News Column

Deciding what Broadway shows come to Philly

June 18, 2013

YellowBrix

June 18--Like many with theatrical aspirations, Matthew Wolf started as a waiter in the Big Apple -- an ambitious twentysomething aiming for a shot at the big stage.

Eventually faced with the choice of leaving Manhattan for grad school or starting a career on Broadway's management side, Wolf decided to go for the office chair.

Today, at 39, he's the guy who decides what touring shows will come to Philadelphia each year as part of the Kimmel Center's Broadway Series. For 2013-14, that means still-running best-musical Tony winners The Book of Mormon and Once; classics Evita, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, and Flashdance the Musical; Queen's epic We Will Rock You; and a new Phantom of the Opera.

When he made the leap from onstage to off, Wolf -- who had studied music and theater in college -- was waiting tables at Cafe Time along with a flock of other talented hopefuls. After watching coworkers leave only to return, sometimes more than once, he realized that just because "you get a Broadway show doesn't mean you're going to get another one."

Weighing "pounding the pavement and working from gig to gig to gig" against consistency, benefits, and opportunity to grow, he took a job with Columbia Artists Management in its Broadway touring division. He was there for a year and a half, then did operations and programming at SFX Entertainment (now Live Nation) for 21/2 years.

How did he get to Philadelphia? The trigger was a theater outing to Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. He was there with his friend Jordan Fiksenbaum, then the Kimmel's vice president of theatrical presentations -- and, it turned out, soon to depart for a management job with Cirque du Soleil.

In no time, Wolf was consulting at the Kimmel and, in November 2008, he was hired as managing director of theatrical programming and has since become vice president for programming and theatrical productions.

Programming affiliated with the Kimmel follows three major lines: the biennial Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, the Kimmel Center Presents series (jazz, one-night events), and Wolf's baby, the Broadway Series, which has 6,000 to 8,000 subscribers in a typical year and has grown in recent seasons from four to seven shows.

When planning a season, Wolf calls on the four or five major Broadway agents who represent almost every show in the tour market. He said there are "passion projects" -- shows that he really wants to bring in -- as well as those he books in the interest of variety and because he believes subscribers will enjoy them.

"Broadway Series is not supposed to be 'Matt Wolf's Best Picks,' " he said, so when mapping out a season he carefully considers the makeup and balance of the lineup -- and the wow factor. Thus 2013-14's big get, The Book of Mormon.

Down the line, he has in his sights the 2013 multiple-Tony-winning Kinky Boots for its glitz, positive message, phenomenal choreography, and Cyndi Lauper's vibrant score. "There's a quality check, and knowing that it's a hot property that's about to go on the road, and us being a major market -- we want to jump on a show like that as early as possible," he said.

Wolf says the arts are more important than ever, as is the fascination with storytelling and connecting characters with audiences.

"I think Broadway, in particular, creates characters in situations that people can identify with. I think it deals with very challenging subjects," he said, citing series presentations past and future: In South Pacific, there is racism; in Spring Awakening, adolescent sexuality; in Green Day's American Idiot, drug abuse, coming of age; in Evita, politics; in Flashdance, heroics.

"It's a forum to deal with those issues," Wolf said. ". . . I think people want more than just to come to work and do what they do, and then go home. There's a thirst and a hunger for becoming a better person, or learning something, or just shutting off and allowing yourself to go on a journey.

"There's nothing like the experience of a live performance," he said. "It's magic."

Contact Allie Caren at 215-854-2301 or acaren@philly.com.

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(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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