As I drove across the East Haddam swing bridge, car tires rumbling over the open grate, it was hard to imagine that the 19th-century Goodspeed Opera House – looking like a wedding cake on the Connecticut River – was anything but a place for musical theater. Yet in addition to being a performance space, it served as a passenger terminal for a steamboat line. It was the town’s general store, post office, dentist’s office, and even a parking garage.
Thanks to a series of very fortunate events, Goodspeed's restoration in 1963, after a period of neglect, was followed by 19 productions that went on to Broadway, receiving more than a dozen Tony awards. In 2006, another fortunate event – a set of strategic business decisions – saved the Goodspeed yet again.
Executive director Michael Price told me that although, at the time, they had no idea that the Great Recession was coming, it was the smart thing to do from a business standpoint. "We changed the way we finance some of our productions," he said. "We altered the balance in the number of weeks we produce each show. We safeguarded ourselves in terms of an aggressive capacity control pricing of our product, which means ticket sales. And we came through the recession without a dip at all in our attendance whatsoever."
As many as 140,000 people come to see musicals at the Goodspeed each year, and Price said he’d be happy if that number grew by two percent annually. Toward that end, plans are underway to reach out to a new demographic through social media.
Of late, the theater has shown more popular musicals like "Camelot" and "Mame," while in the past, it tended to favor lesser-known productions. Donna Lynn Hilton, line producer, said that during the economic downturn, the team discussed strategies around programming, and came up with a formula that factors in the need to fill seats. But Hilton emphasized that there is artistic flexibility. She said, "It is true that we have programmed titles that might have a little bit more name recognition among a broad audience than in Goodspeed’s history. And it is, to some degree, a response to economic impact, but not completely. In our 50th anniversary season, we were really able to program what we wanted to, as well as what we thought would deliver at the box office."
Hilton pointed out that this year’s musical comedy, "Good News!," is an example of a revival that’s a completely new production for a modern day audience. She said Goodspeed has the freedom to do that because of its loyal patrons.
I chatted with Beth Richter during the intermission of "Hello, Dolly!" She said, "We’ve been coming here since my daughter was two. We live in Hamden, so it’s a long drive for us, and we make an annual pilgrimage just to see one of the shows every summer."
The arts institution has nearly 200 people on its payroll. This year, the state provided $100,000, which is one percent of Goodspeed's operating budget. According to Price, gone are the days of corporate funding. It’s the 7,000 wealthy annual contributors who keep the curtain rising. “The state of Connecticut has the largest number of professional theaters per capita in the country,” he said. “I think our state is a wonderful incubator of talent, and will continue to be so.”
The Goodspeed has a $1 million construction loan for its Artists Village, a housing complex for actors that’s currently being repaid by pledge money. The non-profit theater would be in the red if it relied only on box office revenue, but it’s able to close the gap with fundraising dollars.
In the long run, Price’s goal is to increase the inventory. In theater lingo, that means increasing the number of weeks a production runs, given the available seats.