Theater & dance

Emerson College strikes deal to reopen Colonial Theatre

The London-based Ambassador Theatre Group will operate the 117-year-old Colonial Theatre, which has been shuttered for more than a year.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The London-based Ambassador Theatre Group will operate the 117-year-old Colonial Theatre, which has been shuttered for more than a year.

The London-based Ambassador Theatre Group has been chosen to operate Emerson College’s celebrated Colonial Theatre in a deal, announced Sunday evening, that is expected to breathe new life into Boston’s Theatre District.

The Colonial, which has been dark for more than a year, will benefit from the considerable reach and resources of the Ambassador group, one of the largest international producers of live theater. In addition to signing a 40-year lease, both parties will make substantial capital improvements to the 117-year-old Colonial, and the Ambassador group will explore making the venue available to local performing arts groups.

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“It’s a game-changer,” said Lee Pelton, Emerson’s president. “Bringing ATG to Boston as a partner with Emerson is the theater’s version of bringing GE to our city.”

The company expects to open its inaugural season at the Colonial in January 2018.

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Mark Cornell, chief executive for the Ambassador group, called the agreement “a strategic and hugely important initiative” for the company, which now operates 46 venues across three continents, including two on Broadway. The company is known for coproducing shows on Broadway and in the United Kingdom as well as touring productions.

“America is key to our future and our success, and in my view there is not a better place to start than a long lease in Boston,” Cornell said by phone from London. “We couldn’t be more excited to be in such a cultured and interesting city.”

The company’s agreement to run the Colonial is part of a broader push into the North American market. The Ambassador group hired two key executives to expand its North American operations last November, and in 2015 the company acquired five US venues, including Kings Theatre in Brooklyn and a quartet of regional houses in New Orleans and San Antonio.

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With the Broadway properties in hand, the new deal could help return the Colonial to its glory days as a pre-Broadway tryout house.

“To have the Colonial as part of that triumvirate makes extremely good sense to us,” said Cornell. “Boston has been legendary for being the pre-Broadway city. It’s fair to say that it’s lost a bit of that shine over the years, and that’s something we at ATG would love to bring back.”

The agreement, expected to be formalized by late February, stipulates that the Ambassador group will also provide learning opportunities for Emerson students and create a theater arts initiative for Boston-area youth. Cornell said he was particularly interested in exploring how the company could make the Colonial available to the Boston Lyric Opera, which is without a home and had put in a bid for the Colonial.

“We are hoping to meet with them in the not-too-distant future,” said Cornell. “We are going to make every effort that we possibly can to support the Boston Lyric Opera’s search for a new home.”

In addition to owning and operating theaters, the Ambassador group, which is majority owned by Rhode Island’s Providence Equity Partners, has a robust ticketing business and works with a number of affiliate companies — notably Sonia Friedman Productions, whose London hit “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” will open at the Ambassador’s Lyric Theatre on Broadway in early 2018. The Ambassador group will bring its coproduction of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, to its Hudson Theatre on Broadway next month, following a complete restoration of the venue.

“With two theaters on Broadway, it gives us some terrific flexibility,” said Cornell. “We would love to bring the highest and the best quality culture to your city as we can, and if it also gives us the opportunity to try some really exciting productions in Boston prior to bringing them to our Broadway venues, then so much the better.”

Pelton said that under the agreement, Emerson would share a percentage of the earnings at the Colonial.

‘Boston has been legendary for being the pre-Broadway city . . . and that’s something we at ATG would love to bring back.’

Mark Cornell, Ambassador Theatre Group chief executive 
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“There’s absolutely nothing like this partnership in the world — the marriage of the world’s largest live entertainment and theater company with a college or university,” said Pelton. “I don’t know of any other college or university that will be able to provide its students with the opportunities that will flow from this partnership.”

Pelton added that the college planned to begin refurbishing the theater as soon as possible, addressing problems with asbestos and the facility’s heating and ventilation systems. He added that the Ambassador group, which has committed to a “seven figure” marketing campaign in advance of the theater’s reopening, had agreed to invest millions of dollars in capital improvements to the building over the life of the lease.

“We don’t have a bottomless pit of money to delve into, but I have committed to making some very significant improvements,” said Cornell. “The most important thing for us is to invest money to ensure that our audience has the best possible experience.”

Emerson had faced bruising criticism over its stewardship of the Colonial after plans surfaced that proposed converting the playhouse into a flexible dining hall/performance space. Although the college later discarded that option, the city’s theater community has waited anxiously as Emerson weighed various proposals for the Colonial, which once served as an essential testing ground for such Broadway hits as “Porgy and Bess” and “Follies.”

“We are grateful to Emerson College for its unparalleled investment in Boston’s Theatre District, and for its commitment to supporting the beautiful, historic Colonial Theatre,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “We welcome ATG to Boston, and thank them for their willingness to support the Boston Lyric Opera’s search for a new home, and to strengthen arts education programs at Emerson.”

The Ambassador group’s operation of the Colonial is sure to put competitive pressure on the city’s other commercial theater providers, including Broadway in Boston and the Boch Center, both of which regularly present touring performances. The company’s arrival also comes at a time when many wonder if there is enough demand to fill the city’s biggest downtown theaters.

“That’s something we’ve given good and careful consideration to,” said Cornell. “But it’s our simple belief that if you have very strong quality of content, you will draw an audience.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.
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