arts entertainmentPerforming Arts

Whose attendance was higher? The Dallas Cowboys? Texas-OU? No, ‘Wicked’ at Dallas Summer Musicals

The 40-performance run drew more than 120,000 to the Music Hall at Fair Park.

It isn’t often that arts organizations pile up numbers rivaling those of sports teams. But this past week, Dallas Summer Musicals revealed stunning figures for its five-week run of Wicked, which officials say drew more than 120,000 to the Music Hall at Fair Park.

Those are numbers the Dallas Cowboys are more accustomed to seeing. In fact, 120,000 exceeds the capacity of AT&T Stadium and the neighboring Cotton Bowl, which typically lures a sellout of 92,100 to Fair Park for the Texas-Oklahoma game.

The DSM reports that its 2021 production of Wicked, 40 performances of which ran from Aug. 3 to Sept. 5, outperformed its 2016 staging of the Tony Award-winning show by 3% in gross ticket sales. The appearance of Wicked in Dallas marked the first time a Broadway show had gone on tour since the pandemic began.

But despite all that, DSM President Kenneth T. Novice says the company still figures to run a deficit for the current fiscal year, which began Nov. 1, 2020, and ends at the close of Halloween night.

In other words, it was a bad fiscal year — because of the pandemic and all its effects — but, Novice says, it would have been so much worse had it not been for Wicked. To be precise, he says the deficit for the 2020 fiscal year with Wicked was $600,000. But without it? $1.7 million.

“2020 and early 2021 were really difficult for us. I’ll just say that they were very, very bad for us financially. So, this run of Wicked really gave us a shot to get our numbers into a better place.”

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant did its part, however, to eliminate much of the sting. The federal program recently gave $9.2 million to Dallas Summer Musicals, based on 45% of its gross revenue from 2019 — a stunningly successful year that for DSM came down to a single word: Hamilton.

Mary Ukiri, a junior at Lake Highlands High School, cheers for her classmate as he performs during a Hamilton Education Program event at the Music Hall at Fair Park in 2019.
Mary Ukiri, a junior at Lake Highlands High School, cheers for her classmate as he performs during a Hamilton Education Program event at the Music Hall at Fair Park in 2019.(Rose Baca / Staff Photographer)

That Broadway juggernaut will follow closely on the heels of Wicked by having its second run at the Music Hall at Fair Park from Nov. 16 to Dec. 5, after DSM’s current fiscal year ends.

Because of Hamilton and the expectations it inspires, DSM’s annual budget has soared from $14 million for the 2020-21 season to $35 million for the season the Pulitzer Prize-winning show will usher in. The budget “on average” hovers around $28 million, but because of COVID-19, it had to shrink. Dramatically.

Following one mega-hit with another will, Novice hopes, be the best possible way to help DSM recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The pandemic triggered 16 layoffs and furloughs as well as pay cuts. Novice says he was able to restore his staff two months before Wicked. That is 34 full-time employees and about 230 part-time event workers.

“There was not a single person who did not have a reduction in salary” — 25% on “the high end,” 15% on “the low end.” Pay levels, he says, have since been restored.

“Everybody was working harder than normal for less money, which means it was not easy for anybody. But our staff showed a lot of courage and dedication and an immense amount of creativity to allow Wicked to even open. And I will be eternally grateful for that.”

Wicked could not have taken place, of course, without improvements being made to the Music Hall at Fair Park, which opened in 1925, seven years after the end of the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Newly instituted protocols include mandatory masks and, Novice says, “no food or drink in the auditorium. We also used the time to implement a no-large-bag policy” — which is unrelated to COVID. The venue has also installed airport-style metal detectors, which were fully in place before the new Texas gun law took effect Sept. 1. Guns are prohibited at the Music Hall, which newly installed, additional signage makes clear.

Its new protocols do not, however, include proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests for audience entry. In announcing a new wave of federal vaccine mandates on Thursday, President Joe Biden called on entertainment venues such as arenas and concert halls to require that patrons be vaccinated or show a negative test for entry.

In its most recent guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people to “avoid large events and gatherings, when possible.” The CDC also warns that “COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors than outdoors.” The Music Hall at Fair Park, which seats 3,420, sold out most of its performances of Wicked.

Both vaccinations and negative tests are required for anyone working backstage — actors, musicians, stagehands and others. Novice says zones were created to separate workers from different groups during Wicked. And everyone was tested twice a week.

Bored and restless, Americans are showing a greater willingness to attend sporting events, concerts and Broadway shows, indoors or out. Novice describes the compliance level of his customers as being “really strong.” And during press night on Aug. 5, it was hard to find anyone not wearing a mask, even momentarily.

A handful of patrons have, however, flat-out refused to wear a mask. And for them, “We are more than happy,” Novice says, “to give them a refund. For the most part, conversations about the topic have been civil and respectful.”

Having to upgrade a nearly 100-year-old building was a different matter. The company spent $135,000, Novice says, in an effort to protect the Music Hall’s patrons from the spread of COVID-19.

For the most part, he says, it was all about “air flow.” Through Broadway Across America, which scored a coup for DSM by landing Hamilton in 2019 and now presents all of its shows, the company hired as its consultant Joseph Allen, described by his employer, Harvard University, as “one of the world’s leading experts on healthy buildings.”

“He was definitely the guy to consult to find out, how do we create air flow? What kinds of filters do we use? Improving the air flow in the building turned out to be job one.” That led to the installation of MERV 13 Air Filters throughout the building, as well as air purifiers, hand sanitizers and contactless ticketing.

Talia Suskauer and Allison Bailey in the North American tour of "Wicked," which ended its Dallas run on Sept. 5.
Talia Suskauer and Allison Bailey in the North American tour of "Wicked," which ended its Dallas run on Sept. 5.(Joan Marcus)

The Wicked score includes the song “Defying Gravity.” Novice likes to think of getting to this point as being not unlike defying gravity.

He calls it “the ultimate roller-coaster ride. Psychologically, there were moments when we would feel pretty good about things, and then the pandemic would take a turn for the worse. And that was incredibly disheartening.”

Connect with needs and opportunities from Get immediate access to organizations and people in the DFW area that need your help or can provide help during the Coronavirus crisis.
In This Story

Michael Granberry, Arts Writer. Michael Granberry was born and grew up in Dallas. He graduated from Samuell High School in Pleasant Grove in 1970 and from Southern Methodist University in 1974. Between his junior and senior years, he interned at The Washington Post during "the Watergate summer" of 1973. He spent 19 years at the Los Angeles Times before returning to Dallas.

mgranberry@dallasnews.com @mgranberry
Arts & Life

Get the latest Arts & Entertainment

Catch up on North Texas' vibrant arts and culture community, delivered every Monday.

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy