Stage Fright Strikes B’way Backers

There’s a war, all right, but on Broadway and the West End, it’s a war of nerves.

Investors on both sides of the Atlantic are wary of almost anything that doesn’t have Cameron MacKintosh’s name attached to it, while MacKintosh himself is wary of how American audiences will perceive some of the dicier scenes in “Miss Saigon.” And producers with shallower pockets than Mackintosh are sifting through comedies, searching for cash and praying for business from all the tourists who’re staying home.

“More than ever, raising money in the theater is like administering a Rorschach test,” says Karen Goodwin, a former Jungian psychologist whose Fifth Avenue Prods, is a major MacKintosh backer. “I’m learning more about my investors by having them be forced to deal with two serious situations – the recession and the war in the gulf.”

While producers try to calm edgy investors, the “Miss Saigon” team has been working to ensure that the Broadway audience won’t come away with the impression that the show is anti-American, as some who have seen the London edition have complained.

Most sensitive is the big “American Dream” number, a brash nightmare vision of success through corruption and graft delivered by Jonathan Pryce’s character, a pimp called The Engineer.

People involved in the show insist that the changes in the New York edition have nothing to do with the war. Nevertheless, a draft of the “American Dream” scene, more clearly played from The Engineer’s perspective than the version used in London, will be the one done at the Broadway.

So there should be no question, Goodwin says, that the scene “is done from the point of view of a pimp. It’s a distorted view of what can happen in the culture, and it certainly is the underbelly of America.”

Adds MacKintosh: “It really has to do with clarity. We’ve taken various comments, criticisms, very seriously. A lot of it has to do with peoples’ perceptions, rather than with our intention. We’re seeing if we can be more precise and concise.”

Similar anxieties bedevil Robert Whitehead, who’s bringing “The Speed Of Darkness,” about a Vietnam vet, to the Belasco under the wing of the Broadway Alliance. Whitehead worries that the reduced budget and ticket scale mandated by the Alliance won’t offset the risky timing. “I’m doing a very serious play, and it deals with something that may not be popular,” Whitehead says. “Money was never easy, but it’s less easy than it was, and it has a great deal to do with the economy and the war.”

With half its $35 million advance already earning interest in the bank, and the Broadway Theater boxoffice wrapping $1 million-plus last week, “Miss Saigon” may well be current-events proof. MacKintosh says his chief problem now – as it was early on with “The Phantom Of The Opera” and “Les Miserables” – is convincing ticket buyers that they might get a seat before the end of the millennium.

No such problem plagues “Children Of Eden,” the – &pounds;2.5 million ($5 million) John Caird/Stephen Schwartz extravaganza in which Goodwin also participated.

“I found that to be the most difficult fundraising effort I’ve ever been involved in,” Goodwin says. “We were raising the money in September, October, November, when the anticipation of the war and how deep the recession was going to be were far more crippling than now.”

For the first time in a decade of investing, she adds, all of her people wanted to pull out, though some returned. Opening to mixed notices a week before the start of the war, it’s likely to become a casualty by March.

Last week producers Fran and Barry Weissler scuttled plans to export “Gypsy,” with Tony-winner Tyne Daly, to London for a spring run. Instead, they’re reopening the show in April for 12 weeks at the Marquis and hoping for a London run in the fall.

Another possible casualty is “Dancing At Lughnasa,” the Brian Friel play slated to begin performances here next month. The chancy times, says general manager Joseph Harris, have had “considerable impact.” The production still has no venue, and producer Noel Pearson is considering postponement.

The box office continues to fall well below the standard January drop, with even the usual sellouts searching for walk-ins.

Three big musicals – “The Secret Garden” and “Will Rogers At The Follies,” along with “Miss Saigon” – are slated to open in coming weeks. Both Heidi Landesman, producer of “Secret Garden,” and Pierre Cosette, producer of “Will Rogers,” are convinced their shows are upbeat enough to attract audiences. And they had their money in place before the economy soured.

More revealing is that half the eight straight plays slated are partly protected, either by the low-cost Broadway Alliance plan (“The Speed Of Darkness” and “Our Country’s Good”), or a nonprofit aegis (Lincoln Center Theater’s “Mule Bone” and Circle in the Square’s “Taking Steps”).

The rest – “La Bete,” “Lost In Yonkers,” “I Hate Hamlet” and “The Big Love” – are comedies. “La Bete” limped to last night’s opening for want of cash, despite Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name above the title as co-producer with Stuart Ostrow.

Everybody’s nervous. “We have a very strange set of circumstances,” says “I Hate Hamlet” producer James Freydberg. “In terms of investment, you can get to a certain level, but the people who fill in the gap, who can put in 25,50 thousand, aren’t there.”

Lewis Allen, producing “The Big Love,” is optimistic. “My sense is that when the war broke out, everybody was watching television; now they’re not. Good entertainment is not going to be hurt.” But he adds, “if this were a deadly serious play, I would think twice.”

“If the recession continues and the war continues,” says Freydberg, “it could be blockbuster summer. That’s why I’m doing a comedy.”

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