Broadway’s Return to Reno — Bigger and Bolder

Broadway Comes to Reno at the Pioneer Center for its 26th year with a stellar lineup of six classic and contemporary musicals that are bound to get everyone excited. After closing its doors for over a year due to COVID, Alayna Wood reports the team at the Pioneer Center are determined to make the beloved performance series’ return to the stage bolder, bigger, and better than ever.

This season heralded its return in the biggest possible way with a two week run of the highly coveted Hamilton and boasted an audience turnout of 22,000 people. This season also saw a tremendous increase of season ticket holders with a sale of 9,000 subscribers, double that of the previous highest year in the series’ history. This year’s Broadway Comes to Reno season includes five other shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Fidler on the Roof, Hadestown, and the return of Waitress, which had been postponed in 2020.

I recently sat down for a chat with the Pioneer Center’s Executive Director, Dennyse Sewell, and Events Director, Devenney Leijon, about what we can expect from this season’s performances, the work it takes to bring Broadway back to Reno in a post COVID world, their love of all things Broadway, and their dedication to sharing the magic of musical theater with the Reno community.

How many years has Broadway Comes to Reno been a regular series?

Dennyse Sewell, Executive Director: The year of the pandemic was our 25th anniversary season. About halfway through that season, we had to shut down. Although there was a dark year in the middle there, basically we’ve had 26 years of Broadway Comes to Reno.

And is it always this full of a lineup?

Dennyse Sewell: Yes! A season is typically anywhere from 5 to 7 or 8 titles in a given year. What’s different this year is this is the first time that every single show in our season is here for an entire week. It was a really bold, really big move. For 25 years, the majority of our shows have been Friday-Sunday performances.

However, this season, with the growth in the community and with our commitment to coming back from the pandemic in the biggest way possible, we decided now is the time to lean in.

How else does this season differ from past seasons?

Dennyse Sewell: I think the community had an opportunity during the shut down to re-evaluate what makes a place feel special, what makes home, what makes their lives feel engaging and exciting and fulfilling. And for so many people across the world, the arts was really an answer to a lot of those struggles people faced. I really think the energy is different now that people have had to live through a year with no access to arts and cultural opportunities. It feels to me that the energy and excitement and hunger for the experience is bigger than it’s ever been.

Devenney Leijon, Events Director: Reno is so excited and ready, no matter what challenges or different considerations and policies we’ve had to put in place for the venue. The community is really there with us. They’re ready to come back and enjoy these really amazing shows that we have lined up for the season, and it’s been really special to see that from the community.

In early 2020 I told myself, I want to see Hamilton and I am willing to drive to San Francisco to see it. When theatre came back and I saw this year’s BCtR lineup, I was like “Oh, wow, it’s coming here!”

Dennyse Sewell: Yeah! I mean, we’re in this industry because we’re so passionate about what we do. We’re theatre nerds, each and every one of us. Finally, we have the opportunity to bring these incredible first national tours here.The success of Hamilton really allowed us to make a name for Reno on the national Broadway industry stage. And it’s an opportunity we are really excited to run with and grow.

What effect will Hamilton’s huge turnout have for the Pioneer Center in the long run?

Dennyse Sewell: That bold and risky, and occasionally sleepless night, decision to go big was met by the community with enthusiasm and commitment. People committing to season subscriptions and going on that journey with us is what keeps us here and allows us to bring the next big, awesome thing to town. That’s the sustainability piece of going this big. What our staff has to focus on now is how to retain all these lovely new people who’ve committed to seeing these shows.

It’s interesting to hear about the planning that comes from the venue side. Often we tend to think the show is the draw and everything else flows naturally out of that.

Dennyse Sewell: For us, it has to be about a commitment to that shared arts experience. The customer service aspect of it and the patron experience is what we really focus on. Whatever is happening on stage is already world-class and phenomenal. Nothing that I do makes Hamilton a better show, so that’s out of my hands. However, the experience our patrons have, from the website, booking system, seating, and getting them through the lines, these are the things, that if we’re doing our jobs well, will keep them coming back, even when they don’t know what the show is. So that’s our responsibility to focus on.

I was actually at Hamilton on closing weekend and as soon as the show was over, I was back in line at the box office purchasing my ticket to Waitress.

