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Updated Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 02:42 PM

5th Avenue's David Armstrong prepares for Broadway debut

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

It is a common sight on opening nights at the 5th Avenue Theatre in downtown Seattle.

Before the curtain rises, David Armstrong, 5th Avenue Theatre Company executive producer and artistic director, stands before the vast audience, microphone in hand. A poised, practiced impresario, he welcomes the crowd with a flourish to the popular landmark venue where he has run the show for a dozen years.

Lately, however, this duty has been relegated more often to vivacious 5th Avenue managing director Bernadine Griffin, or to board members, as Armstrong toils in the kind of Manhattan rehearsal halls familiar to fans of the backstage-on-Broadway TV series "Smash."

Armstrong is not abandoning the Seattle theater he has energetically, skillfully overseen since 2000.

In fact, the articulate, calmly ambitious former dancer and veteran director has been busy overhauling and taking to Broadway "Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson," a $10 million bio-musical about the famed evangelist, penned by TV celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford.

"Scandalous" had its in-progress Seattle debut at the 5th Avenue in 2011. And it is the sixth musical Armstrong has shepherded from here to the Great White Way. But on this occasion, Armstrong is scoring a triple whammy. He'll make his Broadway directing debut with "Scandalous," which opens Thursday night at the Neil Simon Theatre. And on Nov. 19, he'll be on hand at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for the New York premiere of "A Christmas Story" — another 5th Avenue export.

This is a career milestone, and a big roll of the dice, for a savvy stage exec who has transformed the workings of a precious local venue, and the musical-theater landscape of Seattle, since arriving here.

Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, a longtime 5th Avenue board member, helped hire Armstrong from a national pool. And though new to Seattle, the then-40-year old East Coast native was the right choice to take the historic, 2,100-seat showplace to a higher level.

"David is a bundle of enthusiasm, talent, with good theater acumen that's creative as can be," Rice says. "He's brought a lot of energy to the 5th Avenue."

Along with energy, Armstrong brought the vision thing. Under his reign, the 5th has more aggressively marketed its wares, broadened its audience and become, with the Ordway Theatre in Minneapolis and the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, one of the most successful musical-theater venues in the country.

At the end of previous honcho Frank Young's tenure (1989 to 1999), the company was producing five shows a season on a budget of $10 million.

In the 2011-12 season, the 5th presented seven shows (local and touring productions) on a $26 million budget, attracting a 10-year high of 28,000 subscribers. According to figures provided by Griffin, the theater sold 340,039 tickets in the 2011-12 season, compared with 251,595 in 2000-01. Though that's about the same number of tickets per show, this suggests the theater is serving many more people — and more still via education programs.

Armstrong says his mission at the start was to get the nonprofit outfit's finances in line with new artistic aspirations. Two goals: "I wanted to put the focus on local talent, which I felt was a key to our success. And I wanted to focus on new work."

Unlike Young, who relied heavily on out-of-town casting, Armstrong and associate artistic director Bill Berry have scouted, encouraged and hired within Seattle's own talent ranks, keeping costs down and showcasing local stars or stars-to-be.

As for the repertoire, 5th Avenue still revives golden oldies from the cash-cow canon Young relied on (the 2012-13 season includes "The Music Man" and Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance"). But it also revives worthy, less familiar works ("Candide") and aggressively develops new ones — sometimes in tandem with nearby ACT Theatre.

Armstrong calls it a "leap of faith. I compare doing a new musical to launching a space shuttle. There's so many components needed to make it happen. And it can result in a fizzle, an explosion or a glorious flight."

The highest flights so far: bound-for-Broadway shows "Hairspray" and "Memphis," both best-musical Tony Award winners.

Margo Lion, a leading New York theater producer who worked closely with Armstrong on "Hairspray" and two less successful 5th Ave-to-Broadway shows ("The Wedding Singer" and "Catch Me if You Can"), praises him for making Seattle a prime tryout town.

"David was just the most helpful and supportive and valuable partner we could have had on all three of those shows," she says. "He's able to walk the line of respecting the originating producer, but he's also engaged, involved, with valuable comments to make. It's a real collaboration when you go out to work with David."

In total, Armstrong has presented 14 new musicals during his 5th Avenue tenure. Some were box-office and/or critical duds — "Princesses," "Vanities"; others were hits — such as the 2012 coproduction with ACT, "First Date," which may reach Broadway.

Armstrong says his audience is receptive to the new. But is the 5th Avenue betting the farm on its Broadway ventures? Though it's in relatively good fiscal shape, despite some lean seasons in hard times, no organization wants to blow $1 million-plus on a flop.

The prospects for "Scandalous" seem iffy, given a bumpy tryout and negative reviews in Seattle. (Armstrong says the show has been substantially revamped since it played here.)

But minimizing the 5th Avenue's economic risk factor is a necessity, he agrees. "Our financial involvement is only with the show's Seattle run. It's really not much different in cost than any other show we'd do."

The additional "enhancement" and development costs of Broadway-bound works are often borne by commercial producers, such as Lion, Disney Theatricals, DreamWorks and other partners. (The 5th Ave also may receive a modest royalty payment if the show moves on.)

But Armstrong is risking some of his own prestige on "Scandalous." And he's negotiating the high wire between targeting Broadway ("We'd be crazy not to; it's the gold standard ... It's still the gold standard."), and satisfying his loyal but discerning Seattle patrons.

Those who know him well say his cool, collected demeanor and showbiz savvy befit the task.

"David is an interesting dichotomy," says associate Berry. "He has his fingers in everything, but he also puts a lot of trust in those he delegates to. He invests in talent, relationships and people."

Says former Mayor Rice, "David is a director, and directors have large egos. But we've got a strong board too, so it's a good balance."

As for the Broadway sojourns, Rice muses, "We've given David flexibility and latitude to create. He has the best of both worlds.

"But you can't underestimate his love for this theater. He's helped make the 5th Avenue a wonderful asset that ranks high in productivity and creativity, not just in Seattle, but nationally."

And if the company's current Broadway ventures don't fly? "David is resilient, and views it all as part of a process," Berry says.

And Broadway veteran Lion, for one, applauds his gumption. "He's not risk-adverse," she observes. "And that's show business — no guts, no glory."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com



David Armstrong, artistic director of the 5th Avenue Theatre, is shepherding his sixth musical from the Seattle theater to Broadway.




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