Sir Howard Panter, one of the leading forces in live theater, is so convinced that Broadway, the West End and other stage hubs are poised to come back in a big way post-pandemic, that he’s been using the last few months to restore old theaters and hunt for new ones. As joint CEO and creative director of Trafalgar Entertainment, Panter has straddled several continents in an effort to position the company to capitalize on what he believes will be a theatrical renaissance as soon as people get vaccinated and life eases back to normal.
“We’ve never wavered in the notion that we will come back,” Panter told Variety. “We decided to do a lot of spade work now with the idea that it will pay dividends when it all returns. We want to get ahead of that day and be ready. As I always say, ‘You can’t turn on the taps if there isn’t water in the pipes.’ So what we’ve been doing is putting water in the pipes through this pandemic.”
Indeed, Trafalgar and its ebullient head have been a whirlwind of activity. The company purchased Theatre Royal Sydney in April 2020 and has been working to get it ready to reopen in September. Last month, it also purchased HQ Theatres, the largest network of regional theaters in the U.K., and has the restored Chiswick Cinema, a high-end, members-only movie theater that Panter likens to Soho House, on tap to welcome audiences later this year.
That’s to say nothing of several starry productions that Panter expects to launch in the coming months. Trafalgar will co-produce the Australian production of the Tony-nominated Alanis Morissette musical “Jagged Little Pill,” which will reopen the Theatre Royal Sydney in September, and a road show of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” that will touch down in New Zealand and other ports of call. It’s also backing a revival of “Anything Goes” starring Megan Mullally and Robert Lindsay that will open in London this summer, as well as a reimagined version of “Jersey Boys,” which will play at the newly refurbished Trafalgar Theatre (which the company owns). Panter says this iteration of the The Four Seasons jukebox musical will be “bespoke” and redesigned.
“We’ve extended the stage into the auditorium, so when those four microphones go up and the boys are singing they’re right there in the audience,” he says. “You feel like you’re in the middle of their concert, which is going to be very exciting.”
In addition, Trafalgar operates a ticket-selling business and distributes event cinema such as filmed versions of opera and stage shows.
The West End is supposed to reopen in the coming weeks with some capacity restrictions, while officials in New York have given the greenlight for Broadway to slowly reignite long dormant marquees. Panter says ticket sales in London have been strong, with per-average prices exceeding those that theaters were commanding before COVID upended cultural life.
“Maybe in a year from now, we’ll meet up and I’ll be a beggar on the road and you’ll say, ‘You were wrong, Howard. Theater didn’t come back,’” Panter says. “But I hope that won’t happen. There’s something eternal about live theater. It dates back to people telling stories around a fire. We need that connection.”
As Panter spoke with Variety, another superstar producer, Scott Rudin, was embroiled in scandal in the wake of a report in the Hollywood Reporter that documented decades of abusive and bullying behavior toward his employees. Panter didn’t know Rudin well, but he thinks that the producer’s downfall might usher in a kinder way of doing business.
“One of the things that has perhaps come out of COVID is the realization that we all need to be more respectful of one another,” he says. “Life is more precious. We need to be respectful of our co-workers and of the creative process and not try to impose things on others. I don’t know the specifics around Scott Rudin, but there has been a history in this industry of ‘if you’re the boss you can get away with all sorts of things that maybe you shouldn’t.’ That needs to change.”
Panter’s been in the game for decades. Before co-founding Trafalgar in 2016 with his wife and longtime business partner Rosemary Squire, the pair built Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) into a global powerhouse. When they stepped down from their leadership roles, ATG oversaw 45 venues across Britain, the United States and Australia, and had produced acclaimed revivals and productions of the likes of “The King and I,” “Exit the King” and “Sweeney Todd.” At ATG, Panter also showed a penchant for transforming old venues into gleaming theaters, as he did with New York’s Hudson Theatre, a former television studio and corporate events space that was re-conceived as a Broadway palace. He thinks that there will be more opportunities along those lines in Manhattan as more workforces become remote, leaving unoccupied office space behind them.
“We’re looking at a number of sites in New York that are empty or disused or boarded up and thinking well maybe this could be a theater,” Panter says. “There could be a new Broadway golden era coming as people start thinking creatively about how to bring people back to cities post-COVID.”
But he also has a rule for the theaters he updates.
“I like to create an extra level of bathrooms,” says Panter. “You might say that’s a boring thing to do in theater, but I always find it a little bit depressing in a Broadway intermission when I see this queue, particularly of women, standing there in long lines. It’s not respectful. We’re saying, ‘You will wait because there’s not enough room for you.’”