David L Ryan/Globe Staff
The long-dormant Colonial Theatre will reopen in June with a world-premiere musical stage adaptation of the film “Moulin Rouge,’’ a curtain-raiser designed not just to resurrect the storied theater but also to help reestablish Boston as a tryout town for shows on their way to Broadway.
Millions of dollars’ worth of renovations are expected to be completed by late spring at the Colonial. The 117-year-old Boylston Street theater, owned by Emerson College, has been dark since October 2015.
But if the forces behind the rebirth of the Colonial have their way, it will seldom be dark in the future. High-ranking executives at London-based Ambassador Theatre Group, an international presenter and producer that entered into a long-term lease with Emerson to operate the Colonial, expressed the hope that “Moulin Rouge! The Musical’’ will be just the first of numerous productions with Broadway aspirations that begin life in Boston.
“This theater has had a history of pre-Broadway, and that’s our direction for sure,’’ Stephen Lewin — Ambassador Theatre Group’s chief executive, North America — told the Globe. “We would love to bring this back to pre-Broadway.’’
During an announcement in the Colonial’s lobby Wednesday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh praised the effort. Standing beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling, flanked by marble walls and globe-shaped lights, Walsh said: “To see this theater come back to life is to see a resurgence of the legacy the Colonial once had here on Boylston Street. It’s an exciting new chapter here for the Colonial. It’s an exciting new chapter here for this part of Boston.’’
Emerson College’s president, Lee Pelton, said that reopening the Colonial is “part of our long-term vision to enhance and enliven our neighborhood.’’ The partnership between Emerson and ATG “ensures the long-term viability of this beautiful, historic theater,’’ said Pelton, adding that the Colonial will “not only survive but thrive.’’
That would surely come as a relief to the theater community, which reacted with dismay when the Globe reported two years ago that Emerson was considering a plan to transform the venerable playhouse into a flexible dining hall/performance space. That plan was later discarded, but the performing-arts community has been keeping a close eye on developments at the Colonial.
Lewin said ATG envisions a mix of musicals, dramas, comedies, and concerts at the Colonial. “We want to be an active theater,’’ Lewin said. That will pose competition for audiences with such nearby venues as the Boch Center’s Wang and Shubert theaters and the Boston Opera House. As for Broadway, in recent years, it has been Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater that has most often served as a launching pad for New York-bound shows such as “Pippin,’’ “Waitress,’’ and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.’’
One question — whether Boston Lyric Opera might find a home in the renovated Colonial — is apparently still unresolved. Asked about the BLO, Lewin replied: “The BLO are good friends of ours, so if we can make something work for them we will. Nothing is finalized.’’
Originally, ATG’s goal was to reopen the Colonial by January 2018. “As we looked to everything that needed to be done, and we looked to the timing of the show and all that goes into opening a building, the summer was a perfect time,’’ said Kristin Caskey, ATG’s executive vice president for content and creative in North America.
In an interview, Pelton said ATG has exceeded its original funding commitment to the restoration by more than 50 percent. He declined to specify the exact amount the company is contributing or the price tag for the overall project. Lewin also declined to provide a number, saying, “We’re not able to disclose our financials regarding the Colonial. But ATG is fully committed to bringing the Colonial back to its glory. The theater is going to be very beautiful.’’
Pelton said the renovation will result in a new lounge and roomier seats, among other amenities. “One of the perennial complaints has been that the seats in the Colonial are small and narrow, and were constructed in a time when American audiences were smaller,’’ he noted.
Erica Schwartz, the Colonial’s general manager, said Wednesday that the renovations will also include a new dressing-room wing, lighting and sound systems, HVAC systems, and seats accessible to disabled patrons.
Apart from the physical improvements, Pelton emphasized the burst of onstage creativity he expects to see under ATG’s stewardship. “I am confident that ATG will set a new bar for excellence in theater in our great city,’’ he said. “I believe that the programming they will bring to Boston will be unparalleled. It will have the capacity to change, in a profound way, the theatrical landscape in this city.’’
Caskey suggested that making a new musical with Broadway aspirations the kickoff production is a way of looking back at the Colonial’s tradition and ahead to its future at the same time. “Our hope is that we will continue to have premieres to bring back some of the original glory but also to celebrate the Colonial,’’ Caskey said. “We will definitely be concentrating on bringing world premieres and pre-Broadway tryouts to the venue. Audiences in Boston have shown their enthusiasm for new work.’’
Historically, that enthusiasm has helped fuel the ascent of numerous theatrical landmarks. Among the shows that got tryouts and fine-tuning at the Colonial before moving on to Broadway were “Oklahoma!’’ (then titled “Away We Go!’’), the original “Porgy and Bess,’’ “Anything Goes,’’ “Annie Get Your Gun,’’ “Carousel,” “La Cage aux Folles,’’ “Follies,’’ and “A Little Night Music.’’
The show with which ATG will begin its attempt to continue that lofty legacy will be a stage adaptation of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, to be directed by Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Peter and the Starcatcher”). No cast announcement has been made yet, but a developmental lab for “Moulin Rouge!” now underway stars Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo. The stage musical will include pop songs used in the film, such as “Lady Marmalade,’’ along with some newer tunes, while the book will be written by playwright John Logan, author of “Red,’’ a Tony Award-winning drama about the painter Mark Rothko.
Said Logan: “The people who made 20th-century theater made it in this theater, so I’m delighted — proud — that we’re going to get to join that roster of great ghosts.’’
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