I don’t think I’d want to be in Van Wilmott’s shoes.
Not that it isn’t fun, being the artistic director of Edmonton’s Mayfield Dinner Theatre.
But there’s pressure. He’s gotta make money!
In commercial theatre, there ain’t no government grants/Canada Council/Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
If Wilmott’s shows didn't make money or at least break even, his corporate masters – the owners of the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel West Edmonton - would close the theatre which is in the hotel.
If his shows don’t bring in the crowds, there’s nobody to buy the theatre’s buffet dinner or bottles of wine, no out-of-towners to stay at the hotel after the show.
And each show, with an eight-to-nine week run, has about 25,000 dinner theatre tickets up for sale. With five shows in the season, that's 125,000 tickets to sell!
And when you have to sell that many tickets, you simply cannot take risks.
“Each show HAS to be successful,” says Van. “Which means you discard a ton of showbills before you even start. Rocky Horror Show is too outside. The Book of Mormon too blasphemous. The shows have to be no-brainers. Being based on a big movie is preferable. People like to see what they already know.”
After ensuring ticket revenue, Wilmott’s second big headache is controlling costs.
“We wouldn’t do Beauty & The Beast or Mary Poppins. They depend on stage technologies that the Mayfield can’t afford. A big show for the Mayfield – like the current Sister Act – has 15 to 20 actors. On a 12-week contract for rehearsals and performances, that’s an average $15,000 per actor.”
While shows have to be good, safe easy-going entertainment, they also have to be contemporary. “We lose 200 to 300 subscribers a year who, for reasons usually connected with advanced age, stop coming to the Mayfield. We have to keep growing our 45– to 65-year-old market.”
Finally, ther rights to perform a show have to be available, at a not-unreasonable cost. If Broadway across Canada is bringing Come From Away to the Jubilee Auditorium, the Come From Away rights-holders are not going to allow the same show in the same time frame at a different theatre.
So what shows are reasonably guaranteed to be money-makers, will bring in 20,000 plus theatre-goers for each show, attract the sought-after 45-plus demographic ... and still be available?
Musicals! Musicals that were either big movies unto themselves, or musicals reflecting an era, musicals celebrating the lives and music of superstars, musicals with widely understood and attractive themes – i.e. a nostalgic trip through Canadian pop music, celebrated in last year’s Christmas show.
So, for the 2019/20 five-show season, it’s musicals, baby! All musicals, but for the iconic farce Noises Off, running Feb. 4 to March 29, 2020.
Million Dollar Quartet (Sept. 3 to Oct. 27) celebrates ‘50s music and ‘50s icons, when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all find themselves, unintentionally, at Sam Philips’ recording studio in Memphis Tennessee.
Class of ’63 A Rockin’ Reunion (Nov. 5 to Jan. 26, 2020): Written by the Mayfield Dinner Theatre’s mysterious Will Marks, the graduating class of 1963 – cue up the girl bands – gets together for its 25th anniversary. There’s recognizable music from the early ‘60s, and the widespread appeal of the notion of school reunions – loves lost, hair lost, who looks good, who looks bad, who still drinks too much …
Rock of Ages (April 7 to June 7, 2020) carries the enormous hype of being THE biggest show about ‘80s bombastic bands, glitter and glam bands, big hair bands, Twisted Sister, Foreigner, Journey, Styx, Asia and what would the ‘80s be without Bon Jovi? PLUS it was a movie!
Finally, a return to a pop star/pop show with whom Mayfield audiences have built a special affinity, being the third time Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story will play on the Mayfield Dinner Theatre stage.
So why so many musicals in the 2019/2020 Mayfield Dinner Theatre season.
Because there’s no much else that A) makes money, B) is cost controllable, C) appeals to the 40+ demographic looking for a comfy night of familiar entertainment and D) are available at a reasonable cost.
It used to be that Mayfield Dinner Theatre musicals were mixed with theatre shows – even serious theatre shows - featuring well-known TV stars. All the secondary stars from shows like M*A*S*H or Mary Tyler Moore would hit the dinner theatre circuit to supplement their income. “But after shows like Sinefeld and Friends, all the actors started making good money. They didn’t need to come to Edmonton to play in dinner theatre!”
There were a few who enjoyed playing in dinner theatre. M*A*S*H’s Jamie Farr had a special affinity for the Mayfield, starring a few years back in Tuesdays with Morrie. “He returned for 2014’s The Last Romance,” says Van, “but ended up in the hospital.
“The only actor from that era still playing dinner theatres is Cindy Williams from Laverne and Shirley.”
So, for the foreseeable future, musicals it will be for the Mayfield, with a sprinkling here and there of well-known dramas and farces.