A new kind of habit

Regional theaters join in on 'Act'

For the new musical “Sister Act,” a holy alliance has developed between two not-for-profits — as well as with outside commercial investors. They’re hoping the tuner could have a born-again (and again) life beyond its sibling stages.

Bowing first at Southern California’s 672-seat Pasadena Playhouse Nov. 3 and then at Atlanta’s 770-seat Alliance Jan. 17, the show, based on the 1992 hit film of the same name, boasts several names that signal the co-production could sing on in some form — and even find a front pew on the Rialto.

But even with the best of brand names and the longtime relationships among the producing partners, there are still B.O. risks involved when not-for-profits combine their big-show budgets that then become supersized with big-name talent — and dollars.

Former Disney topper Peter Schneider is the driving force behind the project, helming the show and, along with creative supervisor Michael Reno, securing outside producing coin. Tuner also marks composer Alan Menken’s return to his legit roots, this time with lyricist Glenn Slater.

Having high-profile hyphenate Sheldon Epps as Playhouse a.d. has made the theater a tuner-friendly home. And Susan Booth, his counterpart at the Alliance, has proved Atlanta, too, can join cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. when it comes to new tuner hubs.

Indeed, the Alliance has emerged as the theatrical star of the South. Going back to the ’90s with the bow of “Aida,” the 38-year-old theater more recently produced the world preem of “The Color Purple.” Now with “Sister Act” following up its California run with an Atlanta stint, the theater has positioned itself as a player — or at least a competitor — for Gotham-bound shows.

Alliance also has shown itself to be adept at dealing with a variety of producing templates, ranging from the corporate behemoth of a Disney (“Aida,” during Schneider’s Mouse tenure) to independent commercial producers Scott Sanders (“Purple”) and David Stone (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which launched its tour in Atlanta in August) as well as co-production arrangements like that for “Sister Act.”

Schneider, now an indie helmer and producer, pitched the project to Epps — sans script and songs — after securing the rights from Disney to adapt the Touchstone film, which grossed more than $200 million worldwide.

The film, scripted by Joseph Howard, starred Whoopi Goldberg as a Reno lounge singer on the lam who hides out in a convent, where she shakes things up as the new choir director. “Cheers” scribes Cheri and Bill Steinkellner penned the stage adaptation. Dawnn Lewis (TV’s “A Different World”) stars as the nun in hiding.

“I thought it was an idea that was thoroughly right,” says Epps. “I nearly leapt across the table to say, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ ”

But the scope of the show — it has a cast of 20 — and the developmental process Schneider wanted necessitated a second theater partner with a similarly sized proscenium stage, a city that would have a receptive audience and an institution with a history of working on musicals with commercial attachments.

When asked why he chose Atlanta for his second stop, Schneider says, “I love the theater. I love its compatible size. And they said yes.”

“We’ve got a good track record now as a good place to develop new pieces,” says Booth, who has headed the theater for the past four years. She hustled to get the Georgia-set “Purple” to her theater and extended a welcome when “Sister” came calling.

“Susan was tenacious about wanting to bring the show to Atlanta,” says Sanders, who says he had close to a 50/50 split in the Alliance “Purple” production’s costs, which he estimates to be $1.5 million.

“She believed in the show way before we knew what we had and long before Oprah (Winfrey) became involved.”

“This new hybrid — co-productions with enhancement money — is what we’re exploring now,” says Thomas Pechar, managing director of the Alliance. “The two theaters could not do this alone, not on this scope. ‘Sister Act’ is a big musical of ‘Color Purple’ size.”

(Producing parties were mum on the budget for the new tuner and the developmental participation deal.)

The co-production leaders say there is a financial ceiling — typically that of the “big” show of a season — which they exceed at their own peril. If more money is required, it must come from other sources.

But the rewards can be many, including royalty checks, new audiences and buzz that can translate into a PR bonanza if the show is a hit.

Pechar declines to give specific numbers, but estimates the theater received six figures to $1 million from “Aida.” (The theater shared only in its Broadway and London productions and not in the subsidiary rights beyond that, he says.)

Pechar also nixed the specifics of the “Purple” numbers (a more traditional deal for the developing theater, he says). Broadway grosses have so far shown the tuner to be the color green: Despite mixed reviews, it regularly plays to 85%-100% capacity and is grossing $900,000 to $1 million-plus weekly. A long national tour is expected to keep checks coming for several more years.

But it’s difficult to say what the cumulative effect of high-priced musicals on the not-for-profits is with all the inherent risks of flopping at the local B.O. The Alliance, which has an $11 million operating budget, has balanced the last three of its four budgets and eliminated the $2 million debt that greeted Booth and Pechar upon arrival.

But the endowment hasn’t budged from $7 million and the subscription base, now at 13,000, hasn’t grown dramatically, either. However, Pechar says a show like “Purple” may have at least stemmed the decline that many regionals have experienced in the last five years.

“Everyone is happy how ‘Color Purple’ turned out, but it would have all been a bad dream had the show not done what it had done,” says Pechar.

Sanders adds that successful partnerships come with a long list of provisos.

“You have to be working with an organization that knows how to develop work with an already attached producer, general manager and creative team.”

And the future of “Sister Act”? After the co-productions, will it go out with a bang or a whimper?

“There’s going to be a lot of attention on the show,” says Epps. “But I think the focus now is to get the best production for Pasadena and Atlanta. For now, we’re going to keep our eye on this particular prize.”

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