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Deal near to reopen the Colonial

Citi Center has plan with Broadway group

The Colonial Theatre would be back in business next July under the plan. The Colonial Theatre would be back in business next July under the plan. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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The Citi Performing Arts Center, which already operates the Wang and Shubert theaters, plans to add another member to its downtown family: the 110-year-old Colonial Theatre, which has been dark since July.

Under the terms of a deal whose final details are still being worked out, the Citi Performing Arts Center would take over the Colonial on July 1, 2012. It would lease the property from Emerson College and program it in tandem with Broadway in Boston, whose management of the Colonial ended last month with the expiration of a 10-year lease it had wanted to renew. The theater closed after failed negotiations between Emerson College and Broadway in Boston.

The agreement on a new three-year lease is “99 percent done,’’ said Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., the Citi Center’s president and chief executive, though other details - such as the “alternative programming’’ Spaulding said he intends to add to the Colonial’s traditional Broadway fare - remain unclear.

“We’re still very much in the discussion stages of all of this,’’ said Spaulding, who noted that he did not approach Emerson with the idea of running the Colonial “until at least the end of July,’’ after the Boylston Street theater’s closure had been announced. The collaboration with Broadway in Boston, formerly known as Broadway Across America-Boston, followed. Spaulding called the three-way partnership “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’’

Rich Jaffe, vice president of Broadway in Boston, said he had always believed the Colonial would be shut only temporarily.

“We were confident that something would come about,’’ he said. “It’s a beautiful venue that no one would want to see dark.’’

With its absence from the Colonial this season, Broadway in Boston is presenting shows at the Opera House and the Citi Shubert Theatre. It has said that it decided to leave the Colonial when Emerson began exploring the possibility of other prospective tenants, not offering a lease renewal until it was too late to plan its new season.

Jaffe said the pending arrangement is best for Broadway in Boston, allowing it to use the 1,700-seat theater when it sees fit without having to operate it as the leaseholder as well.

The Citi Center, meanwhile, is primarily a venue operator, Spaulding said, and has experience running historic theaters. Clarence Blackall, the architect who designed the Colonial, also designed the 1925 Metropolitan Theatre, which became the Citi Wang Theatre.

A full season will pass without Broadway programming on the Colonial stage while the theater is dark, but if all goes as planned, such programming will be there next year, Jaffe said. Broadway touring shows are usually booked about 18 months in advance, he said, but he is looking at shows to put into the Colonial 12 to 14 months from now.

Concerts and other attractions are easier to book, often requiring only weeks of advance planning, Jaffe said. Both Broadway in Boston and the Citi Center said they intend to bring nontheatrical performances to the Colonial, with Spaulding floating the idea of an indie music series.

Such programming is a question mark in the plan, not only in terms of content but in terms of any labor agreement that would govern it. When new product is put into a theater, a new agreement has to be made, explained Christopher P. Welling, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 11, the stagehands union.

But Welling, the house carpenter at the Opera House and an occasional worker at the Citi Wang Theatre, spoke highly of both Spaulding and Jaffe and sounded relieved at the prospect of reopening the Colonial.

“It’s one big community that’s really worked hard together to keep this thing lit,’’ said Welling, who promised flexibility “to make the economics work’’ as contracts are ironed out.

“What the fear was was that the Colonial Theatre wouldn’t remain a theater, and that would’ve been horrible,’’ Welling said. “We’re willing to work with the employer to make sure that that never, never happens.’’

In an interview with the Globe last June, just before she stepped down as Emerson’s president, Jacqueline Liebergott called the theater’s shutdown “sad.’’

Emerson’s new president, Lee Pelton, said a celebration of the Colonial’s history prompted today’s slightly premature announcement about its future. As the 76th anniversary of the Sept. 30, 1935, pre-Broadway opening of “Porgy and Bess’’ at the Colonial, this has been named “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ Day in Boston by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

But Pelton emphasized that the announcement would not have been made today if the agreement with the Citi Center were not “essentially a done deal.’’

“Having survived, like the rest of the city, five minutes of Red Sox baseball, I suppose anything could happen,’’ he said, laughing. “But I think we’ll do better than the Red Sox did and close the deal.’’

Broadway in Boston’s Jaffe said he was looking toward the future, but he also suggested that the Colonial’s season of darkness could have been avoided by swifter action.

“I think it would have been better if all this had happened a lot earlier,’’ Jaffe said. “But it didn’t.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.