Performing Arts

Billy Elliot The Musical plays The Fox Theatre in August 2011. Photo by Alastair Muir

There’s no substitute for the thrill of a masterful live performance. Even in tough economic times, St. Louisans are always eager to turn out for a great concert or award-winning play. But who decides which plays and performers we’ll see on stage? We asked planners at The Fox Theatre and The Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center how they determine their starting lineup.

The Fox Theatre

    Fox Associates president Rich Baker and his two-person staff decide what gets booked here. “We see every play and act we schedule, sometimes traveling as far as London,” says Baker, who has been at The Fox since 1986. “Putting on shows is expensive, so we can’t pick whatever we want—we’re in business to sell tickets. That’s not our only consideration, of course, but it’s always a delicate balance between art and commerce.”

    The Fox presents some 220 shows each year, including about 110 concerts with performers like Tony Bennett, Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Buble. “Choosing plays for our Broadway series is easy—we go with the hits and almost always pick the Tony Award-winner for best musical,” Baker says. But it’s not a foolproof formula. “Some of our subscribers were really upset by Spring Awakening last year, because the language was rough and the play contained simulated sex,” Baker recalls. “It didn’t sell a lot of tickets, but a small but vocal segment of the St. Louis audience really appreciated it.” Crowd-pleasers like Wicked, Legally Blonde and Jersey Boys generally do well, he notes. “For the 2011 season, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that Billy Elliot The Musical will be a huge hit.”

    Concerts are harder to book than plays, Baker says. “Audiences are notoriously fickle—Kelly Clarkson can sell-out one year and flop the next. It all depends on how hot they are at the moment, and whether they’ve had a recent hit—that’s hard to predict.” What wows ‘em in New Jersey and Los Angeles won’t necessarily go over in St. Louis. “To see if an act might work here, we check how it does in Cleveland and Memphis,” Baker explains. Another factor is availability. “We have a certain number of slots to fill on certain dates, and we have to coordinate that with everyone’s touring schedules,” he says. The Fox’s national reputation helps. “We’re the No. 25 market in the country, but we’re always one of the first 10 cities to get first-run shows.”  

The Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis

    The Touhill hosts about 30 acts per year in a wide range of categories, including dance, jazz, opera, classical music, concerts, and international performing arts. Its two spaces, the 1,600-seat Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall and the 350-seat Des and Mary Ann Lee Theater, also showcase student performances. “The Touhill’s administrative staff work with a variety of partners, promoters and renters to make sure we present an exciting balance of the performing arts spectrum,” says Cary Goldwasser, director of marketing and sponsorships.

    Home to St. Louis Ballet, Dance St. Louis and MADCO (Modern American Dance Co.), the venue books acts as far in advance as possible. “We’re fully committed through the 2012-13 season,” Goldwasser says. “Our local contacts and co-presenters tell us what’s available and when—Jazz St. Louis brought in jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins last year, and he was a huge draw. Simultaneously, we interact with national promoters to get a feel for who’s touring.”

    The Touhill focuses on bringing high-quality, live performances to the campus and the St. Louis audience in general, Goldwasser says. “Naturally, we try to be fiscally responsible, but pulling in huge numbers isn’t our foremost concern,” she adds. Lily Tomlin filled seats last year, as did country music legend George Jones and the Golden Dragon Acrobats from China. “Jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny always packs the house, and the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, scheduled this year for April 16 and 17, is always a hit.”

    The venue tries to keep ticket prices affordable, and Goldwasser says business has been good despite the challenging economy. “We’re doing well for the same reason the movie industry thrived during the Great Depression: people need a break,” she says. “At The Touhill, you and your family can enjoy a night on the town and top-notch talent, without spending a fortune.”