“You can’t really go wrong if you only surround yourself with quality, which is a philosophy I’ve always subscribed to,” Finn, 49, says later over lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant.
He adds, grinning: “It makes me look better.”
Theater, as it happens, is one of the chief economic engines of the Kennedy Center, one of the few facets of its omnibus performing-arts programming that dependably makes money. And over Finn’s three-year tenure — which included an extended visit of the juggernaut “Hamilton” — theater has been a growth industry in the big box on the Potomac River. According to the arts center, annual theater attendance in this period has averaged 190,000 more patrons than in the previous 10 years.
Behind that statistic is the fact that the number of theater performances at the Kennedy Center has been on the rise, including the Center Stage series — semi-staged versions of musicals from the past. This year’s roster begins Oct. 9 in the Eisenhower Theater with “Footloose,” directed by its Broadway originator, Walter Bobbie. Then in January comes the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” starring “Dear Evan Hansen’s” Rachel Bay Jones, and finally, in April, “Bye Bye Birdie.”
The uptick also involves more frequent use of the 1,164-seat Eisenhower Theater for touring musicals, and longer runs for some of them.
This points to not only the health of “the road,” but also the ascendance of Finn, a producer of long standing at the Kennedy Center and in New York, in deciding what shows D.C. audiences will get to see directly from Broadway, and the kinds of theater the arts center will get behind. Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter’s background is in music; her deputy, Robert van Leer, has a more varied arts portfolio. Finn, though, has been given the most sway over the popular theater offerings — more so than lieutenants in the administrations of more theatrically inclined past presidents such as Michael M. Kaiser or legendary founder Roger M. Stevens.
Stevens was a friend and producer of some of the great talents of his time; Kaiser made his reputation in Washington on megaprojects such as the 2002 Sondheim Celebration, a stunning musical retrospective. What might be the statement theater events of the Rutter era are still being formulated. With instincts that lean demonstrably toward the commercial — and which these days almost invariably mean musical theater — Finn has favored projects reflecting a Broadway sheen. The title of his signature creation says as much.
“We definitely have been bringing in more Broadway tours than before,” Finn says of what’s filling out the Kennedy Center bill. “This summer alone, we did ‘Hello, Dolly!,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Falsettos,’ ‘The Band’s Visit,’ ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and ‘Cats’ is here now.”
Two or maybe three summer shows used to be the norm at the Kennedy Center. Finn also notes the recent mounting of a play in the Terrace Theater, “Byhalia, Mississippi,” that fulfills his agreement with the center for one “self-produced” play each year. This season it will be Nia Vardalos’s “Tiny Beautiful Things,” previously staged at New York’s Public Theater and elsewhere.
The Kennedy Center has struggled for decades with how to forge a distinct theatrical identity. Being both a national memorial and a vast entertainment complex — in addition to a home for other performing arts — militates against sleeker definition. Finn still seems to be trying to refine his own vision, but he says he plans to expand the theater palette.
“I think we have a responsibility to be creating theater,” he says. “I’m not looking to be stepping on anybody’s toes, obviously. There are so many theaters that do incredible work in D.C. that I don’t want to step into what they do. But I still want us to be a producing entity.”
This year, Finn is bringing in a production from London’s Old Vic: “A Monster Calls,” a play about a 13-year-old boy awakened one night by, yes, a storytelling monster. But the pickings of more serious drama are slimmer indeed. Finn’s strength, though, seems to lie in other directions. The Kennedy Center, Rutter said in an interview, can rely on Finn for his deep connections to the theater community. For example, he was able to use those contacts for a special Broadway evening at the Reach, the center’s new annex. The event featured composer Alan Menken (“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”) and Broadway performers Norm Lewis, Megan Hilty, Patina Miller and Adam Jacobs.
“You could never in a million years have had all five of those superstars on the stage,” Rutter says. “He was able to pull that off. Before Jeffrey, we couldn’t have done that.”
One of the most obvious benefits for the Kennedy Center has been the Broadway Center Stage series, for which “Footloose” will be production No. 7. For the various well-received shows in the series, presented concert-style, Finn lured first-rank Broadway talent: Raúl Esparza and Karen Olivo in “Chess”; Lewis and Jessie Mueller in “The Music Man”; Christian Borle and Mandy Gonzalez in “The Who’s Tommy.”
For the revival of “Little Shop of Horrors,” Finn says he picked up the phone and called Hilty. “I told Megan, ‘You are my dream Audrey to do this production.’ She was like, ‘You’re kidding me, this is a dream role.’ And we’re off to the races.”
“Footloose” is not particularly fondly remembered; based on the 1984 teen-oriented movie about a town that bans dancing, it opened on Broadway in 1998 and ran for 709 performances, benefiting at the time from the popularity of the title.
But Finn trusts his gut, and this show felt right for the Eisenhower. “What I produce is what I like to see,” he says. “The barometer for me is, would I want to sit through that show? Would I buy a ticket for that show?”
Ticket sales have been brisk for the Broadway material Finn has been championing. The gut, in other words, has been pretty good.
“Being in that rehearsal studio today, it just gives me such energy. Because I love being around the creativity,” Finn says after looking over “Footloose’s” progress. “It’s been really fun watching theater grow and watching new audiences come to the Kennedy Center.”
Footloose, music by Tom Snow, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, book by Walter Bobbie and Pitchford. Directed by Bobbie. $59-$175. Oct. 9-14 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org .