The Impresario Behind Matunuck’s Theatre By The Sea

Summer’s hottest tickets are at a historic barn bursting with Broadway talent


In showbiz circles, the word impresario often gets tossed around, but for Theatre By The Sea’s producer and owner Bill Hanney, the description is apt. Hanney purchased the theater in 2012, after it sat dormant for five years. During its heyday, a who’s who of Broadway and Hollywood – Marlon Brando, Mae West, Judy Holliday, Groucho Marx – tread its boards. It was that history that prompted Hanney’s $1.2 million investment to revive the century-old barn theater. “It’s the best place in the world,” says Hanney, who notes he spends his summer sleeping in Mae West’s old bungalow.

Hanney caught the “theater bug” at 14 when his mom took him to a “big, beautiful” movie theater in Dorchester; Hanney, coy about his age, refuses to name the flick. He went back the next day and begged the owner for a job. Hanney went to work cleaning the theaters between showings. His pay? Free movie posters and all the films he could watch.

By the time Hanney was 19, he was managing the Dorchester theater and running another in Hyde Park when he heard about an abandoned theater in Fitchburg. “I said, where’s Fitchburg?” he recalls with a chuckle. But he saw promise in the shuttered venue. “It was a 1,700-seat movie theater with a full stage. It was huge.” He struck a deal with the landlord and turned the theater into a success by selling out each showing with dollar tickets.

Fitchburg proved a turning point. Promoter Cedric Kushner wanted to rent the venue for a show. “That show was a band called Rush and it sold out,” says Hanney. Even though the general admission tickets caused a stampede, Hanney looked at the broken glass doors littering the lobby and thought, “wow, this might be a good business.”

Hanney became a rock promoter, booking bands around the area. When he approached the Plymouth Theater in Worcester to put on a concert, the general manager said they only did Broadway. “I did movies, I did rock concerts. I didn’t know Broadway,” Hanney says. Undeterred, he reached out to Broadway tour producer Arthur Katz and booked his first season at the Plymouth, opening with A Chorus Line (incidentally, Theatre by the Sea’s opening show this summer). “We sold out,” he says. Now he was fully ensconced in the business of Broadway.

Of course, Broadway tours arrive ready with sets, costumes, and fully rehearsed casts. Theatre By The Sea (TBTS) is a producing house, which means the theater roars back to life in the late spring, when dozens of professional theater artisans descend on a still-sleepy Matunuck.

Hanney’s theater employs a full production staff, which includes the director; set, costume, sound, and lighting designers; a team of sewers in the costume shop; and a fabrication team to build and paint the sets. The actors and musicians – their shows feature a live orchestra -  rehearse for two weeks in TBTS’s rehearsal space in Wakefield. Four weeks after the show opens, another one replaces it. Rinse and repeat two more times.

At the height of the season, upwards of 100 people are on the payroll. Most are from out of town, so TBTS houses visiting artists in the original guest rooms above the tavern, in RVs behind the theater, in a residential property, and a motel owned by the theater.

The expenses add up and, post-pandemic, theaters across the country have struggled to bring audiences back. But TBTS, with production values on par with Broadway, sells an astounding 95 percent of seats to subscribers, leaving very few single tickets available. The South County audience is eager for a fun night, and the theater delivers.

“The cost of producing has skyrocketed,” Hanney concedes, adding, “I try to figure out a way to control costs without sacrificing quality.” One way to do that is to repurpose the sets, costumes, and ready performers for a longer run elsewhere. While Hanney also owns and operates North Shore Music Theatre (Beverly, Massachusetts), its in-the-round stage means he can’t drop TBTS shows into that venue, and vice-versa.

So the impresario continues to conjure novel entertainment ideas. He’s in the process of building an entertainment megaplex in Maine that includes movie theaters, a stage for live shows, and a cabaret space all under one roof, which could give shows from North Shore and TBTS an extended life beyond their four-week runs.

But his soul remains in tune with his 184-year-old barn. “My favorite thing is to look at my audience react to what I put on that stage, to look at their faces, their enjoyment,” he says. “I feel it in my bones. That makes me so happy.”


Summer Musicals

Check schedule for children’s shows, concerts, and more

A Chorus Line: May 29-June 22

Tootsie: June 26-July 20

The Sound of Music: July 24-August 17

42nd Street: August 21-September 15

364 Cards Pond Road, Matunuck


Trivia Answers: 

1: 100   2: 55   3: 200   4: Duck Press  5: 1840   6: First-aid station   7: 1933



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