Underused National Theatre is ready for its next act


Exterior of the National Theatre. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Carol Channing, Rex Harrison, Tallulah Bankhead, Laurence Olivier, Mae West, Jack Lemmon, Audrey Hepburn, Noel Coward: These are among the legends who have graced the stage of the National Theatre since it opened more than 175 years ago. And now, ladies and gentlemen . . .

Uh, Bryan Adams?

The “Cuts Like a Knife” rocker will headline the 1,676-seat theater Jan. 26, and while virtually nothing else is booked just yet, the concert signals a fresh direction for the historic but dramatically underused theater three blocks east of the White House. It’s the first oar in the water as new leadership tries to turn the often-empty vessel around.

“The National’s not just for Broadway anymore,” declares Bob Papke, vice president of theaters for SMG, a Philadelphia-based management group.

In September, the National Theatre Corporation announced that the building would be programmed by SMG, which handles venues from performing arts facilities to stadiums such as Soldier Field and the Superdome, and Chicago’s JAM Theatricals, which produces on Broadway and presents theatrical tours across the country.


The National Theatre, which opened in December of 1835, can be seen from the upper balcony stairs. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

“There’s no end to what we could do,” says Tom Lee, who is entering his third year as the National’s executive director.

Not that the National is doing away with touring musicals such as “Les Misérables,” which just wrapped up a three-week holiday stand. In fact, a Broadway series is hoped for by next winter, as is a breed of customer that the National hasn’t courted for years: subscribers.

You can’t court subscribers without a steady slate of shows, of course, and gigs like “Les Miz” have tended to come in fits and starts. Lee notes that during the National’s fiscal year 2011, the theater was occupied for a scant 28 days.

“That just wasn’t acceptable to our board of directors,” says Lee, speaking in the theater’s upstairs offices during a matinee of “Les Miz.” Besides “Les Miz,” “Beauty and the Beast” played for two weeks, making the National occupied for only five weeks in 2012.

Often the National is left out as top Broadway titles — “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon” and big-time Disney products among them — opt for the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. At 2,300 seats, the Opera House is significantly bigger; it’s also easier to load in scenery, and it comes with a subscription base.

The National’s spotty bookings have been an issue for decades — at least since the Kennedy Center opened in 1971. In fact, the Kennedy Center ran the National for a while in the 1970s, before a rancorous split and some smack talk in the 1980s devolved into the sleepy pattern that has marked one of the city’s great theaters.

An ever-changing cast

The National has passed through many hands since opening in 1835, and by 1974 it was being operated by Broadway’s Nederlander Organization. But downtown Washington had not begun to bounce back from the late 1960s riots, and the Nederlanders found the commercial landscape so inhospitable that they gave up the theater.

Led by Kennedy Center founder and chairman Roger Stevens, the not-for-profit New National Theatre Corporation was established in 1974. That inaugurated a five-year period when Stevens, a notable Broadway producer, oversaw the National’s bookings while heading the Kennedy Center.

In 1977 the theater was nearly torn down as the National Press Club pursued plans to convert the block to commercial use. Instead, in 1978 the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation — a federally mandated entity that oversaw redevelopment contracts for two decades — awarded the block to the only group proposing to save the theater.

That group included Quadrangle Development Corporation, which still owns the theater and the hotel space around it. In the early 1980s the National signed a 99-year lease with Quadrangle, with rent reportedly $100,000 a year. (Mr. Lee says the current rent is “manageable,” though he declines to share a figure.)

In 1980 the National severed ties with Stevens over the Kennedy Center honcho’s objections. The KenCen-National rivalry intensified when the National teamed with Broadway’s Shubert Organization, led by longtime chairman Gerald Schoenfeld and president Bernard B. Jacobs, to book the theater.

In New York, the Nederlanders filed suit, charging that controlling the National meant the Shuberts — the Nederlanders’ Broadway and tour competitors — were monopolizing the road. The Nederlanders lost.

In Washington, meanwhile, the cross-town sniping between the city’s two big stages was juicy.

“I’ve blotted the National from my mind,” Stevens said in a 1980 Washington Post article headlined “The Kennedy Center v. The National: The War’s Over — Let the War Begin.”

Jacobs said, “Roger’s hysteria — if I may characterize it that way — about us coming to Washington was illogical.”

Schoenfeld crowed, “I think we have the best shows.”

In 1985, the Shuberts led the National to a banner year, grossing $15 million. But two years later, the board wrote to the New York headquarters complaining that the theater spent too many weeks dark. The Shuberts owned 16 Broadway theaters but never created a full-time presence in D.C., and for years they hampered the National’s competitive profile by refusing to pay “guarantees” to touring productions — fees to cover a show’s weekly expenses.

