Wynton Marsalis, Enrico Caruso, Leonard Bernstein and Yo-Yo Ma are only a few of the many world-class artists who have visited Ann Arbor over the years, courtesy of the University Musical Society, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious university presenting organizations.
Each year audiences attend shows of the highest caliber at top Ann Arbor venues, including Hill Auditorium, the Mendelssohn Theatre, Rackham Auditorium and the Power Center for the Performing Arts. According to UMS president Kenneth Fischer, these performances are intertwined with the University’s fundamental mission: teaching, research and service.
“Research in my field means playwrights, choreographers and composers creating new art,” Fischer said. “Every time those new works are performed throughout the world they bear the university logo on them.”
As opposed to Michigan State University’s Wharton Center, which is widely considered to be the “Broadway house” of central Michigan, the University of Michigan does not generally sponsor pop artists, rock shows or comedians. But this was not always the case.
“There have traditionally been four presenters at the university: UMS, the Major Events Office, University Productions, and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance,” Fischer said.
Founded in 1879 when four local church choirs came together to perform Handel’s “Messiah,” UMS is an autonomous yet University-affiliated non-profit that rents campus facilities and considers the University to be its “best partner.” UMS prides itself on bringing the “town and gown” together — exemplified by norms such as the Berlin and Vienna Symphony Orchestras, the two great symphonies of the world, making their way to Ann Arbor on a regular basis.
Additionally, an unusually large amount of artistic freedom coupled with the collaboration of over 70 academic departments make for a premiere performance destination with a twist: The University’s stages are not just stop-off points for a touring show. They’re an extension of the classroom.
“We always let the artists play what they want to play, and they love seeing young people and students in the crowd,” Fischer said. “Scholars and students come together to make what’s on stage understandable.”
From its partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company — a series of residencies that included classes and symposiums geared at deepening audiences’ understanding of the plays — to performances of contemporary music of the Arab world, UMS inhabits a large niche of the performing arts. It is not, however, one that caters to what Fischer terms “bus and truck shows.”
With UMS specializing in its own brand of the performing arts and University Productions and the School of MT&D focusing on student shows, it used to fall to the Major Events Office to produce large-scale commercial concerts. For a long time, this is just what it did. According to Fischer, the Major Events Office brought Elton John, The Grateful Dead and Bill Cosby to Crisler Arena.
A combination of differing objectives between the University and its East Lansing neighbor, a lack of the necessary facilities at the University and advancements in Detroit created a situation in which the University was unable to remain a feasible destination for touring pop artists. MSU emerged to fill this vacuum.
“There are certainly programmatic differences between what we present and the performances that take place at the University of Michigan,” said Bob Hoffman, public relations manager at Wharton Center. “One major reason is the difference in each respective organization’s mission and leadership. Wharton Center has made the effort of establishing itself as a major market for touring Broadway throughout its history.”
Mike Brand, executive director of the Wharton Center at MSU, has used theatrical connections from a stint as vice president of Clear Channel Entertainment’s theatrical division and the Wharton Center’s facilities to establish a home for touring Broadway shows.
There’s also the issue of space. Unlike the Wharton Center, the University’s facilities are not organized under one roof and, as Brand said, they are simply not big enough “in terms of backstage space and seating capacity” to put on these kinds of productions.
And yet, the University did attract commercial artists for many years regardless of spatial difficulties. What happened? According to Fischer, the 1980s saw a massive renovation of performance venues in the Detroit metropolitan area.
“Places like The Palace, the renovated Fox and the Fisher Theater had become the better venues from the artists’ standpoint,” Fischer said.
He added, “They can also put an exclusivity contract on the artists for within 100 miles of Detroit.”
When touring shows have visited southeastern Michigan in recent years, they’ve tended toward Detroit, where there’s the money and the will to attain arena shows. This also means the Major Events Office has been denied the opportunity to do what it does for some time now: put on big acts.
“Even if we wanted to do them there would be the question of these exclusive arrangements,” Fischer said. “So right now, they’re not happening in Ann Arbor.”