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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 13, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 33
SGN Exclusive Interview 5th Avenue Theatre's David Armstrong
Arts & Entertainment
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SGN Exclusive Interview 5th Avenue Theatre's David Armstrong

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

The 5th Avenue Theatre is a landmark in Seattle. In addition to bringing quality entertainment to Puget Sound for almost a century, the 5th Avenue has branched out into producing original shows, and is responsible for some of today's biggest Broadway hits. For the last decade, a lot of that credit goes to the artistic director, David Armstrong. With a long history of theater experience and a sharp eye for the upcoming successes of tomorrow's shows, David Armstrong spoke to the SGN about what goes into planning a theatrical season, the upcoming shows and past musical memories.

Eric Andrews-Katz: What was the first musical you ever saw?

David Armstrong: When I was 5 years old, my mother took a few of my friends and myself to see the movie Dumbo. We went into the wrong theater and saw the musical Gypsy instead. I didn't understand all of what it was about but I knew it was an aspect of show biz, and that was appealing as a child. My love for musical theater started then.

Andrews-Katz: How did you get involved with the 5th Avenue Theatre?

Armstrong: In 1999, I came out here from the Papermill Playhouse [in New Jersey] to direct The Secret Garden. It was just as the 5th Avenue Theatre started to search for an artistic director, and so I threw my hat into the ring. The show was a success and everything came together, all very fortuitous. It was my first visit to Seattle and I ended up with the job.

Andrews-Katz: What are the job requirements for being an artistic director?

Armstrong: I would say it's a job where you need to know a little about a lot of things. You don't have to be an expert in any, but have a wide range of knowledge. It's a producing job at its heart, but in the big picture, in terms of a theatrical season, it's serving an audience. You also must have artistic vision to achieve quality on the stage, and to add innovation. You even have to be part gambler and take risks, because if you do everything safe you won't be interesting, and then no one comes. There has to be something new, otherwise it's just a museum, and live theater can't exist like that.

Andrews-Katz: How is a theater season planned and scheduled at the 5th Avenue?

Armstrong: We work two or three years out in scheduling a season. For flexibility, we allow certain holes so shows that come along can be scheduled. We usually have five produced musicals and two touring productions. This year we have three, one being co-produced with another company. For Memphis, it took six months of advance planning before it was on our stage. That's typical for new/premier shows.

Andrews-Katz: Does the 5th Avenue Theatre hold open auditions when casting for local productions?

Armstrong: We do. We see about 400 people every year and start in the spring for casting the following season. Sometimes we cast the entire year's productions. One of the amazing things about Seattle is the talent pool. After the auditions, we do a whole series of callbacks over the summer. We employ the largest percentage of the theatrical talent in the state - about 800 people, including singers, dancers, stagehands, electricians, etc. & We've made it part of our mission to be committed to the Seattle talent pool and to celebrate them.

Andrews-Katz: When a new musical is written, how does it come to the 5th Avenue before going to Broadway?

Armstrong: It depends. It's largely built on relationships that I've had with past [New York] producers, writers, directors, etc. & When Hairspray came about, I had worked with the producers in NYC. When I first came out to Seattle, I was telling people that I was here, and that Seattle was a great theater town to form a partnership. The producers of Hairspray took me up on it. The lead producer, Margot Lion, told people that she would only work on a new Broadway show if it started in Seattle. That helped put us on the map and opened doors. At first it was only pre-Broadway shows, and now we've gotten involved in the forming of the shows.

Andrews-Katz: Pre-Broadway musicals at the 5th Avenue have included Jekyll & Hyde, Hairspray, Princesses, Lone Star Love, Memphis, Shrek, and Catch Me if you Can, among others. Which new musical was your most enjoyable experience and why?

Armstrong: Probably Hairspray, because it was my first here and it was just a thrilling, one-of-a-kind experience. That show came out of the box nearly perfect, which never happens. It's hard to remember that at that time it was a show written by mostly unknowns. The fact that it was based on John Waters' film was bound to be a negative. But from the very first performance (and for the next six years), audiences screamed after every number. It was clear it was going to be a major hit. That holds a certain thrill. Memphis would be the other real thrill. We gave that show a chance after others had already written it off, and now it's a huge hit on Broadway. The 5th Avenue was a significant element in making that happen.

Andrews-Katz: The 2010/2011 season includes the new musical A Christmas Story. How do you think the traditional classic will translate on stage?

Armstrong: I think it's really going to be fantastic. It was workshopped and produced originally last year at the Kansas City Repertory Theater. There is a new team now that's writing it. Joseph Robinette wrote the libretto. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the music and lyrics. They are the new Flaherty/Ahrens, so to speak.

Andrews-Katz: In the Heights is a Hispanic rap musical. How do you think Seattle audiences will react?

Armstrong: I think they will go crazy for it. There's a young, hip vibe to it, and I think that it is very much in keeping with Seattle's very contemporary views. On one hand, the musical is modern and has music of the moment, but it's rooted in classical musical theater traditions. Lin-Manuel Miranda [who wrote the music/lyrics/book] wrote it with Fiddler on the Roof as a model. It's very much grounded in the tradition, with a broad-based appeal.

Andrews-Katz: Over the years, what were your favorite and least favorite productions done at the 5th Avenue Theatre?

Armstrong: Some of my highlights at the 5th include Anything Goes (it was my first show as artistic director) and HAIR, which was a big game-changer for us because of its success. Hairspray and Sweeny Todd were big ones. Memphis and Candide would have to be on the list also. My least favorites? There were a couple of touring companies (no names mentioned, though) that were lacking in quality and weren't up to our own standards of how we like to perform. I have to say, Lone Star Love was a huge disappointment, but I'm proud of doing it; it had huge potential. A new musical is like launching the space shuttle; many people need to work on it and it can either fizzle or explode!

The 5th Avenue Theatre opened in 1926 with its interior designed after three of Imperial China's architectural designs. The 2010-2011 season consists of seven musicals, including three Broadway touring companies and two special Northwest premiers. As a bonus for the GLBT community, the "Q-Club" package tickets include several shows with choice of seating, as well as mingling with cast members at pre-show receptions. For more information on Q-Club or ticket purchasing, visit www.5thavenue.org.

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