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Defying Gravity

How Succeeding With Events Like Wicked Opens Up New Possibilities for Columbia Venues

Wicked pointing

Wicked comes to the Koger Center starting Jan. 22. 

Since premiering in 2003, the Broadway smash Wicked has upended the traditional portrayal of one of film and literature’s most famous villains. 

Based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel of the same name, the musical reveals that Elphaba, the famed Wicked Witch of the West, was actually college friends with her Wizard of Oz foil Glinda the Good Witch. Rejecting her life’s dream when she discovers that working with the land’s fabled wizard leader will require her to relinquish her ideals — she’s against the selfish, torturous use of magical creatures, including the Cowardly Lion — Elphaba is portrayed by the powers that be as a seditious criminal.

Landing at the Koger Center this week, Wicked could now reset expectations about the caliber of stage productions that Columbia can attract. The Wicked that the Broadway in Columbia series is bringing is the real deal, one of three official stagings playing worldwide — the other two are in New York and London. It has all the eye-popping costumes and spectacle you’d see on the Great White Way — including the huge, stage-framing Time Dragon in all its moving, smoke-spewing glory — and a cast filled with impressive talent.

And it will remain in Columbia for nearly three weeks, clocking 24 performances before it moves on. And should those dates do well — venue staff and Broadway in Columbia promoters report that tickets are moving quickly — it will likely lead other big-time stage productions to come to Soda City.

“Having this show now is going to prove for every other big show out there that’s touring that we’re a viable market,” offers Chip Wade, marketing director for the Koger Center, the University of South Carolina’s 2,256-capacity theater. “Either this sells really well and all these shows start coming here because they see that we’re viable and they will make money here, or it doesn’t sell well ...”

Nate Terracio, the venue’s director, cuts in, putting a fine point on the stakes for Columbia theater fans.

“And then when people ask me, ‘When are we going to get Hamilton?’ the answer is in 17 years when it’s running three nights only,” he says.

Indeed, whether it’s musicals at Koger or hit musicians coveted by the likes of Colonial Life Arena and Township Auditorium, local venue leaders agree that securing a marquee booking like Wicked unlocks the possibility of bringing other big shows.

“As the producer of Wicked said when he came down sort of for a site visit and to kick off the announcement that we were going to do Wicked,” Terracio continues, ‘‘There’s a couple of large shows that break new ground for Broadway.’ Wicked is one. Lion King is one. Hamilton is obviously one. Phantom of the Opera is one, back in the day. Usually once one of them breaks ground, if the sales are there, everyone else follows. Because they see that it was successful, so they follow — or they see that it was not successful and then they don’t follow.”

Daniel Hampel — managing director of the Indianapolis-based Roberts Group, which produces Broadway in Columbia in addition to five other subscription-emphasizing Broadway series in spots such as Bangor, Maine, and Daytona Beach — also trumpets the impact Wicked could have on future Columbia efforts, and the role it could play in landing Broadway’s hip-hop historical fiction du jour.

“They’re all waiting to see what Wicked does,” he confirms. “We’ll be sending a note with the gross ticket sales in the next month to the producer of Hamilton to say, ‘Hey, check out what Wicked just did in Columbia.’”

Luckily, it seems that local audiences are embracing just how big a deal having Wicked here is.

“I’ll be honest, we were thinking of two weeks,” Hampel says of the initial approach for the musical’s Columbia run. “We’re blown away with how the show has sold, almost sold out of three weeks of performances for Wicked. It’s exceeded even our expectations. We knew the market was ready for Wicked and is ready for Lion King and Hamilton. But even as far as it’s done so far as we head into opening next week, it’s just really far exceeded our expectations.”

An additional testament to the excitement surrounding the production is the fact that for only the second time in its 14 seasons, Broadway in Columbia will hold a nightly ticket lottery for cheap, up-close seats. Each night, people will have a chance to enter their name to buy orchestra seats for $25 each.

And the booking is already paying future dividends for the series. Hampel tells Free Times that it will unveil its 2020-21 slate to season ticket holders at Wicked’s Jan. 22 opening, teasing that the selections will be crowned by another attention-grabbing get that’s a direct result of landing this year’s blockbuster.

