Faculty, alumni, historians, signers of an internet petition and even venerable theatre composer Stephen Sondheim spent the last six months telling Emerson College that they oppose plans to convert Boston's historic Colonial Theatre into a student activity center and dining facility. On March 3, Emerson finally agreed.
WGBH reported that Emerson president Lee Pelton announced the college has decided instead to renovate buildings it owns on Boylston Street into new 18,000-square-foot dining and social spaces, and potentially, a small rehearsal and performance stage, to be completed in time for the fall 2017 start of classes.
As for the theatre, Pelton told WGBH that the college would try to find a way to bring live theatre back to the space. “I’m eager to begin finding solutions with respect to programming in the Colonial Theatre,“ he was quoted saying.
Master Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim weighed in on the plan last fall, telling Boston magazine that the plan would be a "crime."
Emerson owns the theatre, which was built in 1900, predating all existing Broadway houses.
"I’ve had shows which tried out in the Colonial, and it’s not only beautiful but acoustically first-rate, two qualities which are rare in tandem, even on Broadway," Sondheim told Boston. "For those of us involved in musical theater, it’s a treasure and to tear it down would be not only a loss, but something of a crime."
Sondheim musicals that tried out at the Colonial include A Little Night Music and Follies—the latter set in a theatre about to be torn down. The Colonial is landmarked and cannot be demolished, but the inside is allowed to be repurposed.
The Emerson College community created an online petition via Change.org to save the Colonial from being transformed into a dining hall. To date, the petition has more than 6,000 signees, including former New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich—and Sondheim.
Pelton used an October 18, 2015, column in the Boston Globe to defend the plans for Boston's oldest continually-running theatre. Pelton wrote, "The Colonial was built to support Broadway productions. When Emerson bought the Colonial and an adjacent building for classroom, office, and student residential space in 2006, the intention was to allow the Colonial Theatre to function as it always had. The physical space and business alignments were linked to the retail, large-scale Broadway market. However, since 2006, that market for Broadway shows has deteriorated significantly. Though the College has done its part maintaining the Colonial for its intended purposes, it is now clear that those purposes are no longer viable."
He said the theatre "was only open on average 61 days per year, during the last three years, or to put it more starkly, the theatre was closed and inaccessible to the public on an average of five out of seven days."
One of the plans being considered, he said, "would create a multipurpose theatrical performance venue by adding a self-enclosed black box theater that could be operated when the main stage is not in use, and, at the same time, expand Emerson’s social and dining spaces by converting the 600-seat orchestra section into a 300-seat modular, reversible dining area, modeled, in part, on Symphony Hall."
As previously reported on Playbill.com, documents obtained by the Boston Globe suggest that the theatre may be turned into the Colonial Student Center, a plan that would position the Colonial building and adjacent Walker building as the front entrance of Emerson's campus, and home to a cafe and visitor's center.
In response to the news, Emerson president Lee Pelton emphasized to the Globe that the plan was but one of several options for the venue and that no final decision had been reached.
The Colonial closed following the conclusion of the Book of Mormon touring production Oct. 11, 2015, and it is now set to undergo much needed-repairs. In September, Emerson’s vice president for communications, Andy Tiedemann, told the Globe that "all options are on the table," regarding the theatre's unclear future. "Whatever direction we end up going, any option will make sure that the space can be used for performances."
The uncertainty of these responses has left many in the Boston and larger theatre community concerned for the theatre's future. "Now, as the College turns the Colonial dark and the future of the building has been left concerningly vague, it’s important for the Emerson Community and City of Boston to speak up before the Colonial is relegated to dining hall or campus center," states the online petition on Change.org.
Celebrated writer Rich also tweeted about the petition in order to encourage more supporters. See the tweet below:
— Frank Rich (@frankrichny) October 9, 2015
The Colonial Theatre, which opened Dec. 20, 1900, has seen more than its share of theatre history. With 1,700 seats, it is roughly the size of a big Broadway house, and has hosted pre-Broadway tryouts of many legendary hits, including Cole Porter's Anything Goes, the Gershwin brothers' Porgy and Bess, Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, Jerry Herman's La Cage aux Folles and Stephen Sondheim's Follies and A Little Night Music.
The stage of the Colonial Theatre is also where Yvonne De Carlo premiered the Sondheim song "I'm Still Here" from Follies on the afternoon of March 13, 1971, while developing the now-celebrated, Tony-winning Broadway musical.
Emerson purchased the Colonial in 2006 and has since leased the venue; Citi Performing Arts Center signed a three-year contract to operate it in 2012. Emerson also owns two other large performance venues in Boston: the Cutler Majestic Theatre and the Paramount Center.