When Celebrity Attractions' co-founder and President Larry Payton died in February, patrons in seven regional markets wondered if the company's future might be in jeopardy. But since its founding in 1983, the Tulsa-based organization has been a closely-knit family operation.
Larry's brother, Ed, and son, Drew, already had a long history with Celebrity, and each took over some of the responsibilities Larry had handled. And while the elder Payton's death continues to be mourned, Ed and Drew stress that Celebrity Attractions' future is sound.
“Larry built this business to grow, and with 13,000 subscribers in Oklahoma City alone, that's a pretty good indication that it's going to last,” Ed Payton said. “Our renewal rate is the largest we've ever had, and today, Oklahoma City has surpassed Tulsa as Celebrity's top market.”
That growth can be attributed in part to the success of MAPS projects that resulted in a revitalization of downtown Oklahoma City. Concerts, theater productions, restaurants, parks, sporting events and a first-class art museum continue to draw large crowds.
“The renaissance that's occurred since the 1995 bombing has turned Oklahoma City into a much more cosmopolitan area,” Payton said. “We've been able to ride that wave as well. When Celebrity moved to Rose State during the Civic Center renovation (1998-2001), we had 3,500 season subscribers. Now we have 10,000 more, and that's before our first show hits the stage.
“We're fortunate that Oklahoma City has embraced Broadway. And because it's an industry that feeds itself, we're able to get better shows because of those subscriber numbers. We're in show business, which means the better the business is, the better the shows are going to be.”
The musical blockbuster “Wicked” opens the season Sept. 4-22, a return engagement of the Tony Award-winning show. Based on the novel “The Wizard of Oz” by Gregory Maguire, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, “Wicked” remains one of Broadway's hottest tickets and continues to do record business 10 years into its run.
“We're very excited to have ‘Wicked' back for the first time since 2006,” Drew Payton said. “People have repeatedly asked us to bring it back, and we're thrilled that our audiences can be a part of such a fantastic show. Anyone from 8 to 80 can relate to it in so many different ways.”
Following Nov. 5-10 is Irving Berlin's “White Christmas,” the tale of two performers who decide to put on a show at a Vermont inn. In the process, they find romance. Berlin's memorable score includes “Blue Skies,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and the poignant title song.
“This production will do what a meteorologist can't promise, and that's to make it snow in November,” Drew Payton said. “At least inside the theater. ‘White Christmas' is a fun evening out and should be a perfect way to start the holiday season.”
Another musical that audiences can't seem to get enough of is Kander and Ebb's “Chicago,” the story of two prohibition-era murderesses who constantly try to outmaneuver each other to keep their names in the press.
While the original Broadway production had the unfortunate position of opening in the same season as “A Chorus Line,” the 1996 revival is still running and has since surpassed the run of “A Chorus Line” to become the longest-running revival in Broadway history. Cast as shady lawyer Billy Flynn in the touring production is John O'Hurley, an actor known for his role in “Seinfeld” and as host of “Family Feud.”
“John O'Hurley played Billy Flynn in Little Rock a few years ago and audiences loved him,” Ed Payton said. “He has a swagger about him and an aloofness that works well with that role.”
Filling the April 8-13 slot in the 30th anniversary season is “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.” The concert features a symphony orchestra and a cast of singers who perform hits from musicals such as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “Cats,” “Starlight Express,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Aspects of Love” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
Bringing the season to a close May 20-25 is “Sister Act,” a stage musical based on the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg as a cabaret singer — forced to go into hiding — who disguises herself as a nun and wreaks havoc at a convent.
“I consider ‘Sister Act' similar to ‘Wicked' from the standpoint that it's about a person who struggles through life trying to find herself,” Drew Payton said. “It's a lively, fun show that is making its first appearance in Oklahoma City.”
Season subscribers will have the option to buy tickets for the add-on production of “Beauty and the Beast,” a return engagement that will play the Civic Center Music Hall Feb. 14-16. The Tony Award-winning musical is the tale of a selfish prince who is turned into a beast by an enchantress. To break the spell, he must learn to love another and win her heart in return.
Ed and Drew Payton both said they're proud to be able to carry on Larry Payton's vision, a dream that became not just a reality but a thriving business that brings the best of Broadway to seven theaters in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas.
“Celebrity Attractions is a family business with people who treat each other with care and respect,” Ed Payton said. “The second part of Larry's legacy deals with patrons and subscribers. Anybody can sell tickets, but not everybody can treat patrons and subscribers like they should be treated.
“We'll continue to bring best of Broadway to Oklahoma City thanks to the people in the community who have blessed us with their support. I can't fill Larry's shoes, but I have the best tools possible and a great staff. Celebrity is going to be here for a long time.”