ASU Gammage Executive Director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack

This commentary aired on KBAQ January 11, 2016


From time to time, a theater critic needs to admit that his thoughts about the local theater scene aren’t always on target.  I’ve often wondered about Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU Gammage Executive Director, and her goals for Gammage.  On reflection, though, my concerns have not been supported by her many Gammage successes.  As we look back on her 22 years at Gammage, we see that she’s always had local theater in her sights as she brings Broadway tours to town to enhance what is available to local theatergoers.

Before Jennings-Roggensack arrived in the Valley, most Broadway tours missed our community.  Only occasionally did first-class Broadway tours stop here.  Even though Phoenix was in a prime location, producers bypassed us when touring shows were moving west.  But since Jennings-Roggensack’s arrival, she has solved several challenges both with Gammage and local theatergoing practices to turn the Phoenix metropolitan area into a significant market for touring Broadway shows.

Gammage opened in 1964 as a home for musical performances like symphony orchestras and large concerts.  It wasn’t conceived with backstage areas or acoustics necessary for Broadway musical theater tours.  The Valley needed a venue for Broadway tours but funds to build new facilities had dried up so attention turned to Gammage as the only local theater with enough seating capacity and a large stage that could house Broadway tours.

Jennings-Roggensack began to book tours into Gammage.  As Broadway shows grew in size, New York producers needed a local space that could house huge musicals like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables” for extended runs.  Without changes, these tours couldn’t be shoehorned into Gammage because a huge orchestral shell took necessary stage space needed to handle Broadway tours.

Removing the shell was not popular so a space was added so the shell could slide into the expensive storage area but still be available for concerts.  Jennings-Roggensack raised funds to make the improvement and “The Phantom of the Opera” and other big musicals finally played Phoenix for record breaking engagements.  Although part of the ASU campus, Gammage receives no University funds to operate.

Jennings-Roggensack then had to become known in Broadway theater circles so producers would seek out touring stops in Tempe.  She did this by delivering some of the biggest single week grosses for Broadway tours.  She’s Arizona’s only Tony Award voter meaning she sees every Broadway show.  These connections put her in contact with Broadway producers.

Everything she’s accomplished has established ASU Gammage as a critical part of the Broadway touring market.  Finally, improvements in the theater’s sound system were required because Gammage’s original acoustics weren’t conducive to Broadway musicals.  Sound professionals found expensive solutions but fund-raising made the changes possible.

Now Jennings-Roggensack is confronting longtime audience complaints of inadequate restrooms and elevators to take theatergoers to all areas of the theater.  Fund-raising is underway to build two architecturally complimentary towers on each side of Gammage that will contain large restrooms and elevators to all levels of the 3,000-seat theater.

From this skeptic, I thank Colleen Jennings-Roggensack for all she’s done to boast local theater and insure that Broadway musical tours stop here by making acceptable but necessary changes to ASU Gammage.