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Locals looking for exciting new entertainment needn’t go far — a brand new Off-Broadway venue and new works incubator is headed to the former Davenport Theatre on W45th Street as veteran Producer Al Tapper and Artistic Director Tony Sportiello set to open the AMT Theater. W42ST caught up with the two producers at the venue-in-progress as construction forges ahead for the theater’s June opening.
“It’s an off-Broadway theater that’s essentially on Broadway,” said Tapper of the 99-seat space designed by architect Philip H Cerrone. “The Theater District has a certain glow. If you walk this block, in no more than 50 yards you’ll see Moulin Rouge at the Al Hirschfeld — how much closer can you get than that?”
Tapper is a career producer of theater, film, and TV (notably PBS’s Broadway: The Golden Age and Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy) as well as a writer and composer whose shows Sessions, An Evening at the Carlyle, Imperfect Chemistry, David, National Pastime and All Aboard have played at venues in the city and around the world. A native of Worcester, MA, he wrote his first musical while a student at Boston University. “I was paid $20 for it — that was a lot of money then,” he recalled.
Of his journey to New York, Tapper said, “I’ve had a couple of different lives. My first life was at a private investment company. I used to buy and sell companies, mostly in New York. I still had a home in Worcester and I had kids, but I’d fly to New York every week and fly back on the weekends. But I always wrote music — I’ve been writing music since I was 10. And I’ve had shows play even while I was in business. One of my shows, David, played in New York, Washington DC, Boston and a few other cities.” Tapper decided to sell his companies and relocate to NYC to “do what I should have been doing all this time anyway, which is writing music or writing books.”
He met playwright and AMT’s Artistic Director Tony Sportiello at the Algonquin Theater on W24th, where they would go on to produce several original productions together as well as provide space for other Off-Broadway artists. After several successful years, Tapper sold the space and the collaborators took their new shows abroad, producing Sessions, National Pastime, and The Paparazzi to much acclaim in Mexico.
One day back in the city, Tapper and Sportiello met around the corner at Mama Mia to discuss their newest piece, All Aboard. Said Tapper: “We were looking for a theater, but because of COVID most spaces were closed, and even the ones that were open were already booked — and if they weren’t booked, they were scheduled to be booked. So at some point I finally said, ‘You know, let’s build our own.’ And Tony said, ‘Well, you know, the Davenport Theatre was around the corner’.”
The Davenport Theatre, operated by longtime Broadway producer Ken Davenport, was a multi-story Off-Broadway performance space from 2014 to 2019, when it was converted into a dance studio.
“I said, ‘Let’s go look at it,’’ recalled Tapper. “So we walked in and it was a tango dance studio no longer renewing their lease. I looked at the space and said, ‘This is it. Let’s rent this.’ We met the real estate agents then the general manager of the building and negotiated a deal for 10 years, which in theater is forever.”
Tapper and Sportiello have set out not only to use the space as a springboard for their own works, but as a breeding ground for the hits of tomorrow. “Broadway doesn’t have a place to try out theater,” said Tapper. “In the old days, you went to try out a show in Philadelphia. We want a place here in the city where people who have ideas for a show and want to try them out can have a blank theater stage and invite whoever they want to come see it. And the writers could then get an idea of what they have, with the next step to move to a Broadway house.”
The AMT Theater team hopes to alleviate some of the financial burden of developing new works. “It’s a lot of money,” said Tapper. Putting up a show through AMT allows fellow artists to experiment “before they put in that kind of money, and raise that kind of money, they get to see what the audience reaction is — ‘Do I need to rewrite, do I need new dialogue, do I need new songs, or whatever it might be. It gives them a chance to be able to make the right decision to invest the money or to go out and get investors to come in and participate,” he added.
Sportiello and Tapper already have several takers — three different productions have committed to the space through September. Said Sportiello, “The shows that are coming in— certainly the ones in June and September — both want to move on to a higher level, but they don’t want to run that kind of money yet. So by coming here, they’re spending a fraction of what it would cost to go right to Broadway and take that chance. They get to see it in front of 99 people and get the criticism, get the reaction.”
In addition to production space rentals, AMT will further nurture new works through a yearly theater festival featuring everything from 10-minute plays to full-length musicals. Said Sportiello: “The Theater Festival is going to be great. We have Deb Grimberg with us, who ran the Midtown International Theater Festival for I think, six years. We are going to try to recruit scripts from all over the world and have the shows from Britain, Canada, Mexico, and the United States here on a rotating basis. We’ll provide the space, the lights, and sound. We’ll provide box office and help out whenever we can. But the idea is to create about three weeks worth of international shows with prizes, reviews, and publicity.”
The team at AMT is also committed to investing in the Hell’s Kitchen community through small-business outreach, educational programming and special events. “The whole idea of our starting this regional theater on West 45th Street is that we want to include the locals and the residents in most of the programming that we do,” said Sportiello, a resident of Manhattan Plaza. “That includes children’s theater, our full-length plays and our musicals. We want to invite them in for previews of shows, for script readings and to talk to them, get their opinion on what they would like to see. We want their input on what’s happening here at AMT.”
AMT begins their outreach with a children’s production of Shrek Jr in July. Said Sportiello, “We are going to try and work with the schools — getting kids to audition, parents to help make it a neighborhood sort of a thing. And we’ll continue with classes for kids and workshops.” Tapper and Sportiello also hope to draw on audiences from nearby apartment buildings like MiMa, Silver Towers and Manhattan Plaza who can easily walk a few blocks over to catch a show.
As June approaches, Tapper and Sportiello are grateful for the extra prep time allotted to their own show in development, a new, 3-part musical currently titled All Aboard. “We were going to be the first show in June and then Tony went ahead and rented it, which was great,” said Tapper. “It’s a good thing, because this is so time-consuming at the moment that to even think about putting up our show drives me a little crazy.”
Looking ahead, Sportiello is optimistic about the AMT’s place in the Hell’s Kitchen theatrical landscape. “I want to have people who walk in and will automatically be rooting for us. We want to get the locals here to be familiar with us to the point where they can just walk in and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going today? What have you got coming up in a week or so?’ Because I think that if we’re going to move our shows on, you gotta have the people who have money who think that it can move on — but you also need the audience reaction of the general public, so that you know that when you put a show on here, it’s going to be something that most of the people are going to like.”
The producing partners hope that AMT is at the start of a long Off-Broadway legacy. Tapper acknowledges that the 10-year lease feels “like a lifetime” but “if we’re successful with it — in 10 years we will extend, and we’ll never lose the purpose of it for being, for us. Together we’ve written five shows, five musicals. And we’re gonna continue to write.”