Elephant projects already in the works

CHICAGO — Bankrolled in part by a quintet of product-hungry indie presenters, producers Stuart Oken and Mike Leavitt have set up a new Chi-based theatrical development production company under the moniker Elephant Eye Theatrical. Aim is to develop new, big-scale book musicals for Broadway and then deliver same to the nonprofit arts centers footing some of the bills.

Three Elephant Eye projects already are in the works. All three have big names attached and apparent commercial viability.

David Henry Hwang is penning “Bruce Lee: Journey to the West,” a tuner combining Lee’s bio story with the mythic Chinese journey of the Monkey King. Matthew Warchus is onboard to direct an international cast of collaborators.

Director Taylor Hackford is developing “1968,” about one Berkeley family during this famously tumultuous year. Margaret Nagle (HBO’s “Warm Springs”) is penning the book.

And “Beauty Sleeping” is a new Jeanine Tesori/Tina Landau fractured fairy-tale collaboration based on the Landau play of the same name.

Oken, who spent nine years developing shows for Disney Theatrical Prods., has an enviable Rolodex, which likely produced most of these names. And Leavitt has a long history of producing — from the movie “About Last Night” to Broadway tuner “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Both men are based in Chicago.

Oken is also co-developing other new (and less commercial) musicals via a nonprofit venture at Northwestern U. in neighboring Evanston, Ill. The two projects are separate — but may dovetail in the future, if shows break out.

Still, the pair say they don’t plan to transfer shows from other institutions nor invest money in other people’s projects. They intend to take shows from scratch to Broadway. And they say they already have money from private investors in place to do so.

“This is a development and lead producing company,” says Oken. “We hope to do a Broadway show about every two years.”

Oken and Leavitt also say Elephant Eye planned to fund at least 10% of any production itself — before going to outside investors as needed. They’ve sold their deal based on their own resumes and on the chance to own a piece of a lead production company with the potential for greater returns than merely investing in someone else’s show.

From the point of view of the nonprofit partners — a group that includes the Bushnell Center in Hartford, Conn., the Wang Center in Boston, the Ordway Center in St. Paul, Minn., the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and a joint investment from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Pittsburgh CLO — Elephant Eye is a way to expand on the Independent Presenters Network collaborations, to guarantee product for subscription seasons and also participate materially in a Broadway production.

Each has invested $500,000 over five years in the new venture — providing Leavitt and Oken with a useful but hardly definitive $2.5 million in total funding. Oken and Leavitt took their pitch to various hinterland parties — and, apparently, they impressed the locals with their prospects.

“This is like buying a piece of Mick and Stuart,” says David R. Fay, president and CEO of the Bushnell. “It was not a hard sell to the board.”

Fay says future plans call for involving other nonprofit independent presenters in Elephant Eye, albeit at a reduced level of participation.

“I know how much shows like this cost,” Oken says. “We intend to take the time and the money and do it right.”

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