“I think you’ll see that the announcement for the coming two seasons will be a direct result of Wicked and the success of Wicked,” he enthuses.

Wicked

Wicked comes to the Koger Center starting Jan. 22. 

It Follows

The heads of other top Columbia venues also similarly say that snagging — and succeeding with — one big show usually leads to more. 

When analyzing how the 18,000-capacity Colonial Life Arena built to the oft-remarked upon successes of its past couple years, General Manager Sid Kenyon reasons that “momentum kind of breeds momentum, and activity spawns more activity,” and the best way to connect your venue with the people behind one arena-crushing musician is to host a successful show for another artist they work with.

“You look at Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Foo Fighters all coming — all represented by the same agent,” Kenyon points out. “And you look, three years in a row, we’re successful with one, [then it’s] ‘Hey, I’ve got this other act, I’m bringing them. I’ve got another act, I’m bringing them.’”

“When you look at when we had the little stretch last year,” he continues, “within about three, four weeks, where we had Fleetwood Mac, P!nk, and Elton John all together, all those things kind of work with each other. By the same token, you have to make sure that you always do it right because word spreads fast in our industry, and if you don’t take care of something correctly that can negatively affect what’s going on.”

The momentum of the USC basketball arena’s entertainment bookings continues to mount. This year brings returns from Elton John and Cirque du Soleil, and the venue will host Jason Aldean, KISS, Martin Lawrence, and Post Malone before the end of February.

Elton John

Elton John returns to Colonial Life Arena on May 22.

Aundrai Holloman, executive director of the similarly hot Township Auditorium, agrees that the best way to show promoters you’re capable of pulling off a new type of big show is to land one and make it a success.

“Once you unlock that base and they start selling out, promoters start going, ‘Oh, we can make money here,’” Holloman offers. “Because, at the end of the day, we want promoters to have an opportunity to at least make money, and when they’re making money and we’re putting on a great production, they’re going to keep coming back. When the market’s under-performing, that’s when you stop seeing some of the bigger shows, but right now, we’re performing well, or over-performing, and that’s why we’re constantly getting these great shows.”

The Richland County-owned Township continues to do well by its beautiful 2010 renovation and capacity of 3,072. Before the end of February this year, the venue will host Dave Chappelle, lauded guitarist Joe Bonamassa, and Diana Ross.

DaveChappelle

Dave Chappelle is at the Township Auditorium on Jan. 29.

First Thing’s First

But while the prospect of what follows a booking like Wicked is exciting, figuring out to land such a production when you never have before is equally daunting.

For Broadway in Columbia and the Koger Center, this month’s run was 10 years in the making. And the first hurdle to clear was needed upgrades to the facility.

“We put in a lot of planning and money and time in advance to change the building to be able to meet their requirements,” the Koger’s Terracio shares. “Not just meet them barely, but to meet them in such a way that they say, ‘Oh, this is great. This is a fantastic theater. This is easy. We’re not worried.’ So that was the first leg of it, just leaping the hurdles of, ‘Can the show fit? Will it work correctly?’

“When we opened in ’89, tours didn’t have the massive amount of scenery that they do now,” he continues. “So we opened with 42 line sets — those are the pipes that you move up and down with a counterweight system. We have since gone from 42 to 47 and then for Wicked we added three more, 50, so that we had enough pipes to be able hang in the right places to be able to accommodate their scenery. The other thing that we had to do is we had to build a grid over the stage. Again, back in ’89, people weren’t touring with lots of chain motors, they weren’t hanging so much heavy scenery from the ceiling of the building. 

“But we’ve got something like 80 motors to hang, and we had to create a structure to hang those 80 motors and then the scenery that hangs below it. So we permanently installed a permanent structure above the stage that hangs above the stage that no one in the audience ever sees, but without that, Wicked couldn’t be here, we couldn’t accommodate it.”

Hampel confirms that, with a show like Wicked, the technical capacities of the theater are a large part of the equation.

