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Summer musicals boost box office at Playhouse

The cast of 'Les Miserables' performs the finale. The cast of 'Les Miserables' performs the finale.

FLAT ROCK — Placed on deathwatch by critics a year ago, the Flat Rock Playhouse emerged from its pivotal 10-week run of big-stage musicals with strong ticket sales and momentum for the last third of the season, theater officials said.

"I think we've had a really successful season so far," Vincent Marini, the producing artistic director of the Playhouse, told the Hendersonville Lightning in a recent interview. "It's been really just a strong year overall."
Propelled by strong sales for "Evita" and near-record sales of "Les Miserables," the box office revenue has helped the Playhouse meet budget so far in 2013, a turnaround from the budget deficit a year ago that imperiled the survival of the 61-year-old State Theatre of North Carolina. The Playhouse survived the crisis last December thanks to emergency cash infusions from taxpayers and private donors.
In what they hoped would be a year of recovery, Marini and Playhouse administrators booked an ambitious lineup of shows for this year and set a high target for ticket sales.
"I think the two goals were the two most aggressive goals we've ever had for those time slots," Marini said of the June through mid-August period.
"Evita" ran for four weeks and "Les Miz" played for six weeks on the Main Stage while two comedies starring popular Playhouse veteran Scott Treadway churned out steady sales at the Playhouse Downtown. "Les Miserables" became the second-highest grossing Playhouse show ever, behind "Beauty and the Beast" in 2004, Playhouse officials said.
"I think combined we sold about 35,000 tickets in June, July and August including Music on the Rock," Marini said. "That is a huge number of people that are coming into the area to spend money."

Out-of-town patrons

Marini credited several factors for the strong sales so far in 2013.
The marketing department expanded promotions within day-trip range and amped up the social media push, tripling web traffic. Some patrons loved "Les Miserables" so much they came a second or third time.
"We had a lot of repeat buyers and that ended up being a pretty big difference," he said. "The No. 1 thing we had to do was to meet all our goals. I think the marketing department did a very good job with the quality of the material and the quality of the photographs. We made a real push in the Greenville-Spartanburg area. We got a lot of return out of 'The Making of Les Miserables,'" an hour-long documentary produced by Doug Llewelyn, the "People's Court" founder and father of Playhouse development director Lynn Penny.
The documentary aired on WLOS in Asheville and on a television station in Charlotte after a popular Sunday morning news show. "When we can get tens of thousands of people to see a program that shows that this is what we're doing and this is why it's special I really think that makes a difference," Marini said. "We feel like we're going to have a lot of opportunity in the Charlotte suburbs and the Charlotte market. The challenge has always been how do we spend money in that market."
"I also think we were hoping for and banking on new people coming in to see those shows. Moving forward hopefully there's some kind of halo effect" that brings those new patrons back, he said.
"Evita" outperformed last year's June musical, "The Spitfire Grill," by 88 percent, and outperformed "For the Glory" and "Chicago" by 8 percent — "although it's not apples to apples since Chicago had a run that started in the middle of May, and FTG ran for five weeks vs. four weeks for Evita," public relations director Jason Ferguson said in an email.
"Les Miz" outperformed "Guys and Dolls," last year's July-August musical, by almost 50 percent, although "Les Miz" was on stage for two more weeks.

Emotional close

Marini said he was encouraged by the numbers so far.
"We put together a plan and we put in place a really good team behind the plan and the plan worked," he said of the season and especially the midsummer success. The theater has had to make up for one dud. It had to pull its May show when the actress became ill; the replacement, "Souvenirs," performed well short of the box office goal.
The theater's new managing director, Hillary Hart, has enforced expense cuts that the budget triggers automatically when revenue comes up short. Hart told the Flat Rock Village Council this month that the theater forecasts a $19,000 surplus for the year.
Hart has taken much of the administrative and business work off of Marini, and another new hire, Lisa K. Bryant, is directing downtown shows and sharing other creative work.

This year, as director of "Les Miserables," Marini for the first time had time to focus on the product for the stage, not the books.
"Having Hillary here and having Lisa here meant that I had the time to put into the show to make it as good as we were able to make it," he said. "I was very thankful I had time to spend working on it and not have my attention diverted to 60 other things."
Marini said the cast — a combination of Broadway stars, Playhouse veterans, apprentices and YouTheatre performers — became close throughout the production. The actors on stage for the closing performance Sunday afternoon shared an emotional farewell as the show ended. They finished on a high note in front of sellout performances the final weekend.
"The actors and apprentices in the last show, the last scene they were all crying," he said. "It's certainly the kind of show that after you've performed it for 50 performances, it's hard to say goodbye."