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National spotlight shines on Seattle stages

Deep pool of actors and patrons helps city's productions receive regards from Broadway

Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) - by Paul Freeman Contributing Writer

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At the end of this month, a new musical, "The Wedding Singer," opens at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre. A mixture of National Lampoon and romantic comedy, the musical, based on a movie starring Adam Sandler, tells the story of a wedding singer who's dumped by his fiancée at the altar and must then recover and find true love.

After a three-week run at the 5th Avenue, "The Wedding Singer" heads to Broadway.

"We've become a very sought-after partner for developing Broadway musicals," said David Armstrong, the theater's producing artistic director.

Indeed, in the past five years, the 5th Avenue has been home to five new musicals. One, "Hairspray," scored a major success on Broadway and is about to open in Las Vegas. Another, "Princesses," will soon debut on the Great White Way.

Arrival of "The Wedding Singer" at the 5th Avenue Theatre is one more indication of Seattle's stature as a leading center for the performing arts.

"For a town this size, the level of the arts it supports is extraordinary," said Bartlett Sher, artistic director of Seattle's Intiman Theatre. Like others involved in local performing arts organizations, he has suggestions for making Seattle even stronger in this arena.

Nowhere is Seattle's performing arts standing more prominent than in the realm of the theater. "What makes Seattle unusual is that it's one of three great theater towns in the United States," said Armstrong, who identifies the other two as New York and Chicago.

In addition to a large number of theaters -- several major theater companies, four or five smaller companies and dozens of fringe theaters -- the Seattle area has a significant number of productions and people who attend them. "Here people crave the theater," said Armstrong.

Even most larger cities, such as Dallas and Phoenix, can't compete with Seattle when it comes to theater. "They have nothing near the level of theater-going and production that we have here," said Armstrong. 5th Avenue Theatre, which has 2,100 seats, boasts 24,000 subscribers, the largest subscription base in the Pacific Northwest and among the largest in the country.

Seattle also has a deep pool of actors, musicians and stagehands. "You can make a full-time living as an actor in Seattle and never leave here," said Armstrong. "Dozens of people do this. We also have dozens of actors that have moved from New York City to Seattle."

While theater may be the most prominent of Seattle's performing arts, it's not the only one. The city also is home to major opera, symphony and ballet companies.

"The enthusiasm for all varieties of the arts is great," said Speight Jenkins, who's been general director of the Seattle Opera since 1983.

Exactly why the performing arts are so strong in Seattle is a bit of mystery. Many people point to the rainy weather, which they say encourages people to gather together but never gets cold enough to discourage them from going outside.



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