Guarantees have long been a staple of road dates, but the Shuberts — frightened in part by losing $700,000 in a quick three weeks with the 1993 Cathy Rigby “Annie Get Your Gun” — declined to pay them until 2002. But even that didn’t significantly accelerate the National’s metabolism.

One diagnosis blames a decline in the number of shows on the road, but Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, a trade association, disputes this. “We have as many tours as before,” St. Martin says in an e-mail.

Tours are certainly raking in big money. New records were set in attendance, grosses and playing weeks as recently as the 2009-10 season, marks that may be due largely to the continuing box office power of such hits as “The Lion King” and “Wicked” (the League declines to provide specific figures). Of the 16 Equity shows that the League’s Web site lists as currently touring, 10 have played or are coming to the Kennedy Center. The National has hosted two.

But it’s also true that there is virtually no financial pressure to keep the theater hopping. It snaps to life when “Jersey Boys” or “Les Miz” hits town, but the National is a low-budget, skeletal operation that maintains a handful of outreach operations to help justify its not-for-profit status. Rent doesn’t seem to be an issue. Bottom line: When the theater is dark, no one really loses money.

“But if it stays dark,” Lee says, “it’s just not acceptable.”

Beyond Broadway

The Shuberts’ contract expired last September, and Murphy says the board was already looking beyond Broadway toward concerts and other entertainment. The solution was double-barreled: JAM Theatricals would keep a Broadway link alive, while SMG would expand the programming.

“Anything can happen in a theater,” says Papke, citing comedy and ballet, as well as entertainment as far-flung as TV’s “Cake Boss.” “Broadway will remain a tremendous focus, but there are a lot of dates open after those shows. JAM will focus on Broadway. SMG will focus on the rest.”

Papke — a Falls Church native who earned his manager’s stripes working at the Warner Theatre for Sam L’Hommedieu, the concert promoter of Cellar Door Productions — helps program more than 50 theaters and performing arts centers. It’s a big operation, but the venues aren’t in New York, Boston or L.A.; they’re in Saginaw, Anchorage and Bakersfield. They also include the Paramount in Charlottesville and 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore.

Speaking from SMG headquarters in the Philadelphia suburb of West Conshohocken, Papke sounds undaunted. He likens the National to Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater and Radio City Music Hall — venues amenable to a wide range of acts.

JAM Theatricals has a solid Broadway record: Its credits include “Spamalot” and David Mamet’s recent plays, including the hit revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross” starring Al Pacino (the limited engagement closes next Sunday), but also last month’s bomb “The Anarchist,” a two-character drama with Patti LuPone and Debra Winger that closed after two weeks.

On the road, JAM books Broadway series in roughly 30 cities, including Savannah, Sioux City and Fort Wayne, with only Seattle shaping up as a sister city to Washington in terms of size. JAM’s Broadway series in Richmond includes split weeks (three days only) of the non-Equity touring companies for “West Side Story” and “Spamalot.”

That “Spamalot” will come to the National in April, but the non-Equity barrier — appealing to tour producers because the labor is cheaper — was breached in 2011 with “The Color Purple”. The five-day run of “Spamalot,” extremely brief by the National’s standards, suggests that D.C. audiences may be tested anew as to whether they care about the labor status of touring actors.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” JAM’s co-founder, Steve Traxler, says of non-Equity product. “We will look at all touring options.”

Lee echoes that when he says bluntly, “We’re looking for shows.”

Non-Equity tours are more prevalent than they were a decade ago, and Lee is clearly versed in the union issues; from 2001 to 2010, he was president of the American Federation of Musicians.

Lee would like to see the National originate material that moves to New York, as in the glory days, and Traxler calls the theater “a tremendous house for straight plays,” raising hopes that the all-but-extinct tour or tryout drama or comedy might be revived. (The Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Doubt” played the National in 2007, starring the original Sister Aloysius, Cherry Jones.)

For now, though, little is nailed down. SMG intends to install a local management team in the National’s offices, and everyone seems aware that repairs and upgrades are in order. The last major renovation was nearly 30 years ago; the old-fashioned aqua interior comes courtesy of original “My Fair Lady” and “Hello, Dolly!” set designer Oliver Smith.

And the tentative programming plan, starting with the Adams concert at the end of the month, seems likely to nudge the National’s stately but sluggish profile toward the theatrical/comedy/concert variety of the Warner.

“We feel there’s a true opportunity,” Traxler says of the space, which Lee calls “a jewel that’s been tarnished.”

“We’re not going do anything crazy in there,” Papke says; using a football analogy, he says they’ll start with a “vanilla” offense before taking big chances. “It’s listening to the market, listening to the building. The building will help you figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

Bryan Adams:The Bare Bones Tour

Jan. 26 at the National Theatre,1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.Call 800-447-7400 or buy tickets online.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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