Jim Corti can still vividly recall turning onto Galena Boulevard in downtown Aurora that autumn afternoon in 2010 for his first interview with Tim Rater, the new president and CEO of the Paramount Theatre who was looking for that right person to become the creative director for an ambitious turnaround venture.
There wasn’t a soul in sight, not a car on the street, Corti remembers of that day more than a dozen years ago that not only changed the course of his life but also of the city’s once struggling downtown.
Despite the “mean comments” he received, most on social media, that followed his decision to take on the task of bringing Broadway musicals to an old industrial river city with a reputation for gang violence, Corti knew there was something special about this historic theater, not to mention the man who hired him and city leaders who envisioned this beautiful venue as the epicenter of a city’s economic revitalization.
By now you know the story of the Paramount well.
In fact, it’s a tale so remarkable it could itself be turned into a compelling stage production, with the finale a show-stopping musical number celebrating the venue’s Broadway Series that had morphed this local theater into a national leader.
But this is no fantasy. When the recent press release went out announcing the lineup for the 2023-24 Broadway Series season, the first paragraph casually noted the Paramount is now “the largest subscription theater in the nation.”
Credit for how it surpassed the former number one – Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, billed as the “oldest operating theater in the United States” – can partly go to the pandemic, which upended a lot of business and entertainment protocols.
The pandemic certainly hurt the Aurora theater, as well. Subscriptions dropped from a high of 41,372 right before the lockdown to around 29,000. But the Paramount did much better at rebounding, in part because of its partnership with the city, which Rater described as critical.
While Paramount numbers dropped around 10% – this season ended with 36,823 subscribers – Rater said the “industry in general is down 30-40%.”
Still, he’s hardly satisfied and told me he has “very little doubt” next season will not only match its pre-lockdown numbers but likely surpass them. The lineup is strong and includes “Little Shop of Horrors” (Aug. 30-Oct. 15); “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Nov. 8-Jan. 14, 2024); “Billy Elliot: The Musical” (Feb. 7-March 24, 2024); and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” (April 24-June 16, 2024).
This comeback from the pandemic “means our audiences are happy with what we are doing,” said Corti, pointing out that, because the Paramount is a non-profit, it has to rely on the box office in order to make its budget. And audiences, he reminded me, “aren’t going to show up if they don’t like what they see.”
Or if they can’t afford the tickets.
“All that splendor you see is strictly calibrated so we don’t have to raise prices but you still get the spectacular,” Corti said. “It looks like we are spending a lot more money because everybody cares so much … from the tech end to the design end to the production end.
“Everyone is so diligent about creating beautiful work, but take on that responsibility of staying on budget.”
Keeping prices affordable so theater is accessible to everyone is a mission Rater has insisted upon from that first meeting with the Paramount president a dozen years ago. Once people realize the quality of these productions, Corti said, “they want to make it part of their regular lives.” Which is why he’s often approached by people who tell him they “took the kids to see the holiday show for the first time” and end up purchasing season tickets.
“The community,” insisted Corti, “made us number one.”
And they did so in little over a decade. A year after that 2010 interview with Rater, “My Fair Lady” was performed on the Paramount stage. And from there, “it took on a life of its own,” said Corti, who describes Aurora now as “an artistic hub that is just beginning.”
Rater agreed, predicting that over the next six to nine years, this theater will double its output from 500 shows a year to 1,000.
“With our commitment to doing more and better and the city’s commitment to the arts and downtown,” he said, “I think we will be the model that others can look at as to how they can revitalize a community.”
The Paramount, by the way, has not only earned a national reputation, but critics and audiences are also taking notice about what is happening across Galena Boulevard at Copley Theatre, where its new BOLD productions take place in a smaller, more intimate setting. Next season’s shows include the Pulitzer Prize- winning “Next to Normal” (July 26-Sept 3); the Tony nominated and critically-acclaimed “What the Constitution Means to Me” (Oct. 4-Nov. 12); and Tennessee Williams’ classic “A Streetcar Named Desire” (March 13-April 21, 2024) that Corti, as its director, promises will take on “new relevance.”
Corti will also be at the helm for “Next to Normal” and “Beautiful.” When I asked if he gets to pick which productions to direct, he quickly noted “quite the opposite is true.”
When it comes to who directs what, Corti said, he likes to offer his staff the chance to “run with a show they have wanted to do all their lives.”
Speaking of, when we talked on Wednesday, Corti was in the middle of rehearsals for the Stephen Sondheim Tony winner “Into the Woods,” the fairy tale musical he’s co-directing with Trent Stork that will open Feb. 1.
After watching it come to life this week, Rater told me it could possibly be “the best show we’ve produced yet.” And, he insisted, “we are only getting started.”
“Back in 2010 everybody thought this was a crazy idea. They all said it was never going to work in Aurora,” Corti said. “We showed them it could … by using a simple business plan: Do the work that people will appreciate.”
When Rater, looking into the future, predicted a huge “street-closing” party in 2031 to mark the downtown theater turning 100, I knew exactly what that final scene should be for my imagined “Paramount: The Musical.”
“Well, the show would certainly have an underdog,” Rater replied.
“Jim and I both have this gratitude for the opportunity we see,” he added. “We know how lucky we are to be in this spot we are in.”