Dennyse Sewell: Yes! That’s what we love to hear. That’s the idea, right? To come for that gateway experience and leave saying. ‘That was so good, what’s next? I can’t wait to come back.’ To give people these opportunities for things they didn’t know or wouldn’t have sought out on their own. That’s how we know we’re converting people to actual arts supporters.

What is the general feeling and buzz surrounding this year’s production series?

Dennyse Sewell: I think this current season is an interesting mix of newer titles, like Hadestown. If you are a self-proclaimed theatre nerd, you’re very excited about it. We also have classics, Fidler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, both beloved titles, that even if you are not aware of the current Tony winners on Broadway, you know those shows. You were raised with them. We have Cats, which is the introductory, family musical. For a lot of people, this is the show that got them into Broadway and now they have the chance to bring the little ones in their life into that. And, then of course, we have Hamilton, the global phenomenon that radically changed the Broadway industry and the public’s understanding and perception of musicals.

It’s such a diverse season that depending on who we talk to, we get a different reaction for what their favorite title is and why. It’s amazing to have a season where we’re getting feedback across the spectrum of every single one of those titles being someone’s most beloved show. I feel like this season has been such a gift for us to be able to say that it meets the needs of almost everybody because of what a diverse season it is. I genuinely believe it has something for everybody, no matter who you are. Even if you don’t think you like theatre, there is something here for you.

From a logistical standpoint, how do you go about selecting the shows you host every year and getting the Pioneer Center Broadway ready?

Dennyse Sewell: We work in partnership with Nederlander National Markets, a theatre company who owns a lot of the venues on Broadway and West End and works with theaters across the country, including Reno. We have this fabulous team who are our co-pilots every year in figuring out the season. We know our community, our venue, and the history of what our community wants to see. They have the relationships within the Broadway community, the producers and the touring companies. Together, that partnership is really strong. It enables us to say, ‘This is what we believe is important in Reno,’ and they say, ‘Great! Let’s connect you and get that set up.’ Typically, we work about 12–18 months out for titles we’re holding, sometimes 24 months. It’s always a work in progress until we release the marketing material of the season.

Every year, I also go to New York and see as many shows as I possibly can to get a sense of what is being created. What are the titles that would give us a mix of something comic, something tragic, something difficult? Which shows would offer broad range of perspectives? You want to be really thoughtful of how you curate a season.

That’s the kind of job I want and the research I’d love to do!

Dennyse Sewell: It’s so fun! It’s the absolute greatest thing ever. I need to be in the audience myself saying, is this going to resonate? Is this authentic? It has to be a mix of what we love and what our audience needs.

How has the organizational strategy changed this year?

Dennyse Sewell: I think we’re really stepping back and asking some big picture questions: What is our mission? Where are we headed and how do we get there? Who do we want to be for the next 53 years? The pandemic forced us to re-evaluate what are our business practices were. What has served us well? What can we let go of? We have really taken this opportunity and want to use it to the fullest. We believe the arts are infused in everything and that’s what we’re working towards.

How do you feel theatre speaks to people across generations?

Dennyse Sewell: I think the Broadway industry is such an interesting example of something that carries forward a really significant legacy of all the shows that came before, but finds a way to re-invent every year. Broadway is able to apply a modern lens to a classic story and to do these re-interpretations of these classic productions. For instance, the Jesus Christ Superstar that’s coming here is with a modern lens. It’s going to be the 50 year anniversary show that people love, but with a current sensibility about it. Each of these shows were created with a really important message to say at the time the show was created. But the thing about human history that we’re finding is that we learn the same lessons over and over, and each new generation has to relearn the lessons that their ancestors faced.

Every time they do a revival of a classic production, they have a chance to say, ‘I know what Oklahoma was to my grandparents, but what is Oklahoma now?’ For me, what is so interesting about this industry is when you do come to see a revival on the road, it’s not going to be exactly as you saw it before. It shouldn’t be. It should grow and change with the population who’s there to see it.

Devenney Leijon: My grandmother actually brought me to Phantom of the Opera in San Francisco when I was eleven years old. And that experience blew my mind and really lit a passion in me for this specific art form. I think that it can span generations when you have people you’re close to bringing you to this experience, and it becomes so impactful. It can really open your eyes and stay with you for your entire life. I’m a big believer in having kids come and see these shows. It’s just a totally transporting experience.

