When going to see a Broadway production, jazz concert or comedy show at the Lied Center for Performing Arts, it can be easy to miss the marks of history present all around the building.
But with the help of the knowledgeable eye of Bill Stephan, executive director of the Lied, one notices the little details that make the Lied a special place for Nebraskans. From the portraits of Christina Hixson and Ernst F. Lied in the main lobby, to the wall of donors who contributed to the construction of the Lied on the balcony level, or the state-of-the-art fly and light systems and seats that are thicker than the Metropolitan Opera House’s in New York, the Lied is a one-of-a-kind place.
As the Lied celebrates its 30th anniversary season this year, Stephan said these specifics reflect the evolution of the center, from its beginnings as a vision of a few passionate individuals to what is now one of the top 100 theaters in the world by attendance.
“The original vision of the Lied Center was to bring the greatest artists in the world to Nebraska, so that you didn't have to go to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles,” Stephan said. “Also, part of that original vision was that it would be a big part of the student experience at the University of Nebraska, that students should have the opportunity to experience these great artists as part of their cultural education.”
Dedicated to the memory of Ernst F. Lied’s parents, Ernst M. and Ida K. Lied, the center opened in 1990. Upon Ernst F. Lied’s death in 1980, Hixson was appointed executrix of his estate. From there, through the efforts of then-UNL Chancellor Martin A. Massengale, former University of Nebraska President D.B. “Woody” Varner and others, a fundraising campaign began. After grants and gifts from the Lied Foundation Trust consisting of 71 corporations and UNL alumni, construction on the center began in 1986.
Thirty years later, the Lied Center has fulfilled the staff’s original collective vision, Stephan said. Dan Stratman, the director of facilities and production, has been with the Lied from the very beginning, and he has watched it evolve from an idea to a reality. He started as production manager of the Lied during the very end of construction on the building, and his role has evolved to cover the management of the whole center’s facilities.
Stratman said he’s seen tremendous growth of the center over the 30 years of its existence.
“It’s pretty amazing to have been here for 30 years and see how it’s grown,” Stratman said. “It’s a phenomenal building to begin with, and then you think about it being in a market this small. It’s still a great space today and provides a space for all these amazing artists.”
To celebrate its anniversary season, Stephan said the Lied staff tried to identify artists and shows that would go above and beyond the norm, mentioning notables Wynton Marsalis, the St. Louis Symphony and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
But the crown jewel of the Lied’s 30th anniversary season is “The Phantom of the Opera.” In a few months, 20 semi-trucks will roll into Lincoln for a run of 15 public performances of one of the most iconic musicals of all time from Oct. 23 through Nov. 3.
“It’s the signature 30th anniversary event,” Stephan said. “This is the biggest musical theater production in the history of the Lied Center and the history of the city of Lincoln. There's never been a bigger show at a variety of levels.”
Stephan notes “Phantom” as a major milestone for the Lied, as it’s a production he and his staff have wanted to bring to the center for a long time. That wasn’t possible even a few years ago, as the Lied’s fly system couldn’t handle the complicated technical elements of “Phantom.” Stephan said the Lied received a grant from Lancaster County that allowed for renovations to the fly system this summer. Now, the system can handle the taller sets that are featured in “Phantom” and other big-name productions in the future.
Stratman listed the many ways shows have changed technically over the last 30 years which forced the Lied to change right along with them.
“The way shows are done have really changed,” Stratman said. “They’re differently lighted. You used to shine lights on the audience, and they were offended. Now, that’s the only way to do a show. Projections and video walls have also exploded. People now expect multimedia.”
Stephan also said when it comes to attracting larger productions to the Lied, success builds on success. The weeklong run of “Book of Mormon” in Dec. 2018 brought over 15,000 people to the center. A successful and profitable production stint like this proves to both the Lied staff and distributors that the Lincoln market is ripe with potential for bringing in a high-level show like “Phantom.”
“‘Book of Mormon’ was a big fish,” Stephan said. “We had ‘Jersey Boys’ a few years ago [too], so definitely some of those most popular titles and mega titles, you know, anything's possible. And I think the more support and attendance we have, for ‘Phantom,’ the stronger makes the case that people will say, ‘Wow, Lincoln, Nebraska, that's an independent market. That's a market that loves Broadway. We need to go there.’”
“Phantom” also would not have been possible to bring to the Lied if the center wasn’t financially stable. For this run, the Lied is about doubling the previous maximum number of shows it had put on for one production. Stephan said the center takes on some financial risk when hosting a production such as “Phantom,” but all of the analyses his team has made indicate a successful run this fall.
As the Lied turns 30, Stephan is also celebrating a personal anniversary this season. He joined the Lied staff in Feb. 2009 as associate executive director and was named interim executive director that July. In March 2010, the “interim” was removed from his title, and he has been the executive director ever since.
With about 10 years under his belt as executive director, Stephan reflects on when he first arrived at the Lied — an era when a show like “Phantom” was nowhere near financially realistic for the Lied.
“When I first came to the Lied, even though the Lied had an amazing history from the very beginning, [we were] having a lot of financial issues,” he said. “And so when I first came, we had suffered layoffs, we had cut back our programming, our attendance was down, dollars were down. So I really kind of came in at a dark moment in Lied Center history.”
So Stephan went to work, focusing on balancing the Lied budget and building his team. From there, he worked on forming relationships with the community through outreach events such as receptions and talks and more interactions between students and talent. He said managing a performance center is tricky financially, as the Lied underwrites over half of their shows. To balance this out, the Lied relies on Lincoln and greater Nebraska communities for individual donations, corporate support, grants and university partnerships.
“The people of Nebraska are some of the most generous people I think are anywhere,” he said. “And they really believe in the value of the arts. When we've dreamed a dream about something, whether it's bringing in ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ whether it's bringing in one of the top orchestras in the world, we've been able to achieve that.”
After 30 years since the Lied’s opening and ten since Stephan became executive director, everything at the center has steadily grown. Stephan reports ten consecutive years of a balanced budget, a Lied record. The Lied boasts a top approval rating in student fee allocation. Student attendance and overall ticket sales numbers are both up.
Moving forward, the Lied staff is looking to potentially make some enhancements to the lobby and continue to bring in new and exciting acts. Most importantly, Stephan hopes to foster the Lied’s already established growth towards a bright future, making the next 30 years just as fruitful as the first 30.
“[The growing numbers] are a sign that the people are excited about what's happening, that they want to be part of it, and they want more of it in the future,” he said. “We want to continue to bring those artists that we never thought would be possible … so stay tuned in terms of what the next big dreams will be.”