For a while, you couldn’t get away from “Rebecca.” The on-again, off-again Broadway musical — now definitively off again — was the talk of the theater industry, with highly publicized funding roadblocks prompting the postponement of a run that was to have opened last spring.
More recently, a last-minute delay of rehearsals was followed by an “indefinite postponement” of the show in a stranger-than-fiction scenario that saw the lead producer, Ben Sprecher, fall short by $4.5 million of the show’s $12 million capitalization, due to the supposed death of an investor who may never have existed in the first place.
There is a mansion full of questions raised by the “Rebecca” debacle — such as what motivates a phantom-investor scheme? How could a producer rely on a lone stranger for more than a third of his capitalization? And when will it all inspire a plotline on “Smash”? — but there’s only one that can only be asked now that the dust has (mostly) settled:
A poll of legiters in all facets of the industry reveals that most observers believe the twice-canceled musical — replete with an FBI investigation, a vituperative anonymous email and reports of an investor-inventing middleman — is too spectacularly anomalous to have a serious effect on business as usual.
But the situation nonetheless raised a handful of new worries among some legiters, and in so doing plays up the idiosyncrasies of a Broadway landscape that one producer describes, not incorrectly, as a cottage industry of mom-and-pop LLCs.
Most obviously for those in every facet of the business, “Rebecca” underscored the importance of choosing one’s bedfellows and going into business with trusted partners.
“We’ve got to work with the small group of producers who we know can make a show happen,” says one agent about a tenpercentary’s projects that are packaged for the stage.
That heightened wariness, across the board, could make it tough for up-and-coming show-starters to break into a Broadway crowd that’s dominated by stalwarts. In the clubby world of the Main Stem, it’s still a matter of note when a new lead producer manages to shepherd a show to the Rialto: Debbie Bisno, who’s been on the producing team of other Main Stem outings, did it for the first time this season with “Grace,” and Rich Entertainment Group turned the trick with “Chaplin.” The producer of the current revival of “The Heiress,” Paula Wagner, also is new to lead producing, but she arrives on the Rialto with credibility established by her career in the film biz. (She’s also one of the producers of “Grace.”)
With the “Rebecca” story attracting some high-profile press in the Gotham media, some in the industry express concern that should another large-scale musical this season fall apart, it could make new investors even more reluctant to be part of an endeavor that has about as much chance of turning a profit as opening a restaurant.
“People are going to think twice,” says one producer. “And they’re going to want to go with the known quantity.”
The “Rebecca” collapse also foregrounded the often ad-hoc quality-assurance process undertaken by producers canvassing for new sources of money. Raising funds can involve a lot of dating, with one getting-to-know-you lunch sometimes serving as the most in-depth intro to an investor who could become a colleague for as long as a hit show runs.
“It’s such a loosey-goosey business, and there’s no real vetting process,” says one producer. “The next thing you know, you’re in business with a shyster.”
That producer adds that, in investment papers, there’s a box backers can check stipulating that their money can be used only once the entirety of capitalization costs have been raised. “Will ‘Rebecca’ make more people say, ‘I’m checking that damn box?’ ”
Other producers worry that theater owners, vendors and other colleagues might start asking for more coin upfront to guard against being left holding the bag, should a project fall through. That happens already, judging by some of the people polled — bizzers ask for more in advance from folks they don’t work with regularly than they do from the usual suspects.
A small industry that can make a lot of money in success, Broadway has always been an insular place. With “Rebecca” further encouraging many to throw in with the experienced vet rather than the newbie, it could prove even harder to break in to that Rialto club than it has in the past.