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Goodspeed Trims Season at Chester

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It remains one of the American musical's greatest still-unanswered questions: Will Goodspeed Musicals build a $45 million facility across the street from its historic Opera House in East Haddam, Conn.—as it has planned to do for the last five years—or will it instead build a new venue up in Middletown, 17 miles to the north on the Connecticut River?

And while we're at it, why is Goodspeed's Norma Terris stage, in Chester, Conn., going to be dark this summer?

Dan McMahon, director of marketing and public relations for Goodspeed, told Back Stage Tuesday that the choice to trim this year's season to two musicals at the Norma Terris Theatre, down from the usual three, has nothing to do with finances and nothing to do with the impending building decision. It was, instead, a matter of logistics and logic.

"Basically, we got down to the wire for deciding our season and we didn't have a show we felt would work," he said. "Yes, we kind of pushed our timing a little bit this year, and we did have a couple of things in mind, but they weren't quite ready to be produced. We had been talking to the [Massachusetts-based] Barrington Stage Company"—the idea was to mount "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the new musical by Tony-winning composer-lyricist William Finn—"but they didn't want to do one here. So rather than throw something in that doesn't work, we felt we were better off staying dark for the summer."

Goodspeed, however, does benefit from the decision. "We lose money on musicals, so by only doing two shows we lose less." The remaining two shows are "All Shook Up," running May 13-June 6, and "Princesses," running Nov 4-28. Season subscribers, McMahon added, can exchange tickets for the third show for mainstage tickets or for a refund.

Meanwhile, McMahon said the final decision will be made "in the next month or two" regarding whether Goodspeed will build its new venue in East Haddam or Middletown. Indeed, Goodspeed has been mulling the issue now for several months. After Goodspeed had spent several years acquiring the East Haddam site—spending nearly a half-million dollars on design elements—Middletown, which is home to Wesleyan University, surprised the company with an intriguing scenario. It would offer a construction-ready downtown site, toss in $5 million in funding, and promise an expedited process of land acquisition, zoning, and permitting if Goodspeed would build there instead.

Since the offer was made, McMahon said, Goodspeed's "board and some of the experts they hired have been sifting through the information contained in the Middletown proposal. Right now, they're really trying to wrap up the details so we know what we're getting into when we do make the final decision."

Like ardent suitors at the dance, East Haddam and Middletown are each being aggressive but subtle in their courtship of Goodspeed. "Here in East Haddam," McMahon explained, "our new first selectman is being good about pushing new zoning restrictions, which would help if we build here. But in Middletown, a parking study is underway to see how feasible it is to have downtown parking in Middletown on weekdays. So we're close to a decision, but not quite there yet."

Eager to judge its audiences' views, Goodspeed has conducted two surveys. The first, an online, unscientific survey, generated 1,000 responses; then Goodspeed embarked on a phone survey.

In both cases, McMahon said, "we found our members were happy—they see why we feel we want a new theatre. Now, the percentages were higher for us to stay and build here in East Haddam, but they weren't so overwhelming that we couldn't imagine going up to Middletown. Basically, the comments were, 'We trust you, we like you, we like what you're doing, we'll go with you wherever you go, and while we prefer East Haddam, we'll go to Middletown if that's what you feel you need to do,' which certainly is very nice to hear. At least it clarifies one thing: It doesn't rule out anything. Not that it makes the decision any easier, of course."

If Goodspeed builds in Middletown, it will not mean the end for its flagship East Haddam house. It will remain open, but on a more limited schedule of performances.

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