Wednesday, August 8, 2007

What to do with the Wang?

Surely the Wang (above) is the least aptly named of Boston's theatres - indeed, to quote Jon Stewart, it most closely resembles "the inside of Marie Antoinette's vagina" - as in it's plushly, vulgarly fabulous; not only gi-normous, but brimful of biomorphic French curves and recesses, encrusted with gilt, and garishly painted with tacky Max Parrish rip-offs. But it's also waaay too big (3600 seats) for most arts events, and its acoustics leave oh-so-much to be desired. In short, it's a beloved red-velvet elephant that folks just don't want to admit is of little practical use.

Said pachyderm, of course, is not only the centerpiece of the newly-named CitiCenter, but also the centerpiece these days of a tasty scandal: even as CitiCenter cut back its summer Shakespeare (which had become, once the Wang had kicked out "The Nutcracker," its major contribution to the city's cultural life), it was revealed by the Boston Globe that its President, Josiah Spaulding, Jr., had pocketed a $1.265 million retention bonus on top of his $409,000 salary. Spaulding had already come under the Globe's scrutiny for a compensation package that was out-of-whack with the scope of his arts programming, but Board members had explained that quality, not size, was what mattered at the Wang (sorry, I just had to).

Now, perhaps Spaulding's pay day was not "obscene" (as some bloggers would have it) - at least not by the standards of a Republican scion - but still, it's hilariously out of line with the organization's $6.3 million budget and shrinking level of activity (recently the Wang has only been open 1/3 of the year). The Globe's attendant revelations - that Spaulding hired his wife to do website work, and that two Trustees were likewise on the payroll - only re-inforced the sense of a crew of insiders with their hands in the till as the Center's arts programming collapsed around them.

Now the Globe has called for Spaulding's dismissal - which is probably a good idea (although there's not much that can be done about that Board); but this alone is hardly a solution to Boston's "Wang problem": nobody still has much of any idea to do with that oversized piece of Marie Antoinette (below).

And neither do I, really, although as I ponder the problem, a few thoughts keep recurring:

- The Wang is generally inappropriate to dramatic theatre; its future probably lies with dance (Boston Ballet remains a tenant, despite the indignity of having to stage "The Nutcracker" elsewhere), touring musical extravaganzas, and such pop attractions as Michael Bublé. Said attractions will probably require upgrades such as (removable?) video screens for the upper balconies, and an improved sound system (better ideas, I think, than the recently-mentioned video screens on Boston Common).

- Cutbacks at Celebrity Series have endangered their tradition of bringing in major dance companies other than Alvin Ailey; isn't there some way these two organizations can pool or drum up resources to bring more world-class dance to the Hub?

- The brief appearance of North Shore Music Theatre at the Schubert after the fire in their pit seemed to be a big success; is there a possibility of an on-going partnership there, too?

- Why, exactly, is Boston's summer Shakespeare tied to the Wang's budget? Can't this be funded (and organized) separately?

- How does the Cutler Majestic do it? Sure, the house is smaller, and sometimes the offerings are a bit tatty (Teatro Lirico, or Steve Connolly, anyone?), but at the same time, the joint is always jumpin.'

Clearly, it seems, not just the firing of Spaulding, but a thorough re-organization of the "city center" is in order. But whatever happens, certain new realities of the Boston arts scene have to penetrate the thick skulls of local Board members:

- Boston's Theatre District is now the South End, and city dwellers either go there for theatre, or to the Huntington or the ART;

- The touring-Broadway-show business model is no longer viable for the Wang (it can hardly sustain the Colonial and the Opera House);

And finally:

- Not only greater transparency, but greater integration with, and support of, other arts organizations is required for the Wang to survive.

Ah - how I do love generic suggestions! The devil, of course, is always in the details. And I, for one, hardly minded seeing the Commonwealth Shakespeare season reduced - I actually thought of it as kind of a blessing in disguise. Still, it seems obvious now that the Wang is in serious decline (if only because these unsavory details have begun to slip out); reversing that trend should certainly be a civic priority.


  1. We used to call the balcony of the Wang Center the Mir, in honor of the space station.

    I used to see the Nutcracker from the Mir, until I started seeing Jose Mateo's version.

    As you point out, the Wang became, I think, too associated with touring Broadway shows in the late nineties and early 2000's. Rather than being known as the destination for large cultural performances, which supplemented itself with tourning Broadway shows, the Wang's brand became "Touring Broadway house, which supplements itself with some other cultural stuff like ballet, etc." The brand stuck but some of the Touring Broadway Shows went away.

    The Rockettes move, I feel, only strengthened this perception, and right at the time when they may have needed to tack in another direction.

    But then again, you have to pay the bills.

    Nicky Martin, Artistic Director of the Huntington, From the Globe Article:

    "I'm not surprised, because their mindset is all about money," said Nicholas Martin, artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company. "Isn't Joe the guy who threw out 'The Nutcracker' and brought in the Rockettes?"

  2. There's really no major touring Broadway show within sight for the next few years, except perhaps "Young Frankenstein," and what few there are would most likely land at the Opera House, anyway. The Wang has to restructure itself as if "Phantom" and "Cats" never existed.

    I should have mentioned, btw, the Wang's one great advantage - the size (and depth) of its stage, which no other house in Boston can match.