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Hippodrome sets new season, new renewal policy

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
"Kinky Boots" will step into the Hippodrome next season, along with "Motown the Musical."

The Hippodrome Theatre's 2015-2016 Broadway Series will include the hit musical "Kinky Boots" and an effort to eliminate a long-standing kink in the process of buying subscriptions.

Next season's lineup also offers "Motown the Musical"; "The Illusionists," which just opened a limited Broadway engagement; "Cabaret," in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Tony Award-winning revival; a new touring production of "The Sound of Music"; a return visit by "The Phantom of the Opera"; and the play "Love Letters."

Under the old model, subscribers signed up for a set number of shows that played multi-week engagements, then had to add three or four of the one-week shows to the subscription package.

But the only seats that were guaranteed to stay the same were those for the multi-week shows. Patrons had to scramble at the box office, online or by phone to secure their preferred locations for the add-ons.

"We listened to what subscribers have been asking for over the past 10 years," said Elaine Barco, the Hippodrome's box office treasurer. "They wanted the same seats for all shows, and they hated the craziness of the race to renew."

Starting next season, the theater will offer mostly one-week shows, reflecting a directional shift for the venue guided by Ron Legler, the new president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, home of the Hippodrome. As a result, subscribers will now get the same seats for all the shows on the series.

"It just makes so much more sense," Legler said. "And booking more one-week shows improves our ability to attract good product to Baltimore from Broadway."

That's because of financial risks for producers, Legler says. With about 8,500 subscribers, the Hippodrome can offer a solid audience base for the standard eight shows a week.

"Producers want to know they can break even," Legler says. "We would need 15,000 subscribers to spread across two weeks. Several other markets in the country have gone from two-week to one-week."

Not that the Hippodrome will never have longer-running productions. "Phantom" will have a two-week run next season, for example. But subscribers will all be seated in the first week of any multi-week show.

Barco, who started at the Mechanic Theater 28 years ago and continued running the box office after the move to the Hippodrome in 2004, worked for weeks with her staff to accommodate current subscribers for next season.

"It was done very fair," Barco says. "I'll lay my life on the railroad tracks to prove that. Seating was done based on [subscribers'] tenure with us. Everyone who had a Tuesday subscription or Saturday matinee still has a Tuesday subscription or Saturday matinee. And they will still have a very good experience if they go back seven rows."

Not all subscribers may agree.

George Kimes and his wife, subscribers to the Mechanic and then the Hippodrome for nearly two decades, were notified that they will be moved from Row G to Row P.

"This is an unacceptable option to us, and unless there is a change we will not consider renewing," Kimes said in an email to the Sun. "I am sure there will be many other subscribers who will follow the same path."

Patrons in the premium mezzanine section (called "suites" at the Hippodrome) are not immune to changes. Barco said a few have been moved to the balcony.

"We know we can't make everyone happy," she said, "but we'll get them to happy. It's going to take a couple seasons for all of this to smooth out.""

The renewal period for current subscribers begins Jan. 26 and runs until Feb. 20. A date for starting sales of new subscriptions has not yet been announced.

Dates and casting for the 2015-2016 shows have not been announced, either, but the lineup will begin with "Kinky Boots," last year's Tony Award winner for best musical. Based on the 2005 indie film about a struggling British shoe factory that ends up producing footwear for drag queens, the show has music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein.

The season's other recent musical, "Motown," opened on Broadway in 2013. It's based on the autobiography of Motown record label founder Berry Gordy. The show provides opportunities to relive the hits of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and others.

The revival of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret" opened last spring at Studio 54 in New York, directed by Sam Mendes, with co-direction and choreography by Rob Marshall.

"Phantom," the perennially popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, has been given a revival by Cameron Mackintosh with new sets, costumes and staging. The North American tour was recently launched, following a tour of the United Kingdom.

The "Sound of Music" production is not coming from Broadway but has been built specifically for touring. The creative team includes such heavy-hitters as director Jack O'Brien, whose three Tony Awards include one for "Hairspray," and set designer Douglas Schmidt, who earned Tony nominations for his work on "42nd Street" and "Into the Woods."

"It's a really lavish, beautiful production that will be the perfect holiday product," Legler says.

The series departs from musicals next season with "The Illusionists," a show featuring seven magicians in a wide-ranging assortment of acts packaged with some Las Vegas-style splash.

Rounding out the series will be A.R. Gurney's two-character play "Love Letters." The Broadway revival opened in September to strong notices with Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow as friends who exchange written communication for 50 years of ups and downs.

This production, originally designed to feature several pairs of well-known actors taking turns in the roles through mid-February, is closing today because of low ticket sales. Producers are now concentrating on launching a national tour. No word yet on who will star, but some tantalizing hints are floating around. Stay tuned.

For more information on the season and the new subscription process, call 800-343-3103 or visit the box office, 12 N. Eutaw St.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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