Theater duo thrives with ‘Hedwig’

Stein and Dietz stake claim to local legit

HOLLYWOOD — In the high-stakes gamble that is theatrical producing, Joan Stein and Susan Dietz have managed to make their Beverly Hills-based Canon Theatricals seemingly foolproof. The energy currently swirling about their offices may be attributable to their opening of the Off Broadway musical smash “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Hollywood’s Henry Fonda Theatre. The show is sold out until January, a good sign for the unpredictable local theater scene.

“We’ve reconfigured it to be a 499-seat house,” says Stein of the Fonda, adding with a measure of pride, “and it’s working.”

After nearly two years at Greenwich Village’s Jane Street Theatre, “Hedwig” has arrived on the West Coast, critically acclaimed for being outrageously imaginative and dramatically powerful. Michael Cerveris (“The Who’s Tommy,” “Titanic”) essays the role of the East German transsexual, transplanted in America with broken heart, ambiguous gender but an indefatigable rock ‘n’ roll spirit.

David Bowie is a major investor in the L.A. production, and both he and Canon are utilizing their Internet Web sites to market to a younger, nontraditional theater audience.

Admittedly, Dietz and Stein have their busy hands in TV and film, as well as general management and marketing services for other theatrical productions. But Stein’s eyes twinkle behind her glasses when asked about her theater career high point: She holds aloft briefly but proudly the recent Tony Award as a producer of Warren Leight’s play “Sideman.”

She also notes the runaway success of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” Her co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre went from L.A. to New York to San Francisco and then on a national tour.

The equally effervescent Dietz has, like her counterpart, two decades of producing to her credit, as well as a Drama-Logue Lifetime Achievement Award. While artistic director of the L.A. Stage Co. at the former Las Palmas Theatre, she was responsible for hits including Christopher Durang’s “Sister Mary Ignatius” and Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine.”

Dietz also held the same position at the Pasadena Playhouse, covering two theaters and four seasons.

It was destiny — or perhaps higher education — that brought these two women together. In 1983, Stein, then running the Berkshire Theatre Festival, had as the head of her education department a woman who was Dietz’s college roommate; The woman who ran the marketing department for Dietz and L.A. Stage was Stein’s college roommate.

Their friendship became a partnership when Stein moved to California in 1990 with the rights to A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” It did so well at Pasadena Playhouse’s smaller Balcony Theatre that they decided to move it to the Canon Theatre. Despite intentionally changing celebrity casts with terrifying frequency, the show ran for two years.

“We were also spending all our time on the telephone with one another,” Stein explains.

“And in the car, driving back and forth, and it just didn’t make any sense,” Dietz adds.

“And we thought at least we could reduce our phone bill,” Stein chimes in.

“Stay in the same building,” Dietz finishes.

While Dietz has had the lease on the 382-seat venue since 1983, there has been a yearly threat of its demise. The owner is considering a mixed-use development of stores, restaurants and a movie multiplex.

“We’re in a little bit of a no man’s land here,” Dietz contends, presumably with no pun intended. “Not unlike what Paula Holt is going through in (West) Hollywood with the Tiffany.”

“She has a bottle of Pepto Bismol on her desk,” Stein volunteers about her partner.

“And it’s not because I like the color pink, either,” contends Dietz, who recalls the days when a positive Los Angeles Times review could mean a guaranteed year run for shows like “Sister Mary Ignatius” or the late Dick Shawn’s “The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World.”

“Now,” Dietz rues, “you have to fight for every ticket you sell.”

Ironically, Dietz’s greatest success was her greatest disappointment. Her production of the musical “Mail” at the Pasadena Playhouse went to Broadway. But the budget also went sky-high, from $250,000 to $2.5 million and the run was short.

“I stood in the back of the house and felt like Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?” she recalls.

There is much more. Canon Theatricals plans a one-man show early next year on the life of rock music impresario Bill Graham, with Ron Silver starring and a soundtrack which, Dietz says, serves as “another character.” Stein and Dietz will co-produce an all-male “Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” at the Tiffany and screenwriter-director Neil Labute’s “Bash: Latterday Plays” is slated for 16 performances beginning Nov. 27 at the Canon.

Stein summarizes the passion that has overtaken her life and her producing partner’s with: “Theater reflects the time in which we live and shows us where we’re going. It is everything.”