Legit exec's successful run began with 'Angels' Tonys

After a long tenure marked by both outstanding artistic success and persistent questions about financial responsibility and management style, Public Theater topper George C. Wolfe is leaving his post at the end of next season.

Wolfe, 49, exits one of the highest-profile positions in New York theater after more than 10 years. He took over as the artistic chief of the theater (his technical title is producer) in 1993. He is only the third artistic leader in the theater’s history, after Joseph Papp, its legendary founder; and JoAnne Akalaitis, who took over briefly when Papp retired.

Wolfe and other execs at the Public could not be reached for comment, but the move was called an “amicable mutual decision” by an exec involved with the theater.

Wolfe’s reign at the theater began on a high note. In the year he was hired, he won a Tony for directing the first part of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which was produced on Broadway in association with the theater. The two parts of Kushner’s “Angels” won a total of seven Tonys.

During Wolfe’s tenure, the Public would garner much acclaim for his productions, which included the long-running musical review “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,” for which Wolfe won a second Tony for directing; Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” which won a Pulitzer Prize; and “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” which won one Tony. Wolfe directed all of those shows. The Public also transferred last year’s winner of the play Tony, Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out.”

Talk of conflict

Indeed, Wolfe’s status as both the artistic chief of the theater and one of its most frequent directors often raised eyebrows. Some complained that attention and resources at the theater tended to be focused on Wolfe’s productions. In recent seasons, complaints had also been heard that the theater, which houses several performing spaces, had produced far fewer shows than under Papp’s tenure.

Other speed-bumps during Wolfe’s tenure included the quick exit of Fran Reiter, who was hired in November 2000 as exec director to run the theater alongside Wolfe and left after less than a year, telling the New York Times she believed the “management structure … wasn’t working.” The company’s current exec director is Mara Manus.

But the most controversial aspect of Wolfe’s tenure, which threatened to overshadow his many artistic successes, was the accusation that he had been profligate with the theater’s funds in reference to two Broadway productions that flopped: the 1998 revival of “On the Town” and the 2000 Michael John LaChiusa musical “The Wild Party.” Wolfe directed both those shows, too.

Wolfe originally produced “On the Town” as part of one of the theater’s celebrated summer seasons in Central Park. When partners for a transfer to Broadway failed to materialize (or backed out), the Public produced the show itself. It ran for just 69 perfs.

The Public also was a producer on “Wild Party,” and Wolfe was criticized for pumping the theater’s money into the show to keep it open after it got mixed to negative reviews. (Producer Scott Rudin ended his participation.) The Public reportedly lost a total of nearly $10 million on those two flops.

Also brought in bucks

But in recent seasons, the theater bounced back with the Stritch show, “Topdog” and “Take Me Out” adding to its coffers as well as its artistic luster — although the Public Theater was not the lead producer on Broadway transfers of those shows. In a recent Los Angeles Times piece, Wolfe claimed that profits to the theater from “Bring in Da Noise,” “Take Me Out” and a production of “The Tempest” starring Patrick Stewart contributed $7.5 million to the theater.

The Public — and Wolfe — will have another show on Broadway this season, when “Caroline, or Change,” the new musical with a book by Kushner, and directed by Wolfe, opens in the spring after a sellout run at the Public that ended last month.

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