‘Ragtime’ swings to B’way beat

Tuner's B.O. hopes pinned to Gotham

NEW YORK – Last year, the question was, What will “Ragtime” do for Broadway? This week, the industry will be watching to see what Broadway does for “Ragtime.”

The $10 million-plus musical, initiated and developed by Livent Inc. in what some call a movie-studio approach to theater, combines the legit know-how of its artistic team (book writer Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty, choreographer Graciela Daniele and director Frank Galati) with the corporate precision of Garth Drabinsky’s Toronto-based company. Comparisons to the assemblage of the Model T that is a pivotal plot point in both the musical and E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel are a stretch. But the company’s four-year, ground-up development of the musical, complete with Hollywood-style test audiences, had already been likened to the old movie studio system by the time of the show’s Canadian open-ing in December 1996 (Variety, Dec. 2-8, 1996).

But if the process’s results pleased critics in Toronto and Los Angeles (where the show opened in May), response at the box office has been somewhat less resolute, particularly in L.A., where in recent months the musical often has grossed less than half of its $1,052,080 weekly potential. The week before Thanksgiving, while productions of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” were grossing more than $900,000 and $800,000, respectively, in L.A., the ecstatically reviewed “Ragtime” had slipped to $468,298.

L.A. omen?

Was the dip in West Coast business a portent for New York? Broadway advance sales are strong: Livent won’t disclose figures, but even conservative industry estimates put the advance at more than $10 million. Preview attendance is strong — near 90% capacity last week with a healthy average ticket price of $58.37. The buzz is positive; and critical reaction, if New York reviews of the Toronto opening were any indication, is likely to be at the very least respectful, if not necessarily on par with the out-of-town raves.

Even Livent’s stock has risen with the Broadway arrival of “Ragtime”.

In other words, the performance of “Ragtime” in New York might end up saying less about the musical’s impact on Broadway than about Broadway’s impact on the musical. Variety recently reported that another corporate newcomer to Broadway, the Walt Disney Co., has patterned its legit endeavors on its film and animation divisions, essentially using Broadway as a flagship for more lucrative ancillary income from foreign rights, licensing and merchandising.

The New York factor

“There’s no question that New York determines value on the road, foreign licensing and other opportunities for ancillary markets,” says Livent chairman Drabinsky. “It’s also clear that shows can gross prior to New York, but there’s no doubt that New York is what catapults a show” into long-term success.

The disastrous, high-profile North American debut in L.A. of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” was a blow to the city’s still-evolving profile as a significant pre-Broadway market, and Livent’s decision to give the city “Ragtime’s” U.S. bow won’t likely resolve the doubts.

Already, in the weeks since the show began Broadway previews Dec. 26 at Livent’s Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Times Square, box office in L.A. has improved, jumping from a mid-December low of $502,029 to $627,537 by the month’s end. Livent estimates that the L.A. box office will be back up to the $700,000 range in the coming weeks. (Posting a March closing notice also boosted sales.)

And while Livent had little choice but to open the show in L.A. first — construction on the company’s Ford Center, rebuilt from two side-by-side landmark theaters on 42nd Street, was only recently completed — Drabinsky credits the West Coast run with giving the creative team a chance to continue work on the show. Various scenic changes, character development and score alterations made in L.A. were incorporated as the Toronto production transferred to New York.

Livent confident

Those changes will be included in future stagings of “Ragtime.” Livent’s confidence in the show — and in the profitability of the road — is evident in nearly five years of bookings, beginning in April with a 17-week run at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. That tour will continue in two or three other cities this year, followed by another long run at an East Coast city yet to be announced. The L.A. company will play at least through March prior to a West Coast tour.

Foreign stagings of this quintessentially American tale have been announced for Australia (late 1998) and the U.K. (early ’99). With more to come.

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