaska, South Dakota, LA, New York — it makes no difference to them. They will go where tickets can be sold, and they can make money.”
“We’re starting to get more calls from people who are hearing about us and what we have here,” Ruhberg added. “We’re the best-kept secret in the region, but we’re getting a lot more attention now from agencies. And that’s a testament not only to the theater and staff but also the community.”
The “next level” of shows is within reach of Sioux Falls, Smith and Ruhberg said, while cautioning that many are higher-cost productions that demand sustained ticket sales over at least a week of performances.
They have talked to promoters specifically about whether popular shows such as “Wicked,” “Hamilton,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Aladdin,” would be a fit for the Pavilion in the near future.
“We will get them, assuming they’re still out there in a few years when they’re ready to go out on the road more,” Smith said. “Ones you see in Des Moines and Omaha are the next-level markets. Whatever you see there, you could probably hope or expect to see within a few years here.”
“Wicked,” however, is considered a much more unlikely possibility than some of the other shows they mentioned because of its technical and logistical needs.
“Shows like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Hamilton’ are honestly much more doable,” Ruhberg said. “I almost see ‘Hamilton’ arriving here before ‘Wicked’ does, just because it’s not as big. It’s a big title, but show-wise it’s not as big technically.”
” ‘Phantom of the Opera’ is another one that the staff here has dreamt about getting for a long time. We’re now seriously flirting with that,” Smith said.
And while many productions will cut complicated effects and sets from their touring versions to fit venues in smaller markets, Ruhberg said the people behind “Wicked” won’t see the need to do that in the near future.
“As long as the Minneapolis, Des Moines and Omaha-sized markets consistently book it, it will never have to get smaller to come here.”
But the Pavilion is still managing to snag more popular shows than it was able to in the past. Even next year’s Performance Series includes “Waitress” and “Beautiful,” two productions that Smith said were long shots just a few years ago. With those shows and “Les Miserables” all debuting at the Pavilion over the course of a year, some next-level shows are now a little closer on the horizon.
“It’s getting more real now,” Smith said. “All of a sudden, those conversations are not ‘pie-in-the-sky’ anymore. It’s become ‘We might be able to actually do this’ or ‘We’re pretty darn close.’ “
“I think audiences here can expect to see more of the same good-quality Broadway shows over the next few years,” Ruhberg said. “Whatever is available to us, we’ll do our absolute best to bring it here. We’re definitely looking to bring in more recent productions that don’t have the same brand name as a ‘Les Mis’ but are still very high quality. So it’s an interesting challenge to educate the general public here on newer shows that they might have not heard about.”
Starting July 1, the Pavilion will take over management of the Orpheum Theater Center. Smith said the Orpheum’s 700-seat theater will act as the “piece the Pavilion has been missing,” slotting in nicely between the 300-seat Belbas Theater and roughly 2,000-seat Sommervold Hall.
“There have been a lot of shows over the years where the same promoters and agencies representing ‘Les Mis’ and others will come to us with another show, except (they) need 600 to 700 seats,” he said. “That wouldn’t work for us in the past because it’s not big enough for the Sommervold and twice as large as the Belbas. So we had to say no because we didn’t have a venue. Now, we will.”
Along with established community theater performances, the Orpheum already is booked for three concerts covering multiple musical genres, including country, rock and jazz. Smith said audiences should expect to see that wide variety of entertainment at the Orpheum because he feels the space is perfect for independent musicians, cover bands, comedians and other entertainers.
The performing arts future is bright for Washington Pavilion Management Inc., Smith said. With three unique venues, a growing subscriber base and exciting productions on the horizon, the goal is to offer a patron experience unlike any other in the Sioux Falls region.
“It’s just a first-class experience,” he said.
“For us, it’s about more than the show. We’re getting people who are coming out in large numbers two hours before the show to have dinner and drinks, listen to live music, visit the visual arts gallery, go to our Insights pre-show talk; you can make a whole evening out of it. We think that’s why our numbers are growing so much is that we have a patron-centered focus, and we think that’s paying dividends. People like to come here for an entire evening instead of just two hours, hanging out and socializing and getting entertained.”
After years of trying, the Washington Pavilion is hosting a seven-show run of “Les Miserables.” Could it lead to other big-name Broadway performances? The Pavilion’s leaders have some teases that theater lovers will want to know.