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Michael Kaiser Headshot

The Lesson of Follies

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Last night the Kennedy Center production of Follies closed on Broadway. Follies, a musical by James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim, tells the story of a reunion of chorus girls and features one of the greatest scores ever written for a Broadway musical. Our production received strong reviews, led to the recording of a cast album and will be re-mounted in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater this Spring.

While the production did not recoup its full investment on Broadway, it did far better financially than I had planned.

It also brought more visibility to the Kennedy Center than any other single production in the Center's history.

Time will tell if this visibility contributes to the fiscal health of the Kennedy Center. But for me, Follies is representative of the large-scale, ambitious, risky project that arts organizations need to produce if they are to capture the imagination of new and diverse funders and audience members.

It also demonstrates the benefits of long-term artistic planning. We decided to produce Follies in 2006 - a full five years before the production was mounted at the Kennedy Center. This gave us the time needed to assemble an artistic team and a cast. It also gave us time to find a group of donors who would support this large, expensive project.

The box office success of the show in DC, coupled with other fundraising and ticket sales success, provided the resources needed to bring the show to Broadway where it received stellar notices.

There have been dozens of national news stories about Follies, about the subsequent recording and about our impending tour to Los Angeles.

We have made sure that our donors know about this production and its success. And over 200,000 people will have had an opportunity to see the show in New York (not to mention the 48,000 who saw it in Washington.) Just the signage in front of the Marriott Marquis Theater in New York City (with 'Direct from the Kennedy Center' prominently displayed) reached hundreds of thousands more people.

No one production creates lasting acclaim for any arts organization and Follies did not change the history of the Kennedy Center, but one or two major events a year, over a course of years, creates the impression of an interesting, vibrant arts organization. (Of course not every production can be as risky, large or expensive; but not every production has to be.)

This can only help future ticket sales and fundraising, and provides insurance against an unsuccessful production or even season.

But there is an important corollary benefit: when an arts organization has success with a high visibility project, more important artists are willing to collaborate on future projects. I am convinced that one important legacy of Follies will be that theater artists of stature are increasingly willing to come to Washington to work. This will make our work better, more visible and far more likely to attract support.

This is a lasting benefit that cannot be overestimated.