With Disney going its own way, and a make-or-break labor negotiation about to kick into high gear, Broadway leaders want to talk politics – or at least hire someone who knows how.

The industry’s top execs are looking for a new executive director of the League of American Theaters & Producers, and the hunt could take Broadway into new terrain. The league, long known chiefly as the representative of theater owners and producers in union negotiations, will take on a decidedly more political bent if the search committee has its way.

League executive director Harvey Sabinson announced his retirement in the spring, and last week he set Aug. 31 as his final day. That’s going to make for an extremely busy summer for the producers and theater owners, who’ll be watching the July 15 deadline Disney has set for formalizing its plan to rehabilitate the New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd Street. The league has also commenced negotiations with the stage hands union, Local One of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, whose contract expires July 31. Producers have already made a lot of noise about being prepared for a strike if they don’t win wholesale concessions from the union.

It’s no time for weakness at the top.

Despite the grumbling of industry skeptics – who fear the Broadway establishment is more likely to hire a wonk than a czar – search committee members say they want to use the change to expand league activities in at least two areas: politics and marketing. The committee has retained a headhunter and is “casting a very wide net” in its efforts to replace Sabinson, says Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters and chairman of the search committee.

One of the job requirements is political savvy. The group wants someone who knows his way around city and state governments, Landesman says, adding, “There are a lot of issues (facing the industry) that I’d call political or quasi-political.”

Broadway’s major theater owners – the Shubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn organizations – are as well acquainted with government red tape as any other significant real estate owner in Manhattan. But the political stakes have been raised considerably over the last year, with the Walt Disney Co.’s plans to take up residence in the district. Disney – which hasn’t felt any compulsion to join the League since setting up “Beauty and the Beast” at the Palace in April 1994 – was offered a mix of state and local incentives, including tax breaks and low-interest loans, that had long eluded Broadway’s traditional owners. The Disneyization of the Rialto raised the political consciousness of the established players like nothing else in recent history.

Indeed, one rumor making its way through the industry has the search committee raiding the city’s Times Square Redevelopment organization for job candidates. But the rumor is overblown at best: Although one Redevelopment honcho’s name apparently surfaced during initial wish-list discussions, she was not among the four people interviewed for the position two weeks ago. Another round of interviews is set for July 12.

The names of the job candidates are being closely guarded, with no one person emerging as anything resembling a shoo-in. “It’s all very secretive,” says one high-placed Broadway exec. “Since they’ve hired a headhunter, that suggests to me they’re not looking for an ‘insider.’ And if they were talking to names we all knew, it would be all over the street by now.”

If the roundup is extending beyond the usual suspects, the searchers are very much from the inside. In addition to Landesman, the committee is a Who’s Who of commercial legit: Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, James M. Nederlander, producers Michael David and Roger Berlind, general managers Marvin Krauss and Alan Wasser, League attorney Alan Jaffe, road presenter Albert Nocciolino, and ex officio member Cy Feuer, who’s president of the league.

Committee members say the meetings have been harmonious. They’d better be: They plan to be around even after a new leader is in place.

“We would like to continue to help shape the future of the League and possibly its restructuring,” Landesman says. That mission clearly includes the planned political inroads. But also look for more extensive (read: national) marketing and promotion, which got a big push last month when the League’s popular marketing head, Susan Lee, made a key deal with travel agents and introduced “Destination Broadway” as a marketing tool at a travel industry convention here.

As for the possible restructuring, Landesman says the committee wants a “more effective membership,” with League boards and committees made up of “people actually working in the theater.” This is not new; indeed, before he was a landlord, Landesman himself belonged to a small group of independent producers dubbed the Young Turks, who were determined to wrest control of the industry from the aging theater owners. It never happened.

Also not new is the producers’ saber-rattling at contract-negotiation time. This time, however, the street is dominated by international powerhouse producers Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who insist that it will not be business as usual. The independent producers are demanding changes in arcane and costly IA work rules, and they’ve created “war chests” by cutting back on some profit distributions, to survive a strike.

At the first face-to-face encounter between league and IA negotiators, on June 13, the stage hands admonished the producers to stop pitching their sob story in the press, and since then, the two sides have virtually clammed up. But nothing’s been put on the table yet. The second session is slated for June 26.

In the past, negotiations went down to the wire and then the league – dominated by the landlords who can afford the expensive contracts – settled for minuscule gains. While the makeup of the league negotiating team is considerably different this time, it’s ridiculous to suggest that Shubert and Nederlander will not be heard from.

The league has traditionally been a fractious assemblage of producers, presenters and landlords, each with different, often conflicting agendas. Few in the industry would disagree that a stronger, beefier league is essential for all the members’ interests. But the Landesman committee’s decision to remain a force may do little to assuage fears that Sabinson’s replacement won’t have the authority to act decisively on behalf of the entire industry.

At a recent committee meeting, James Nederlander told his colleagues that what Broadway needs is “a Kenesaw Mountain Landis,” the strong-minded, big-fisted baseball commissioner who led his sport out of scandal and through unprecedented growth in the 1920s, ’30s and early ’40s. What Broadway gets will be known when the boys of this summer’s search name their new leader, and that will say a great deal about where the commercial theater is headed.

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