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Facing debt, Wang to produce its own shows

Reeling from box-office losses, a downturn in theater attendance across the country, and unprecedented competition from Clear Channel Entertainment, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts will revamp its mission and programs next season, its president and CEO, Josiah Spaulding Jr., said yesterday.

Instead of relying on touring Broadway musicals to anchor its season, the nonprofit Wang will produce or coproduce its own shows, with an emphasis on ''event musicals" and family entertainment. Among these will be ''White Christmas," which the Wang plans to make a biennial holiday-season attraction. Spaulding hoped that the lucrative ''Radio City Christmas Spectacular," the Wang's biggest hit of this season, would run in alternate years.

Most of the Wang's major commercial offerings have done dismal business this season, Spaulding acknowledged. ''They all lost money. 'The King and I' lost money, 'Big River' lost a half a million dollars," he said, shaking his head.

Spaulding said the Wang is facing a deficit of about $1 million, noting that he is ''fund-raising like crazy" to close the gap. ''Even after fund-raising, we're looking at a significant loss this year," he said.

That would mark the third year in a row that the Wang has finished its fiscal year in the red.

The Wang Center includes the Wang and Shubert theaters and education and outreach components and provides major support for free Shakespeare every summer on the Common. The center flourished during the 1990s, packing the ornate 3,600-seat Wang Theatre with premieres of touring blockbusters such as ''The Phantom of the Opera" and ''Miss Saigon."

Those and other shows filled the house's coffers, helping to support noncommercial ventures such as the Suskind Young at Arts program, as well as to subsidize rent for Boston Ballet and Boston Lyric Opera.

By the fall of 2001, the landscape of the Theater District had changed dramatically when Clear Channel entered the market in full force. Clear Channel, which holds an interest in more than 40 Broadway shows in New York and on the road, controls four Theater District playhouses. It acquired, restored, and reopened the Opera House on Washington Street.

''There's no competition anymore, because the theater business is run by conglomerates, who also own most Broadway shows," said Nick Paleologos, a Boston-based producer. ''Their interest is in keeping their houses full, so they can leverage their investments on Broadway."

The Wang hopes to rebuild without depending on Broadway road shows, the choicest of which have gone into Clear Channel theaters lately. Instead, the Wang hopes to produce musicals on its own, or in collaboration with other nonprofit performance centers, beginning next season.

The 2005-06 lineup opens with a production of ''Riverdance" in September. After that, the Wang and Connecticut's celebrated Goodspeed Opera House will coproduce ''The Boy Friend," directed by Julie Andrews, which will come to the Wang's Shubert Theatre in October.

After ''White Christmas" in November, ''Doctor Dolittle, produced by the Independent Presenters Network, an association of promoters, theaters, and arts centers, will play the Wang in February.

Spaulding said the successes he saw from the Wang's 2004-05 family series, aimed primarily at first-time theatergoers, gave him hope for the new strategy. Some 425 families signed up for a package that included touring versions of ''Big River" and ''Peter Pan," the circus-style ''Cirque Dreams," and the Boston Lyric Opera's version of ''The Little Prince," more than the 300 subscribers the Wang had expected.

Other strategies to bring in new audience members include the creation of a Wang Center Club. A tax-deductible $25 membership will include savings on tickets, priority seating, notice of new shows, and discounts at Theater District shops and restaurants

''We've realized, in the past three to five years, that one of our problems as a business is that people don't know us," Spaulding said. ''While we've been presenting all of these musicals, including our holiday shows, we've been failing to get out to the public what the Wang Center is."

Spaulding said the Wang would continue to support Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which puts on a free play every summer on the Common. In addition, he said the center remained committed to its educational efforts, the staged-reading play series at the Shubert, and to housing the ballet and opera.

Maureen Dezell can be reached at dezell@globe.com

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