This week, the new Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake City hosts its first touring Broadway musical, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. And while residents have followed the story and construction behind that facility for several years, the journey toward this inaugural show goes back two decades.
That's the recollection of John Ballard, president of Magic Space Entertainment and Broadway at the Eccles, who remembers a story in the Deseret News in 1996, when the Broadway smash The Phantom of the Opera made its first local stop at the Capitol Theatre to sold-out audiences. "[The article] said, 'Does Phantom of the Opera's success mean Salt Lake will get a new theater?'" Ballard says. "At the time, there was talk of renovating the Utah Theater, and making that for touring shows, and that lasted for a few years. And there were studies and discussions even earlier than that."
In his professional capacity, including as a voter for the Tony Awards, Ballard attends theaters around the country and around the world, and has had plenty of opportunity to see what was needed for a state-of-the-art venue in Salt Lake City. Now that the Eccles is here, replacing the Capitol Theatre as the primary home for touring productions, he can see a venue that features the four things he was able to identify as his own keys to an improved experience. "One, 2,500 seats," Ballard says. "Two, loading docks. Three, comfortable seats with more space. And four, plenty of women's bathrooms. ... The Capitol Theatre was state-of-the-art 100 years ago, and the Eccles is state-of-the-art today."
That new experience is likely to benefit everyone involved, from the patrons to the truck drivers—who, Ballard says, described the Capitol Theatre's parking-garage access as one of the hardest loads anywhere in the country—to the performers. Suzanne Grodner, who plays Carole King's mother, Genie, in the touring production of Beautiful, is a veteran of more than 25 years in the theater, including a regional touring production of Phantom of the Opera and playing Miss Hannigan in Pioneer Theatre Company's Annie in 2011. While being a professional means adapting to any theater space, Grodner says that a facility can have an impact on the way actors and other members of the crew put on the show.
"The biggest adjustment we have is the sound," Grodner says. "The very first thing we do when we get into a new theater is a sound check, to listen to our voices with the microphones and adjust to that particular venue. The other aspects of change from venue to venue is our backstage dressing room area, how long it takes to get from dressing rooms to stage, if we have to adjust our walking—or running—time to make our entrances. Sometimes areas will be tiny, sometimes they'll be huge. ... It's great to have dressing rooms that aren't on a fifth floor with no elevator."
Grodner adds that, particularly where a musical production is concerned, the acoustics of a space can be a huge factor in whether the show connects with the audience. "We know within the first couple of minutes what it's going to sound like," she says. "With a new room, you hope the architects understand the needs, sound-wise, that the space requires, for the audience and for the actors. They have their voices to give to an audience, but if the sound quality isn't great, then the show is compromised for the audience. But we've found a lot of the new venues we go into have that down very well, because they consult opera houses for understanding acoustically what is needed."
Ballard believes that the audience experience for any performance—from the acoustics, to the comfort of the seating, to the sight lines—will be exceptional in the Eccles; even the intermissions can be special, thanks to open-air balconies on the second level that allow beautiful city views. But for the touring shows that were instrumental in its creation, that experience might be even better. "If it's a successful piece of theater, you lose track of where you are," Ballard says. "A good theater like this makes that more possible.
"I've worked in more than 100 theaters around North American and Canada, and this is one of the best," he adds. "I'm not using hyperbole, it just is. Salt Lake City is very lucky to have this."
Grodner adds that there might be an element of Beautiful—with its familiar soundtrack of 1960s and 1970s pop hits—that could be perfect for helping to christen the Eccles into its role as host for touring shows. "If I can find one word to describe our show," she says, "it's joy. When you're bringing a show into a brand new venue, the kind of energy we're going to throw into that space is going to be pure joy."