Outside of New York City, the only place to routinely catch Broadway stars such as Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, and Audra McDonald — with a combined 10 Tony Awards among them — is the cozy Art House in the heart of Provincetown. Since 2011, Mark Cortale and Seth Rudetsky’s Broadway @ The Art House series has been a game-changer on the Cape Cod summer entertainment scene.
But trouble is brewing.
The twin 120-seat theaters at the Art House are nestled in the back of a building on Commercial Street that houses the 1620 Brewhouse owned by Ben deRuyter, who wants to gut the theaters and expand his restaurant to include a microbrewery. He’ll be going before the town selectmen, the zoning board of appeals, and the licensing board in the coming months seeking the permits to renovate and expand. He says ever since he opened the 1620 Brewhouse in 2015, he’s envisioned a year-round pub-brewery at the site, which means the Art House and its lauded programming will likely be gone after this summer.
“I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to make sense of the decision,” says Cortale, who has a season-to-season license agreement with deRuyter. “The Art House is a robust revenue generator for the town, but more important we’re continuing Provincetown’s historic legacy as a showcase for the performing arts. . . . I’m determined to find a way to keep going, but I’m also devastated.”
Cortale says he’s mulling options for next summer. But there aren’t many in a town with limited and expensive real estate. Bruce MacGregor, who co-owns the building with deRuyter, says he’s a big fan of the Broadway @ The Art House series “so it’s bittersweet for me.” He suggests moving the shows to the former Provincetown High School or the Provincetown Inn, two venues well outside the town center.
DeRuyter praises Cortale’s “incredible job” bringing new life to two small theaters inside the Brewhouse, which operated as a movie theater before deRuyter and MacGregor bought the property in 2002. “The theaters are dark for 40, 42 weeks a year. Provincetown needs a more vibrant year-round economy,” says deRuyter.
Cortale says the Art House box office sold 20,000 tickets last summer, and many fans who travel to Provincetown from Boston and other cities plan their vacations around the Art House schedule. Many of those supporters are expressing dismay about the potential loss of such a high-profile summer entertainment lineup.
Playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America,’’ “Homebody/Kabul”) and journalist Mark Harris, who have a home in Provincetown, recently weighed in on the issue in a letter to the Provincetown Banner. “While we understand the eagerness of businesses to expand, it is hard to overstate the negative impact the loss of this venue will have not only on those who are directly employed by it but on Provincetown’s hard-won status as an arts destination,” the couple wrote.
Besides the Broadway @ The Art House series, Cortale books other artists at the venue, including legendary drag artist and longtime Provincetown performer Varla Jean Merman; comic Judy Gold; and singer-songwriters the Indigo Girls. The Art House theaters also serve as an important venue for the Provincetown International Film Festival, which in June marked its 20th year. The festival would lose two of its five locations should the theaters shut.
“Unless we come up with alternative affordable options, I don’t see how the festival can continue even in a lesser incarnation,” says Christine Walker, executive director of the film festival. “Hopefully, we can capitalize on the groundswell of support from folks in the community who value the artistic and economic impact that the festival has on this community and come up with viable solutions. We’ll see. For now, we’re still digesting the news.”
Cortale and Rudetsky, who met years ago in New York when Rudetsky worked for “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” conceived Broadway @ The Art House as a cabaret series similar to Rudetsky’s popular Broadway talk radio shows. Rudetsky, who accompanies the entertainers on piano, says the unscripted format and the intimacy of the Art House take the pressure off the artists and allow them to have fun.
“My favorite part working on Broadway is going out after the show and telling hilarious stories about [our] worst auditions, wigs falling off, bras exploding. I tried to create a living room atmosphere,” he says.
His near-obsessive knowledge of the artists’ strengths and his easy rapport with them allow for spontaneity and surprise. When LuPone appeared at the Art House, Rudetsky got her to sing “Rainbow High” and other lesser-known songs from “Evita” that LuPone “hadn’t sung in concert in 30 years. And she did them again in the original key,” he says. “It was one of the amazing highlights of my career, and it all happened at the Art House.”
Last season, when Sarah Jessica Parker performed dance steps from “Annie,” Rudetsky responded by screening a Tony Awards telecast clip of the song “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” from the show.
“I made her stand in front of the movie screen, kind of like ‘Rocky Horror.’ That could only happen in Provincetown. It was such a magical, spontaneous moment. It would not happen in a more scripted show,” he says.
Cortale says nothing short of Provincetown’s identity is at stake. “Many people are saying to me that [the proposed brewery] feels like an effort to change the tenor of town; to make it more day-trip tourist friendly or to attract a straight demographic versus drag shows or Broadway performers,” he says.
He cites the special permit granted for deRuyter’s business in 2006 by the zoning board of appeals which states that an increase in performance facilities is of “social and economic benefit to the town” and in keeping with the town’s comprehensive plan. DeRuyter, who will have to go before the zoning board to amend the permit, disagrees. “It isn’t a judgment on which [use] is better. I’d say taking 5,000 square feet of dark space and converting it to a year-round building is a social and economic benefit. The first brewery in Provincetown could be a destination. I’m trying to attract everybody.”
“It comes down to beer,” says Cortale. “This is going to happen in the space where Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Chita Rivera, and Varla Jean Merman have performed. When I think about it, I want to cry.”