By Bridget Morgan, Senior PR & Communications Manager
David Armstrong has never been particularly difficult to find. From radio interviews and TV appearances to Spotlight Nights and opening nights, David is the affable, charming showman, welcoming audiences into The 5th Avenue Theatre, immersing guests in the rich and colorful history of musicals and advocating for Seattle’s vibrant cultural landscape on a local and national scale. And whether he is talking with a donor, a government official or an enthusiastic audience member, he engages earnestly and honestly, and more importantly, he listens.
“I really didn’t know much about The 5th at all before I got hired to direct The Secret Garden in 2000,” David recently shared. “I remember being told that it was a 2,000 seat theater and I thought… ‘Oh I’m going to hate that…’ Most really large theaters actually are not very conducive to musicals if they get too big. But the minute I walked in the door, I was completely captivated. And I just felt this warm audience-stage relationship, which is the most crucial thing about a theater building. At The 5th, there is this incredible exchange of energy between the audience and the performer. And The 5th Avenue Theatre audiences were remarkable. They were enthusiastic and excited. That relationship between the audience and the stage, both physically and figuratively was one of the most important takeaways I had from that first experience of The 5th.”
As David was directing The Secret Garden, big changes were being discussed upstairs in The 5th Avenue Theatre administrative offices. At the time, The 5th was partnered with Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) in Houston, Texas under the artistic leadership of Frank Young. But as The 5th continued to grow, so did TUTS, and with the construction of TUTS’ new home, The Hobby Center, the two organization’s leaders made the decision to move forward independently. The 5th Avenue Theatre Founding Managing Director Marilynn Sheldon launched a national search for an artistic director to boldly usher The 5th into a new era of artistic excellence, and David quickly threw his hat in the ring.
“The mandate really was to take what had been a presenting organization that mostly offered national tours and only produced musicals to fill in the gaps in a season and turn it into a producing organization that still included presenting in what they were doing, but really focused on producing,” David said. “That was what I was asked to do and it was also the opportunity that I saw. I told the search committee that I felt very confident that there was an opportunity here to do this, that The 5th could produce very, very successfully without TUTS, without relying on touring productions for the majority of what would be on the stage and create a very vibrant theater company. And in spite of being the least likely (probably) of the candidates that were being considered, a year later, I was the producing artistic director.”
“I thought The 5th had the opportunity to become a resident musical theater company along the lines of the great companies like the Guthrie. I remember saying to the committee that my impression after talking to everyone is that we have this great audience who really like coming here, but our relationship to them was more transactional—rather than that of an organization that they felt they were members of, or they belonged to. I saw the possibility that we could transform them into a super-connected audience, deeply invested in what we were doing. And that would go hand in hand with the artists and everyone involved in the theater. We could create an interconnected committed family of theater folk, including the audience—that’s what I saw the future could be.
When asked what surprised him after arriving permanently in Seattle, David smiles. “The talent,” he says. “After directing The Secret Garden, I had a little inkling that there was talent here, but I didn’t realize it would become such a centerpiece of what we do.” And it is. Under David’s leadership, The 5th Avenue Theatre has been a huge advocate for talent in Seattle, hiring fewer and fewer out-of-town actors year to year and creating Broadway-caliber productions largely with the actors, dancers, and musicians living in our own city.
But one area of focus that David felt passionate about from the very beginning was the development of new musicals. “I had already done a lot of new musicals in my career and I felt that with the connections I had in New York that we would be a place where the development of new musicals valued. Part of it was just persistence. In the six months between when I got the job and I moved to Seattle, any time I ran into anybody in New York, any producers I knew I would say, ‘You know, I’m going to Seattle and if you have a new show, I think it would be a great place for you to partner with.’ And that turned into Hairspray. Literally, it was just one of those conversations. ‘Keep us in mind. Let us know.’ And that eventually —actually very quickly—got Hairspray here.”
Hairspray was only the second new musical The 5th Avenue Theatre produced, followed over the years by musicals including Shrek, Catch Me If You Can, Disney’s Aladdin and Memphis, to name a few. He laughs as he reflects on the successful track record of new musicals at The 5th. “When I told the search committee that I thought that we could get involved with new musicals, never in a million years would I have said that 18 years later we will have done 19 new musicals and nine of them will have gone to Broadway and two of them will have won the Tony Award®. That would have been the stupidest thing I could possibly have said. It’s just not possible. It would be incredible hubris to say that. To look back and have had that happen is just amazing.
“And then to have seven of those shows enter the canon and receive hundreds of productions every year… I mean the first year we had one of the shows we had premiered appear in The 5th Avenue Theatre Awards Honoring High School Musicals… it was just mindboggling. Because it really means that things we did here will be produced 100 years from now. That’s very, very rewarding and amazing.”
Nearly eight years ago, The 5th Avenue Theatre announced that it would be taking the next step in its commitment to new works—the creation of a new works development program that would bring the earliest stages of writing in-house, supporting writers from across the country with the resources of the theater. The goal of the program would not be to develop musicals for The 5th Avenue Theatre stage, but rather, to develop exciting original works with promising artistic merit, regardless of where they might play in the future.
“It seemed like the natural progression,” David said. “That’s just the way it evolved. We have developed more shows in our basement than we could hope to do on our stage, and while going to Broadway is an exciting thing, it should not be the only measure of success for a show. Persuasion at Taproot, for instance, is a show that was developed as a part of our writer’s group. And I could tell that we were not going to have a spot for it anytime soon, but that there was a specialness about it, so I got on the phone with the artistic director at Taproot and said, ‘Hey, I think I’ve got something that would be perfect for you.’”
It’s been a wild 18 years. But as the figurehead of the organization, personal projects were necessarily put on a back burner. “Any time I talk to any other artistic director, the biggest challenge everybody voices is that it’s an all-consuming job. It’s a producing job – a part of which means is that you then need to direct shows. It’s part of the brand of the theater and it’s part of your job. So I think that often people in my job are very proud of the work they have done, but have also felt like there’s just a real competition for time and attention. You’re always rushing off to a meeting after rehearsal. And that’s what makes it exciting and fun but also hard.”
As he reflects on the highs and the lows, he talks about the thread he held tight to as the organization rapidly evolved. “The mission of the theater was always clear to me. No matter how we write it and rewrite it, the essence of it has never changed, and that is to do exceptional productions of musical theater, past present and future. There’s no other way to say it. Musical theater is our reason to be. It’s the only thing we are here to do. An organization could focus on just doing new work or just doing revivals or what have you. You could narrow it down. But the obligation of a large scale centerpiece theater company in a vibrant city like this, is that, with a big tent audience, to have the biggest tent of the mission as well. It’s got to be all of it. Revivals. New musicals. Contemporary hits. Broadway tours. Large scale musicals. Intimate musicals in collaboration with ACT.”
This is the thread that he is passing to Managing Director Bernie Griffin and Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry, who are expanding their roles as the new figureheads of the organization. And for those who have become accustomed to seeing him in the lobby on opening night or at special donor events, there is nothing to fear. David will still be a presence at the theater. With all that he has contributed to this company in the last two decades and the legacy he leaves behind, he could never really be gone.