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Critic’s Notebook

Colonial Theatre’s uncertain future is sign of sweeping changes on theater scene

The Colonial’s future is up in the air.
The Colonial’s future is up in the air.Dina Rudick/Boston Globe

Standing amid the Colonial Theatre’s gilt-edged opulence, you feel connected to a storied past. But the recent news that the Colonial will close for at least a year raises questions about the venue’s future — and highlights major changes that have swept through Boston’s theatrical landscape over the past dozen years.

Since 2003, nearly 4,600 theater seats have been added to the Boston scene, as large downtown venues like the Boston Opera House, Cutler Majestic Theatre, and Paramount Center reopened, gleaming after lavish renovations, and the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, with several performance spaces, was unveiled in the South End.

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This building boom has coincided with an explosion of midsize and small theater companies that cater to younger, hipper audiences, ones whose tastes lean more to“The [Expletive] With the Hat’’ than to, say, “Mamma Mia!’’

There was a time when the Colonial and a few other downtown venues — the Wang, the Shubert, the Wilbur, the Charles — had by far the lion’s share of theater patrons.

But just as broadcast TV networks lost their longtime hegemony as dozens of cable channels and then the Internet nibbled away at their audience, so too have the big downtown theaters been forced to cope with the niche-ification of entertainment. Audiences are now diffused across many venues around Greater Boston (or encased at home in digital cocoons), and competition is fiercer than ever for the entertainment dollar.

As the Globe’s theater critic, I review shows at nearly three dozen venues around Boston, some of which host multiple theater companies. Since it opened in 2004, the Calderwood Pavilion, which is operated by the Huntington Theatre Company, has alone drawn more than 830,000 theatergoers to see productions by the midsize SpeakEasy Stage Company and dozens of other troupes.

Outside Boston, there are more good theaters not far away, from Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company and Pawtucket’s Gamm to Cape Cod and the Berkshires, which abound with must-see productions each summer by the likes of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Shakespeare & Company. Then there are “site-specific performances,’’ everything from 2009’s memorable “Sleep No More,’’ which sprawled all over Brookline’s Old Lincoln School, to a recent pocket-sized production of “Dying City’’ in the Jamaica Plain home of the production’s two stars.

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Emerson College, which owns the Colonial, told the Globe last week that the grand dame of local playhouses will shut down for at least a year while it undergoes millions of dollars in renovations and repairs. Beyond that, its future as a commercial theater appears to be up in the air.

“We are looking at various uses for the theater, including operating it as a theater, but that also suggests other options, of not continuing to operate it as a theater,” said Andy Tiedemann, Emerson’s vice president for communications.

In a letter e-mailed Tuesday to the Emerson community, college president Lee Pelton did not clarify whether the Colonial would continue to function as a commercial theater.

Among the objectives he cited for the Colonial are to “Reanimate and resuscitate the performance space inside the facility,’’ “Serve the best long-term interests of Emerson faculty and students,” “Educate and train the next generation of leaders in the performing arts,’’ and “Expand campus social space.’’

If the Colonial Theatre’s days as a commercial space are over, it would ring down the curtain on one of the longest-running shows in Boston’s cultural history.

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The 1,700-seat venue, which opened in 1900 and was once an essential proving ground for productions on their way to Broadway, still projects an aura of throwback glamour, still feels like a place you should dress up for, long after the notion of formal attire for a night at the theater (or anywhere else) went by the boards.

You couldn’t call the Colonial edgy, but with productions of provocative works like Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts’’ (denounced as “filthy’’ and “immoral’’ by Boston’s mayor after opening night in 1935) and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ (under pressure from the city censor, the show’s producers agreed to delete the “irreverent use of the Lord’s name’’ from a 1963 production), the Colonial occasionally found itself a battleground between censorship and freedom of expression in a city that was slow to wrest itself free of its Puritan heritage.

When something big happened in Boston theater, it often happened at the Colonial. The pre-Broadway tryout of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,’’ now considered one of his masterworks, took place at the Colonial in 1971. In his 1978 book “Broadway Down East,’’ legendary theater critic Elliot Norton wrote about the “spectacular’’ performance given by Sir Laurence Olivier in March 1961 as King Henry II in Jean Anouilh’s “Becket,’’ a portrayal that included “a howling fit of anger’’ during which Sir Laurence was rolling on the floor.

The opening of “Away We Go!’’ at the Colonial in March 1943 represented the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, one of the most important songwriting teams in showbiz history. One Boston critic noted that “the title could be improved on.’’ It was. Rodgers and Hammerstein renamed the show “Oklahoma!,’’ after a song that had just been introduced to the cast, assembled to hear it on the grand staircase of the Colonial’s lobby.

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According to a biographer of Rodgers, “The tryout in Boston was so satisfying that Rodgers would invariably remark in future that he would not open a can of tomatoes without taking it to Boston.’’

Endings, even potential ones, always prompt thoughts of beginnings.

The show that opened the Colonial more than a century ago was a doozy: a production of “Ben-Hur,’’ complete with a cast of 350 and a chariot race featuring eight live horses. Change, too, often proceeds at a gallop. It’s sad to think that the Colonial might get left in the dust.


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.