New Haven’s Shubert Theater Is Carving Out a New Role

A scene from the Broadway production now being recreated at the Shubert for the national tour. Photo by Joan Marcus

A scene from the Broadway production now being recreated at the Shubert for the national tour. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 If you walked into the Shubert Theater in New Haven anytime in the last few weeks, you might think you were at the NASA space center, according to John Fisher, executive director.

Instead of the plush orchestra seats, computers were everywhere on tables throughout the auditorium.  At each table were members of the production team for the national tour of Matilda the hit Broadway musical.

Over 100 computers were set up and ready to go — for the lighting people, scenic designers, costumers, lighting, music supervisors, sound technicians and more.

For much of its 100 year history, the Shubert was known as the “Birthplace of Broadway.”  Musicals and plays came to New Haven to try out before heading on to Broadway or to other stops along the way — Boston and Philadelphia were often the stops between New Haven and New York.  So New Haven audiences saw the very first performances of legendary shows from My Fair Lady to Oklahoma! (known in New Haven as Away We Go), The King & I, Zorba, 1776Fiorello and many others.

But Broadway and the economics of putting on a show changed.  It was no longer feasible for shows to try out for just a week in New Haven. In the 1970s, shows such as A Chorus Line began life as workshops and opened without out-of-town tryouts.  Other shows have been developed in regional theaters such as Goodspeed (Man of La Mancha, Annie) and at the Globe in San Diego; still others have moved from off-Broadway to Broadway.   Recent Broadway musicals have started at Hartford Stage (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), at the Kennedy Center (Gigi revival), off-Broadway (Fun Home) and  Paris (An American in Paris).

 In fact, Fisher said that an out-of-town tryout can add up to a $1 million to the capitalization of a musical over just opening for extended previews in New York.  Many of these costs are associated with the “loading in” and “out” of all the show’s equipment, plus housing and travel costs for cast and crew.

Yet the Shubert is still serving an important role in putting together theater productions and giving area residents sneak previews.

Now,  rather than the opening of new musicals, the Shubert is helping to put top-notch touring companies on the road.

It began in 2007, Fisher explained, when the national tour of The Jersey Boys came to New Haven to rehearse before going on tour.  New Haven audiences got to see preview performances before the show headed off to San Francisco.

Due to the relatively small size of the Shubert,  a show such as The Jersey Boys normally would not be scheduled for New Haven until well into its tour;  in fact, the show’s next stop in Connecticut was the larger Bushnell Theater in Harford.

Since then, one to two national tours a year have used the Shubert as their rehearsal and “tryout” venue:  The Color Purple, The Addams Family, Hair as well as the remounting of Peter and the Starcatcher.

 Matilda will culminate its 5+ week stay in New Haven with a week of performances, May 16 – 23.  These are billed as preview performances before the show officially opens the tour in Los Angeles.

The process began with the tech people arriving in New Haven in April, followed by the cast (which had begun rehearsals in NYC) around May 1.  Now everyone is working hard.

Not only are computers all over the orchestra seating, but costumes are being fitted and altered in hallways and others spaces in the theater.  The director, Tony-winner Matthew Warchus arrived in mid-May to oversee final touches.

All of this activity has a positive economic impact on New Haven and the area.  According to Fisher, Matilda will account for almost $2 million in spending on hotel rooms, restaurants, catering, materials and more.

The attraction for Matilda and the other touring productions to starting at the Shubert are many, according to Fisher:  the close location and easy access to New York City is convenient for cast and production team;  many of the suppliers that are needed are in the greater New York area including one of the best scene shops which is located in Milford.  In addition, the Shubert’s professional crew are “really expert,” Fisher said.  Many work regularly in New York or with tours when not at the Shubert. “This helps with all the technical aspects,” said Fisher.

Even the Shubert’s smaller size is an advantage;  “if the show can fit here, it can fit everywhere,” Fisher explained.

Matilda the Musical is based on the Roald Dahl novel, Matilda. It began life in London in 2012 as a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company where it won seven Olivier Awards including Best Musical.  It opened on Broadway in 2013, where it was nominated for multiple awards and won four Tonys.

It tells the story , as the press material says, of “an extraordinary girl who dreams of a better life. Armed with a vivid imagination and a sharp  mind, Matilda dares to take a stand and change her destiny.”  In the process she stands up to an adult bully and helps empower both other children and another adult.  She finds the nurturing and caring environment that she needs.

After spending six weeks in Los Angeles, the tour will head to San Francisco for a month then onto Seattle, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis and other stops.

The cast features many with multiple Broadway credits.  Bryce Ryness who most recently was seen as Starkey in the Peter Pan Live! production plays the nasty Miss Trunchbull.  Jennifer Blood, who has performed in A Gentleman’s Guide and Violet on Broadway, is the kind Miss Honey.  Three young girls alternate in the role of Matilda:  Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness  and Mable Tyler.  Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva play Matilda’s parents.

For tickets to Matilda The Musical contact shubert.com or call the box office at 203-562-5666.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.com

Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo by Joan Marcus

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