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‘Beauty’ bows in Russia

Mellon Foundation hands out grants

When Disney tuner “Beauty and the Beast” opened in Moscow in October, some legiters might have been inclined to think: Really? Russia?

After all, the expanding market of the moment is China, with plenty of talk along the Rialto about cross-cultural productions and growing the nation’s performing arts infrastructure. (Broadway gets its first Chinese import, “The Soul of Shaolin,” early next year.)

On the other hand, not much attention has been focused on Russki growth potential. But it’s there — or at least it could be.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a top priority, but in those emerging markets, it’s up there right behind Asia,” says Ron Kollen, senior VP of international affairs at Disney Theatrical Prods.

For its first steps into the motherland, Disney followed the lead of Stage Entertainment, the Euro production company that licenses Disney shows abroad and is backing the Moscow incarnation.

“I would call the musical market in Russia a virgin market,” says Dmitry Bogachev, managing director of Stage Entertainment Russia.

According to Bogachev, Western-style tuners have been around in Russia really only since 2001. Some, like “42nd Street,” have proved too American to catch on.

“But there are some universal products,” Bogachev notes. Like, for instance, Abba: Stage’s production of “Mamma Mia!” ran in Moscow for 19 months.

“Beauty” also is doing well, logging a record-breaking advance of 50,000 ticket sales, Bogachev says. He hopes the show will play until summer, then tour to two or three other cities in Russia before maybe swinging back for a second season in Moscow.

The musical is helped along by the fact that Russian auds, like American ones, are extremely familiar with the 1991 animated pic on which “Beauty” is based. (Possibly from pirated DVDs, but still…)

Stage also had a sense of the potential going in, after conducting surveys and telephone polls to gauge what might attract the country’s theatergoers. After all, Russia may have more of a Euro influence than Asia, but there’s still something of a cultural divide.

“Before the ’80s, we had a different level of information,” Bogachev says. “There was an iron curtain, and some things were behind it.”

 

Meanwhile, as the economy collapses, the Mellon Foundation is handing out cash.

OK, that’s maybe an exaggeration. But over the last several weeks, as most legit news has focused on the potentially dire fallout of a global fiscal crisis, several stories have cropped up in which the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded major sums to performing arts orgs all over the country.

There’s the array of grants, ranging from $400,000 to $1 million each, handed out to playwright development companies and theaters such as New Dramatists and Minneapolis’ Playwrights’ Center. There’s the Mellon-funded creation of a new salaried position, the master writer chair, at the Public Theater. Oh, also the $2 million that went to Playwrights Horizons for the development of new tuners.

It’s mostly an accident of timing, says Diane Ragsdale, the foundation’s associate program officer for the performing arts. The philanthropic org had committed to most of these initiatives months before the economic sky began falling.

Theaters always are among the companies to receive multi-year funding from the foundation, which doles out about $28 million to performing arts orgs in an average annum, according to Ragsdale. This year many of the projects to receive coin aim to redefine the existing infrastructures of legit institutions and creative development.

Still, it does seem a bit like the foundation, which gets its cash from interest earned off the unimaginably huge Mellon fortune, has nothing to fear from the current economic situation.

It’s true there’s nothing traumatic on the horizon. “But we all anticipate budgets will tighten, including ours,” Ragsdale says.

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