A Q&A with Meghan Distel, president and CEO of Broadway Grand Rapids
Broadway Grand Rapids is making a swift rebound from pandemic-related show cancellations with a current two-week, sold-out run of the hit musical, “Hamilton.” The organization, which was formed in 1988 to bring touring Broadway productions to town, is also starting 2022 with a change in leadership. Longtime marketing director Meghan Distel, who helped bring in bigger productions and more season-ticket holders over the past decade, was recently named president and CEO to replace Mike Lloyd, who is retiring after 12 years with the organization he joined after a lengthy career in journalism. Distel recently discussed plans to further grow the organization with more community partnerships and by making live theater more accessible to West Michigan residents.
When did you develop a passion for Broadway?
I’ve always had a very, very strong passion for performing arts since I was a young girl. I grew up in the Detroit suburbs and frequently went to the Fisher Theatre. I’ve always been drawn to arts and culture and just know how important it is and can transform your outlook on life. When I first started at Broadway Grand Rapids, it felt like a dream come true.
Broadway Grand Rapids has seen growth over the past decade, particularly in expanding the number of season ticket holders. What’s been the key to the organization’s success?
There’s no question it’s done a 180 here. When I started 11 years ago, we were hanging on with just a couple thousand season ticket holders. Now we’re at four times as many. We’re bringing in 100,000 to 125,000 patrons each year. We’ve had an incredibly great and committed team, and we’ve built some relationships in the community. (Previous President and CEO) Mike Lloyd has been an incredible mentor and leader. But it’s such a small team, we’ve all contributed in our own ways.
There are so many pieces to the puzzle. In 2010, we weren’t really getting the best shows. We also didn’t have great dates getting into DeVos Performance Hall. Once we sat down with the symphony, opera and ballet and got better time frames for shows, then better shows were coming. Then people were coming. We’ve been able to put these little pieces together over the past decade. Now we’ve gotten on the map for Broadway tours.
What opportunities do you see for future growth?
It’s been challenging over COVID, but we have a lot of momentum with “Hamilton” and a two-week sold-out engagement. We want to grow our community partnerships, but also make theater more accessible for everyone in the community. Our Seats 4 Kids program helps fund tickets for schoolkids who are maybe economically disadvantaged, and it’s about breaking down barriers culturally as well as physically. We’re working on a new program to offer hearing accessibility. My goal is that everyone feels welcome, feels it’s accessible and everyone in Grand Rapids can enjoy this incredible art form.
Is it difficult to compete for these touring Broadway shows with Chicago, Detroit or the Wharton Center in East Lansing?
We love to see success at the Wharton Center, Detroit and Chicago, just knowing people are coming out and enriching their lives with theater. We don’t see it as a competition. But Grand Rapids is really on the map culturally. … It’s a great town to come to. Having a program like this just enhances that cultural landscape downtown. That’s been one of the rewarding things personally is to see how it impacts the city. Grand Rapids is a destination for a lot of reasons, but now I think it’s very much so for arts and culture.
How did Broadway Grand Rapids fare during the pandemic?
It’s definitely been very challenging and the industry has been hit very hard. That’s the nature of this business — gathering together. It’s been so difficult, not to mention for all of the actors and performers. It felt surreal and touch and go at moments. We were fortunate to come off a year with “The Lion King” and “Hamilton,” and we have such a small team for operations. We stayed the course, and patrons and sponsors were sticking with us. Patrons were so incredibly generous, they let us just wait it out, knowing we were doing everything we could to get shows started. If we didn’t have that support from the community, sponsors and patrons, it could be a different story.
“Hamilton” started a two-week, sold-out run last week. What’s a typical day in the life of leading a theater organization when high-profile shows are in town?
It’s really business as usual. The most important thing now, day to day, is “Hamilton.” One of the great things I learned from Mike Lloyd is — when a show like “Hamilton” is in town — to just roll up your sleeves. Everyone is in the trenches, whether it’s during the lead-up or walking into the theater, helping people who may have forgotten their vaccine cards. It’s whatever it takes to make sure patrons are having a good experience.