I think back to what musicals were originally intended to do, like in the golden age of theatre. It takes people out of their every day experience and transports them. I often wonder if there is going to be another (golden age) of musical theatre. We’re in such a hardship moment for society. Coming out of that now, people want to return to the theatre, watch those really important stories, and take those trips to a different place and time.

I feel like people tend to see musical theatre as outdated, but it really is a living organism that changes and adapts.

Dennyse Sewell: Absolutely! I think the shows we have this season really reflect that too. We strive to do seasons that are a mix of classic and new. We want shows that people here haven’t seen because we want to make sure we’re broadening horizons and showing our audience that theatre is more than just Rodgers and Hammerstein and South Pacific, which I love, don’t get me wrong. When you do a diverse season, you get an opportunity to share all these viewpoints and lived experiences so that your audience can come together, in the dark, and go on this journey together. It’s an incredible thing that only the arts can do for you.

Devenney Leijon: When Hamilton was here, every song that played was all so relatable. What I find, too, is that everything you’re seeing on the stage has some level of it that you can relate to some aspect of your life.

You touched on something I thought was really interesting about theatre seeing a revival after these dark, historical moments. It feels like it would be the opposite where people coming out of hardship may see the arts as superfluous. Why do you think there is a revival of the arts and theatre after times like these?

Dennyse Sewell: I think hardship and struggle are so isolating, even when you know throughout history that you are not alone in what you’re facing. The way that we tend to work through hardships is with community, and theatre is all about bringing people together for a shared experience. Every time I see a Broadway musical, I connect more with my shared humanity and the fact that I’m not alone on this journey. And I think the best musicals connect you with that.

It is this interesting, philosophical thing that we grappled with a lot. What will this community want from a performing arts center whenever it’s time to come back together? How do we maintain an identity when we can’t invite people into the theatre? What is the point of a physical space if there is no one in it? It comes back to that shared moment together, in person, for that fleeting, temporal experience. There is no replacing that.

Devenney Leijon: I have to agree. I think when you’re at home and isolated, and you’re watching something beautiful on the screen, you know that there are probably people out there watching this at the same moment you are, but you can’t feel that same energy of your fellow human around you. You can’t see or hear you neighbor laughing or crying and having the experience in the room with you. The only way to share that experience is at the theatre.

One of the criticisms of Broadway is that sometimes it isn’t very accessible. Why is accessibility so important to theatre and how does the Pioneer Center help bridge that gap?

Dennyse Sewell: Barriers to access can certainly be physical, geographical, and even financial barriers. I think the geographic barrier is pretty well addressed with Broadway because of these national tours. The fact that you don’t have to make the pilgrimage to New York if that’s not something you can or want to do, but that these shows will come to you in Reno, or wherever you are. Broadway will find its way to a city near you, and it’s amazing. That’s not always the case in every industry.

(When it comes to financial barriers) we here at the Pioneer Center feel really strongly about providing student rush tickets for every production. Although it’s not just up to us, the production has to approve it and set the price for themselves. However, we’ve started to put together material for future seasons to push forward on that, and to say we feel strongly about the importance of student rush tickets so that new generations can experience it for themselves.

We agree that it’s critical that theatre shouldn’t just be for people with more discretionary income. The arts are literally for everybody. And we mean that. We want to walk the talk, which is why we’re putting together our proposal that we would put forward to every show in the season. The need to extend and broaden that circle to invite more folks is really important to us.

What is your favorite part about the Broadway Comes to Reno series?

Devenney Leijon: The wide variety of shows I’ve been able to experience here in our community is such a gift. There are so many musicals that I wouldn’t have been able to see over the years without the Broadway comes to Reno series. The fact that it’s here in our community is so special.

Dennyse Sewell: To me, it’s the legacy.When the series was first introduced in the 90s, my parents were season ticket holders. They brought me, and I got to see all these shows with them. I had no idea that I would ever work here, or that this would become my life. It’s been going on for 25 years, and I’m just one of the people that had that experience, and it radically changed the course of my life. To know that all of these people are coming here and having these incredibly significant, very personal experiences for themselves is amazing. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Every single one of us receives something that somebody else built and we’re passing it forward.

*The quotes in this interview have been edited for length and clarity.

Reporting by Alayna Wood shared with the Reynolds Sandbox

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