Live at 35: Broadway/San Diego – “Come Fly Away”

On a November evening in 1976, something happened in San Diego that hadn’t been seen here in years: The opening of a touring Broadway show.

The play was “Equus,” and it went up at the Spreckels Theatre downtown.

This coming Tuesday — 35 years to the night after “Equus” premiered — the touring version of Twyla Tharp’s “Come Fly Away” lands at the Civic Theatre, a few blocks from the Spreckels.

The venues may have changed, but in the decades between those two shows has come an unbroken string of some 325 productions, all presented by one outfit: the company now known as Broadway/San Diego.

In a town renowned for two big nonprofit theaters — La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe — that have sent many shows to New York and beyond, Broadway/San Diego plays a different role here.

The company, run by the New York-based Nederlander Organization, is a commercial operation that does not stage its own shows and does not have its own theaters. Instead, it books and presents national tours of Broadway shows at the Civic and (occasionally) the Balboa Theatre, both owned by the city of San Diego.

But it’s fair to say that well before the Globe and Playhouse started exporting hit shows in the 1980s, Broadway/San Diego was getting San Diegans accustomed to the idea that they didn’t necessarily need to visit New York to see a Broadway-quality production.

Joe Kobryner, now vice president of Nederlander for the local region, has a long history with the company. He was there in ’76, a recent college grad working part time in ticketing and witnessing the “phenomenal audience response” to that first season.

The Civic Theatre had hosted Broadway shows back in the ’60s, but by the ’70s the place was too busy with San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera performances to make room for touring theater.

Then Jimmy Nederlander, who is still the company’s chairman, came to town and booked the Spreckels for the first season of what was christened San Diego Playgoers.

Kobryner says the name was apt, as most of the early productions were straight plays; musicals came later. (The name change to Broadway/San Diego came in 2001.)

Kobryner worked at the Old Globe for 15 years, then returned to become general manager of Playgoers in 1996.

One of his favorite parts of the job has been watching season subscribers take a chance on something unexpected in the season package.

“Subscribers are taking a journey with us,” he says, mentioning the Civic staging of “Doubt” in 2006 and the Balboa run of “Spring Awakening” in 2008 as examples. “One joy I get is when we bring a show to town, and maybe our subscribers weren’t aware of it. And they just go away and it changed their lives.”

Nederlander executive vice president Nick Scandalios says that among the company’s nine national markets (it also owns nine Broadway theaters), “San Diego is unique in part because it has a truly vibrant part of every piece of the theatrical food chain.”

In other cities outside New York, “you don’t find as much variety” beyond the biggest theaters, he says. Such variety can breed more enthusiastic audiences.

Broadway/San Diego has had its trials by fire. The company has gone through some contraction lately, consolidating positions. The most recently announced season has eight shows (there were 13 in both the anniversary years of 2001 and 2006), with none in the Balboa.

Some productions inevitably have been of the nonunion variety, which tend to be less polished — and less expensive. (For producers and presenters, not necessarily for patrons.)

Over the years, some of those trials by fire have been pretty literal. A backstage blaze at the Civic before the opening of “Little Women” in 2005 delayed the launch here of that musical’s national tour. Countywide wildfires in 2003 and 2007 forced cancellation of some performances.

Kobryner remembers the theater getting a call in October 2003 from a subscriber who needed his seat locations for a performance of “The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron?” It seemed his tickets had been lost to fire — along with his house.

“I have nothing else to do, and I need something,” Kobryner recalls the man saying.

Maybe a sign of the kind of affection that’s kept people coming back for 35 years.