NEW YORK — A hit play, an Off Broadway theater under construction and an impressive slate of new productions all marked the Shubert Organization’s 100th anniversary this year.
Claudia Shear’s “Dirty Blonde,” directed by James Lapine, debuted on Broadway in May to much acclaim.
Last June, construction began on the Shubert’s 499-seat legit venue on West 42nd Street. And when the $9 million theater is completed in May 2002, it will open with the world premiere of a play commissioned by the org.
“When I get the script in hand, I’ll be able to announce it,” Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld said of the mystery play. “I don’t like to tout something in advance.”
Schoenfeld’s producing bent seems more Broadway bound. Under the auspices of the Shubert Org., Lapine recently helmed an English-translation reading of Michel Legrand’s new musical “Le Passe Muraille,” which Schoenfeld described as about “a man who walks through walls.”
Richard Greenberg is doing an adaptation of Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death.” There are also plans for a Gotham production of “Le Visiteur” by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.
“And the rights are being negotiated on another foreign play,” Schoenfeld said, although he won’t reveal which one at the moment. “It’s taken me four years to get those rights,” he said.
Most audacious, perhaps, are his plans for another version of “Chess,” the Tim Rice/Richard Nelson musical that failed on Broadway in 1988.
Schoenfeld doesn’t call himself a sentimentalist, but he does admit, “I never got ‘Chess’ out of my system.”
Producing has always been an on-again/off-again affair for the Shubert Org.
Back when the Shubert brothers Lee and J.J. virtually controlled New York theater thanks to their lock on legit real estate, their final foray as producers came abruptly in October 1948 with an outdated operetta, Sigmund Romberg’s “My Romance,” which ran for fewer than 100 performances at their flagship Shubert Theater. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called it “pretentious fiddle-faddle.”
Eventually the business went into the red and by 1972, when Schoenfeld and Jacobs wrested it away from Lawrence Shubert Lawrence, an alcoholic grandnephew of the brothers, the Shubert Org. had lost $2 million, with over half its 17 theaters empty.
So much for the power of real estate. The Shubert theaters needed some very compelling entertainment to fill those houses.
Between October 1972 and July 1975, Schoenfeld and Jacobs, who died in 1996, found what they needed in three hits: “Pippin,” “Equus” and then the big one, “A Chorus Line.” Soon, the Shubert Org. was back producing its own shows.
“Sam Cohn walked in one day and said Bob Fosse wanted to do a musical with just dancing,” Schoenfeld recalled, thinking back to 1976, when the Shubert Org. was finally back in the black. Barely. “Sam asked if we would do it. We said yes.”
The result was “Dancin’,” which opened in 1978 and played 1,774 shows on Broadway.
About this time, Peter Shaffer had written a play about Mozart and his rival Salieri that Schoenfeld and Jacobs thought had real possibilities.
“But we hadn’t worked with Shaffer before,” Schoenfeld said. “Being British, he wanted the world premiere to be at the National Theater in London.”
The Shuberts settled for the American rights and a New York debut of “Amadeus” at their Broadhurst Theater, produced in conjunction with Elizabeth I. McCann, Nelle Nugent and Roger Berlind.
In 1986, legendary entertainment lawyer Floria Lasky revealed that Jerome Robbins was interested in re-creating his choreography from “On the Town,” “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” among several others he had helmed.
He made “no commitment whatsoever to make a Broadway show out of it,” said Schoenfeld. “Would we support that? Yes, we would.”
The Shubert chairman estimates it cost $1 million — in 1980s’ dollars — to pay for the six months of research to re-create the Robbins dances. When the fabled choreographer finally agreed to turn his research into a show, “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” it cost another $6 million, according to Schoenfeld.
New producing arm
In the mid-1990s, the Shubert Org. pumped up its producing arm, adding a creative projects department, with Dessie Moynihan at its helm.
“I’ve been in this position about four years,” said Moynihan. “There was no predecessor. These activities went on, but it was Gerry and Bernie and (current president) Phil Smith who took care of them. We decided we really needed to have a department devoted solely to looking at material for us to produce and co-produce.”
While “Dirty Blonde” was developed from scratch by the Shuberts, the organization has helped to transfer other not-for-profit theater productions to Off Broadway commercial venues.
Moynihan pointed out prime examples: ” ‘Stupid Kids’ premiered at WPA and we were one of the producers to move it to the Century Theater. Same with ‘Nixon’s Nixon,’ first done at MCC and we helped move it to the Westside Theater downtown.”
Schoenfeld added: “We were never averse to Off Broadway. We were one of the producers of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at the Orpheum. For a certain kind of material, Off Broadway is an economic alternative. There is a change in the theater. The mega hits are not on the horizon, with the exception of ‘Mamma Mia!,’ ” due next fall in the Winter Garden, a Shubert theater.
In 1995, Lapine moved his office to the Shubert building on West 44th Street. Although not a member of the creative projects department, he began to develop projects to be produced by the Shuberts. “I really don’t know what my title is here,” he remarked recently. “They give me an office. Ask Gerry for me, will you?”
Lapine’s first Shubert-related production was his book for the Stephen Sondheim musical “Passion,” in 1994. His 1995 musical “Muscle,” written in collaboration with composer William Finn and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh, is also in development here, with a production to come at a regional theater in the near future.
“In the past, the Shuberts were more involved with picking up projects from elsewhere,” Lapine said. “I think there has been more of an emphasis recently on developing works from the ground up, like ‘Dirty Blonde.’ “