Lou Raizin Lights Up Chicago Theater
by j.p. anderson
It’s all too easy to romanticize the world of theater—the lights, the applause, the laughter and tears—but for Broadway in Chicago President Lou Raizin, the thrill is about business. “I get excited when I think of sellouts,” says the compact, silver-maned Detroit native. “When a show sells out, it means there’s something magical on stage that’s drawing the audience, and then I start thinking about the economics tied to the performer and the audience. It’s all about maximizing the opportunity.”
As I sit across from Raizin at a conference table in the BIC offices, it’s hard to argue. We’re surrounded by evidence of the organization’s stage triumphs, like framed posters of hits like Kinky Boots, the musical that made its world premiere in October 2012 at the Bank of America Theatre before taking Broadway by storm and winning six Tony Awards in June. But the real proof is the bottom line: Since Raizin cofounded the venture in 2000, Broadway in Chicago’s five city stages have brought an annual economic impact of $750 million to the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois.
Raizin caught the entertainment bug early, immediately drawn to the business side of the industry even while working as an usher at Detroit’s Pine Knob Music Theater. The Michigan State graduate then joined the legendary Nederlander Organization to help open Poplar Creek Music Theater in Hoffman Estates in 1980 and build a number of additional amphitheaters around the country before starting Broadway in Chicago. “Up until that point Chicago was what was referred to as a ‘Boston truck town,’” explains Raizin. “It was a two-week run. That was the extent of theater in this city.... It would have been a blessing and a curse to have a long-run show. The blessing would be you know there are people coming into your venue every night; the curse is that you can’t fulfill subscriptions or continue to feed the community that becomes accustomed to you. So we sat down and started to think about how to really have it all... to acquire the real estate we needed to move the shows around. To a large degree we keep shows much like O’Hare keeps airplanes in a holding pattern waiting for arrival; we signal them down and bring them in. That’s a wonderful place to be, and that’s only happened in the last 10 years or so.”
Raizin is supremely confident about his product, arguing that no city compares to Chicago when it comes to live theater—not even New York or London. “The way I think about things, Chicago’s number one,” he says. “One of the critics out of the UK called Chicago ‘ground zero for new work.’ [Broadway in Chicago] makes a lot of noise and brings in the major talent and big shows, but look at the 250-plus theaters that make up this city, and there’s new work happening on those stages every night. It’s a theater festival in this city if you think about it that way. Every single night.”
Raizin is passionate about the world of the stage—he waxes nostalgic about seeing Les Misérables for the first time “with tears in my eyes,” and fondly remembers taking his kids to Cirque du Soleil, “which they described as a ‘circus from another planet.’” And indeed, Raizin is an artist himself—a conceptual photographer who has shown in galleries around Chicago (his most recent exhibit, “Still of the Night,” depicted a series of abandoned construction projects and showed at Highwood’s Spectrum Fine Art Gallery this summer).
But spend any time with Raizin, and it’s clear that he sees his role as being about much more than theater—it’s about putting the City of Chicago front and center on the world stage of tourism. As a member of the executive committees of Choose Chicago and Chicago Loop Alliance, Raizin feels that he’s doing some of his most impactful work, including a Choose Chicago initiative that has committed to Mayor Emanuel to deliver 50 million visitors to the city per year by 2020. “There’s a group of us that really believe we’re about to change Chicago forever. You see what we’ve been able to do from a theater perspective, but I’m a firm believer that from a tourism perspective Chicago is a world-class city that the majority of the world doesn’t know about. We’re working on a number of out-of-the-box concepts that could really change and open the floodgates.”
Whether he’s promoting Broadway in Chicago productions like this month’s Evita at the Oriental Theatre or promoting Chicago as the ultimate visitor destination, Raizin knows that it’s all about giving people a transformative experience. Says Raizin, “You think about Chicago, and its competition for conventions is between Orlando and Las Vegas. What distinguishes us is what we have from a cultural standpoint—and if we can continue to add to that, we can draw the rest of the world here. We can create more of those great things that keep all of us here in Chicago, and all of us energized every single day.”
photography by amy boyLe (raizin); sean williams (kinky boots); katrina wittkamp (oriental)