Celebrating another successful season, the Wharton Center released its 40th anniversary show season for 2022-2023, filled with Broadway buzz and concert craze.
With Broadway as the Wharton’s biggest seller, this season is stacked with top-selling, critically acclaimed shows such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Wicked,” making their return to the Cobb Great Hall.
“Wicked is just one of the most asked for shows constantly,” Wharton Center Executive Director Mike Brand, who gave an exclusive interview to the State News on the coming season, said.
Newer musicals with a heavy social media and mainstream audience coming to the Wharton include “Beetlejuice,” “Jagged Little Pill,” “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” and “Pretty Woman: The Musical.”
The Wharton Center has more to offer than musicals. The performing arts center will also have a variety of performers and events, such as the Blue Man Group, Tiempo Libre, National Geographic Live and an Evening with Brian Stokes Mitchell.
For fans of more classical events, there will be classical music concerts from the Scottish Chamber, one of Brand’s favorite picks of the season, and the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, as well as ballet events.
Brand explained how the marketing team stayed in touch with what audiences wanted to bring to the Wharton.
“For Broadway, you’re constantly involved in notices and readings, workshops,” Brand said. “You hear talk all about what producers are looking at and where (shows are) being incubated. A lot of big shows (will be) coming down the pike over the next few years, and you keep track of the big shows that are coming back. You have to get in the cycle of touring because if you don’t, they bypass you and then you’re a victim of geography.”
As a Tony voter, Brand is usually able to keep up with new shows as soon as they open, deciding on what is worth looking at for our area, generally choosing nine to 11 of them, then using the top six he feels reflect the audience he wants to reach more as the Wharton expands: students.
“We look at the fact that we’re on a Big Ten University (campus) with a lot of students,” Brand said. “We may want to look at things that are a little more on the hip side. We jumped on “Jagged Little Pill” right away, “Spring Awakening,” all those things that are little different than (the Wharton’s) traditional subscriber base.”
While Brand knows the Wharton’s regular subscriber base consists of people with doctorates, business owners and a generally educated crowd, its marketing team actively searches for musicals that will attract students, including “Beetlejuice,” which attracted the Wharton through social media buzz alone.
“We have to start looking at the next generations, too,” Brand said. “We can’t just look at the core group of people that today support the Wharton Center through contributions, endowment gifts and ticket buy(s). We have to look at the next group that (is) going to come to one or two shows, and maybe in a few years be a season ticket holder.”
Brand complimented the student marketing group for the Wharton that has brought about nine to ten percent of their audience from campus, especially selling student tickets to “Frozen” heavily this past season. Some of this smart marketing comes from hosting College Night, where the audience mainly consists of students, who are offered a discounted ticket price. This upcoming season’s College Nights are for “Beetlejuice, “Jagged Little Pill” and Tiempo Libre.
“Having all the students and all the faculty here is a real asset, especially for the newer shows like ‘Jagged Little Pill,’” Brand said. “Most of our donors are not real classical music fans. They’re rock and roll, American popular culture, American songwriters type people, so a musical like ‘Tina’ is a huge hit and huge slam dunk for us. A lot of them are film savvy, so ‘Pretty Woman,’ I think, is going to go really well for us.”
Brand has high hopes for this upcoming season due to the slow start this past season had after the disaster that was the 2020 season due to the pandemic. Brand is even more reliant on students now that the older crowd is still scared to come out to the theater due to the fear of illness. Brand hopes to fix this problem by having concerts that would usually attract an older audience now draw a wide audience range, booking performers like Kristin Chenoweth in the last season who can hit all demographics.
“I’m hoping next year we’re going to get back to more normal ticket sales on each event,” Brand said. “We planned a little smaller season on the concert side. The Broadway season is where it always is. Broadway is not only our biggest audience; it’s our biggest financial engine in the Wharton Center presenting area.”
Brand believes that Broadway has been able to reach more people than ever with big producers representing popular interest in mainstream musicals, as well as a more diverse creator realm producing musicals on Broadway. This is unlike when Brand started, when he said only old, white men were dictating the industry in the ’80s.
“People see themselves, their issues (and) their lives a little more represented when a lot of America’s great songwriters are doing the music for these shows,” Brand said.
Brand hopes the megahits will double audiences this season, hitting a four-state area as well as Canada, wanting to be the theater focus of the region.
Brand believes in the power of social media feedback and its power to create an audience. He was excited to see the reaction to “Beetlejuice” and thrilled the announcement of John Mulaney performing was received so well.
“I think one of the best things for our team is to see the season ticket holders come back,” Brand said. “We lost about 2,800 of them … and we also like looking at all these new young people that are coming.”
Brand is exhilarated to bring another successful set of shows home to East Lansing, hoping he can address the whole community with this diverse mix of shows, wanting the Wharton to be a place where people can guarantee a fun and entertaining time.
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