Angles In America: B’way At Millennium

Some of the biggest names in legit production converged Jan. 11 to ponder the survivability of theater in the 21st century, and if the prospect of the new millennium looked grim, getting through the winter often seemed as daunting.

With the January-February box office chill taking over the street, it was little wonder that the daylong symposium on theater management and producing in the 21st century seemed more than a tad downbeat and unfocused, or that it raised considerably more questions than answers.

The symposium, sponsored by Columbia University’s Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theater Arts, was a virtual who’s who of New York legit, with participation by such stalwarts as the Shubert Organization’s Gerald Schoenfeld, Jujamcyn’s Rocco Landesman and Paul Libin, Lincoln Center Theater’s Bernard Gersten, and, making the jaunt from Toronto, Live Entertainment chairman and CEO Garth Drabinsky.

Perhaps more than anything spoken, Drabinsky’s presence served as either a bellwether or a eulogy, depending on the viewpoint of the other 20-plus participants. While some producers and creative types bemoaned the paucity of new plays and important, serious American musicals, others lauded the megatuners that, despite a general lack of critical respect, will see theater into the next century. Drabinsky, boasting of a $20 million gross for the 22-week run in Minneapolis of the “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” revival starring Donny Osmond, and Livent’s successful re-working of “Show Boat” on Broadway, had few words of encouragement for the industry’s traditional reliance on all things New York.

“Today, musical theater can be produced and exploited all across America,” Drabinsky said, adding what must have sounded ominous to many in attendance, “never having to rely on this city at all.” Exorbitant construction costs, outmoded venues, union battles and “anachronistic” structures of guild agreements were among the litany of New York’s tender spots poked by Drabinsky. “I’m building my shows in Canada,” he said flatly.

Not surprisingly, the New Yorkers struggled with a devotion to their city in the face of obstacles that seriously threaten the longterm health, if not the existence, of New York’s theater industry. If little new ground was trod – Landesman spoke of the need to build new audiences; Schoenfeld decried Broadway’s status as “the last vestige of tax-paying performing arts;” and nearly everyone spoke of the need to reverse local television’s growing indifference to theater – there at least was a consensus on the necessity for immediate change and adaptability.

“Marketing for the theater is about 25 years behind,” said press agent Chris Boneau, moderating a panel addressing new audiences for the next century. Susan Lee, marketing director for the League of American Theaters and Producers, said, “We talk about marketing when I contend that people in Cleveland don’t even know how to buy a ticket if they want to come to Broadway. We have to start with the fundamentals.”

As more than one panelist noted, addressing long-term issues becomes doubly burdensome when most producers are struggling to keep their shows afloat through the next several months. The unusual hiatus of “Yankees,” to end in February when comedian Jerry Lewis takes a featured role, is only one survival tactic producers are using to tough out the annual box office chill. As press agent Adrian Bryan-Brown pointed out, the current season’s contributions to legit history might be the Winter White Sale and flexible playing schedules.

Among the other innovations mentioned at the symposium: Michael David, president of Dodger Prods., said his company was working on a CD-ROM project for “Tommy,” the League’s Lee said she’s been working with travel agents across the country to develop a Broadway tourism package, and Rick Elice, co-creative director of the Serino Coyne advertising agency, said the company is trying to develop a free-of-charge theater service line similar to the 777-FILM service used by movie theaters.

Another movie marketing ploy that has made only intermittent appearances on the Broadway stage – product placement – will get another shot soon. Margery Singer, an entertainment marketing consultant, said the upcoming production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” will plug a brand of coffee during one production number, the result of a promotional tie-in with the A&P supermarket chain. The news seemed to engender mixed feelings in the audience, with New York Newsday chief legit critic Linda Winer later commenting from the stage, “I’m old enough to remember the concept of selling out. It sounds so quaint now.”

The sprawling reach of the symposium, with too many issues raised and topics addressed to provide a clear focus on the next century, might after all be the most telling reflection of the state of the industry. Lack of cohesion among Broadway leaders was evident all day.

“There is no leadership of Broadway,” said Dodger Prods. David bluntly. “Broadway is not an institution. It is, wonderfully, a mess.”

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