“For 10 years, we’ve been asking for Wicked to look at Columbia,” he says. “Once they finally looked at it, they had to fly in and see that technically we had some upgrades that we needed to make to the venue. Then we had to get those approved through the university. So that’s all unrelated to ticket sales and shows. There’s just a lot of aspects of things. 

“And all we tried to do was improve the market, improve the series, grow the series, and it got us to where we are now.”

Only once the Wicked team had flown to Columbia and seen the upgrades in person did they sign off on moving forward with bringing the show to the Koger Center.

The Township’s Holloman also speaks to the importance of meeting a show’s technical needs. The venue followed its 2010 renovation with trade-centric marketing to ensure that promoters knew that the auditorium was ready for a different level of production.

“It was a big push,” he says, “reaching out to people on a national level.”

Apples to Oranges

Beyond demonstrating that your venue can physically handle a show, Terracio explains that attracting events bigger than what you’ve done before involves convincingly delivering apples-to-oranges comparisons — using sales figures and testimonials from loosely similar shows to prove a potential for success.

“In a market like Columbia, which is small nationwide, there’s not a lot of straight comparisons,” he offers. “Comparing one kind of show against another has to be taken into some consideration.”

Colonial Life’s Kenyon similarly says that scoring big shows is about making the smartest argument you can with your body of work.

Cirque du soleil CRYSTAL

Cirque du Soleil will bring Crystal to the Colonial Life Arena in July.

“We look to see if they’ve maybe done any comparable cities or comparable areas,” he explains. “We look to see if maybe we have hosted some comparable acts with the same sort of demographics for the audience and try to build on that. And then a lot of it comes down, too, to we’re dealing with a lot of the same agencies and agents and promoters, so they know a little bit what we’re about. We try to do a good bit of networking, whether it’s through our other friends in the venue side of the industry, or we’ll try to do a couple of conferences, maybe one East Coast, one West Coast, where we get to facetime with some of the agents and national type promoters. 

“I think our past successes are sort of our best arguments for, ‘Hey, listen we can do this.’”

Kenyon also emphasizes that it’s important not to overextend your audience.

“I think Columbia’s still a place though that we kind of have to be smart about what we do and how many we do and how close we do together,” he says. “We don’t have 10 million people in our market, so a lot of times we’re hitting a lot of the same audience members over and over.”

Terracio explains that with a top-level national tour like Wicked, the promoters don’t care all that much about how effective a venue’s marketing and advertising are — they have people on their team that handle all that. What’s most important to them is seeing that you can sell a bunch of tickets.

“We show them how many subscribers Broadway in Columbia has,” he says. “We have to sell something like 50,000 or 51,000 tickets. That’s how many tickets are on sale for Wicked. And they say, ‘Oh, it’s hard to sell that many just individuals, so it’s great it you can sell groups,’ ... In order to sell 50,000 tickets, you have to knock off two here and 10 there and 100 there.”

All three venue leaders emphasize that it’s crucial to build an audience that’s constantly on the lookout for your shows. While Terracio points out that a long run like Wicked’s has the advantage of drawing attendees to later shows through word of mouth, most dates on the calendar require people to know about it in advance.

This is a key reason why Holloman emphasizes local marketing and advertising that put the Township’s entire calendar on display. It’s important that people see it and are impressed by it, he reasons, so that they keep looking for what you have next. That way, when you do land your venue’s next big event, it won’t be a bust.

“There are times when shows typically pay for their marketing, but I would do in-house stuff and be like, ‘OK, I want to list all the shows that are coming to Township,’ and say, ‘Hey, the Township Auditorium has some hot shows and just put it up there so everyone [can see],” Holloman says. “Because it’s worth it to me. 

“It’s worth it, that not only are we reaching out to the national level — we’re doing that — but let’s make sure that the people that are here and within 30, 40, 50 miles, hour and a half radius, hour radius, that they’re coming.”


What: Wicked

Where: Koger Center, 1051 Greene St.

When: Jan. 22-Feb.9

Price: $39-$119

More: broadwayincolumbia.com


Find up-to-date calendars for Township Auditorium at thetownship.org and Colonial Life Arena at coloniallifearena.com.

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