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David Armstrong and Mame at the 5th Avenue Theatre
David Armstrong and Mame at the 5th Avenue Theatre
by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

MAME
MUSIC AND LYRICS BY JERRY HERMAN
BOOK BY JEROME LAWRENCE AND ROBERT E. LEE
DIRECTED BY DAVID ARMSTRONG
STARRING DEE HOTY, RICHARD WHITE
FEBRUARY 9 -MARCH 2
THE 5TH AVENUE THEATRE


The next exciting production opening at The 5th Avenue Theatre is Mame. This production stars two heavy hitters of Broadway fame, Dee Hoty - recently seen here starring in Lone Star Love - and Richard White, the voice of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. This is such great casting that it seems like a Broadway try-out, but it's just a "normal" production here in Seattle for 5th Ave. David Armstrong, the producing artistic director, is taking a turn as director for this show. I was able to talk with him recently about Mame and the process of developing shows at 5th Ave. in general.

Armstrong delineates the three different kinds of productions. "In the main, we do three different kinds of things here and we're unusual in that regard. There are a handful of theaters in the country that combine producing and presenting in the same subscription season. If you're a season ticket holder, you get six or seven shows that will be a mix of touring shows we present, the shows we self-produce and on top of that we co-produce pre-Broadway shows in collaboration with Broadway producing teams.

"Shows we produce make up the majority of what we do - that sometimes surprises people because they think we mostly bring in Broadway tours. This is all part of our mission to celebrate the American musical theater. Musical theater is the only theater originating here in the U.S., invented here along with the light bulb and the auto. In many ways, it's our legacy to world culture, completely unique and original and long-lasting."

Armstrong talks about the economics involved in presenting these shows and the challenges of running an expensive show for only three weeks. "It costs almost exactly the same to produce a show that runs three weeks as it does to present a touring show that runs three weeks in our theater. The cost is between one and one and-a-half million for each three-week run. We have 25,000 subscribers and with 2000 seats, that gives us a three week subscription. Subscribers are the lifeblood of the organization and make it possible for us to do what we want to do. Anything beyond three weeks is entirely on single tickets.

"Seattle is so much smaller than New York and yet there's more theater per capita here than in New York. To have 2 million people in the greater Seattle area and to have this much activity is phenomenal, but we have to calculate very carefully the optimum run of each show. Word-of-mouth is the most important aspect of getting people to come to a show. That's why part of the challenge is getting that word-of-mouth developed during that three week time period. We don't have the luxury of building a New York show over 6 months and become a giant hit slowly.

"What goes into that million? Three quarters of it is labor. Paying the amazing artists and craftspeople we work with. Everything about a theater performance is hand-made. The actors performing in the rehearsal hall, music is certainly hand-produced - it's live, it's not Memorex. All the sets and costumes are one-of-a-kind, handmade and hand-designed. It's one of the things I love the most about my job, but it's also why it's such an expensive endeavor to produce theater. There's no way to downsize it. Often when I talk to my board or donors, I use the example 'you can't downsize West Side Story, you can't have fewer Sharks or Jets and it takes twice as many people backstage' and that's where the money goes. Even so, tickets only cover about 80% of putting the show on."

Productions that are Broadway-bound are a different economic animal, costing anywhere between 10 and 20 million dollars, but Armstrong emphasizes that he only agrees to co-produce shows that he really believes could become part of the musical theater canon. Even though Hairspray is now a big hit movie and was a hit on Broadway, he talks about how risky it started out. "In hindsight, Hairspray turned out to be one of the biggest hits, but it wasn't a certain thing in the beginning. We had writers who had never had a hit on Broadway, from a movie that wasn't that big a hit, and Harvey Fierstein wasn't nearly as big a star before Hairspray at that time. In fact, at the very first performance of Hairspray, we had only sold 35% of the tickets for the whole run of three and-a-half weeks. We were going out with an unknown property. And that's typical. That show made it look easy."

His example of how it's not so easy is the recent production of Lone Star Love that cancelled its Broadway debut. "That's another show that has yet to reach its potential. I still believe in that show. It has a great score and the creators are extremely talented, and have written a wonderful piece. But it boils down to it was the wrong set of people collaborating on that show. It's derailed it for a while. That can happen.

"My only real disappointment for the show was that the creators weren't able to do the work they wanted to do to develop the show. Having to experience the frustration of that talented team that wasn't allowed to make the changes [due to the demands of the star] that they wanted to make to succeed in their vision."

Turning attention to Mame, I ask about how he puts the casts for those shows together. "We're very fortunate to be able to put together the cast we can for these shows. When I came to Seattle I had no idea. I knew it was a great theater city, but had no idea of the depth of the talent here and that we would be able to create entire Seattle productions with no feeling at all that we could have created a better cast anywhere else. We have a community of actors here that have worked together and have years of experience of working together among the talent pool here.

"That's where we start. We have auditions here in Seattle and we even choose productions with the idea of who we have available in Seattle. It's a blessing. Then in addition we hold auditions in New York and LA, both or either/or, depending on the project. We also have worked with a lot of people and I have a lot of colleagues that I know and I can call and say, 'I have the perfect project for you, come and do it.' We've got a list of shows we want to do and want to find the right mix in a season, so this percolates for a while. Mame has been a show we've been wanting to do for a while. Dee was off the list [of actors considered] for Mame because she was starring in Lone Star Love, but when we knew it wasn't going to Broadway, I went to Dee and asked if she'd be interested. It was one of those cases we thought we'd lost her for Mame, but it came full circle."

Armstrong's excitement about the production is catching. He shares details of the upcoming extravaganza. "[Dee Hoty] gets to wear the most incredible parade of costumes. Gregg Barnes is the costumer. The clothes are phenomenal, similar to what they did for The Women [at ACT Theatre this November], in a similar period, and the clothes are a character in the play in the same way they were for The Women. Mame and Vera, her best friend, are archetypal actors - Cybil Shepherd and Christine Baransky were versions of these same kinds of characters. The glamorous heroine and trusty sidekick has become an iconic pair. Will and Grace has their own spin on that. It all started with Mame.

"It's one of the great comic novels of our time. It's a neglected masterpiece. It was a huge bestseller and it's just been reissued in a new paperback edition and I couldn't recommend it more. Patrick Dennis is a comic genius that perhaps hasn't gotten his historical due.

"Surrounding Dee and Richard is an incredible cast of amazing singers and dancers and a great opportunity to feature character actors here in Seattle. It's an ensemble piece for some hilarious acting tour de force. That's part of the joy of doing it. In my 40 years of intense theater-going I've only seen Mame twice on stage, because it's a huge show. It has 400 costumes, you have to redecorate the stage every time you see her since she's constantly redecorating her house. That's the story. You have to do that. In addition, it goes to Singapore, down South with a Tara-style mansion, all over New York City, which becomes another character in the show. We're doing it with a cast of 39 and a full orchestra, which is very important to us to fully realize the orchestrations. I think it's going to be a rare treat to see this show done the way we're going to do it."

For more information, call 206-625-1900 or go to www.5thavenue.org.

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