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Golden Gate open to new things

Indie producers, auds put San Francisco at forefront of tryout towns

SAN FRANCISCO — If it was once a cliche of theatrical vernacular to bomb in New Haven, a bound-for-Broadway show these days is just as likely to bomb — or score — out West.

Indeed, the San Francisco Bay Area — with its regional theaters, independent commercial producers and the Carole Shorenstein Hays/Scott Nederlander Best of Broadway series — is currently the tryout area of choice for many musicals and straight plays. And that’s despite the fact that San Francisco is a notoriously expensive city.

Eve Ensler’s latest woman-centered solo show, “The Good Body,” was developed at the Bay Area’s largest nonprofit theater, American Conservatory Theater; it opens at Broadway’s Booth Theater Nov. 15.

Among musicals, chamber-sized “The Opposite of Sex” just premiered at the 160-seat Magic Theater; the children’s classic-based “The Little Princess” recently finished a run at TheaterWorks; “White Christmas,” based on the 1954 film, opens Nov. 9 at one of Shorenstein’s three downtown venues, the Curran Theater; San Francisco producer Jonathan Reinis launched “Def Poetry Jam” here. And those are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Sophisticated audiences, demographically similar to New York’s firstrun crowds; host organizations that encourage creativity; a safe distance from the New York press; economies of scale; tough local critics who nevertheless understand the developmental process; a fabled city that attracts stars — these factors all encourage the Araca Group, Dodger Stage Holding and other New York producers to test shows here.

Shorenstein and team bought “White Christmas” sight unseen, says Kevin McCollum of New York’s Producing Office. “That just doesn’t happen!” he exclaims.

“They’re more than a landlord or a subscription series. They understand that to produce you need a good presenter, because they’ve been producers themselves.” (Famously, Carole Shorenstein launched August Wilson’s “Fences” here, among others.)

McCollum raised $4 million to stage the David Ives/Paul Blake adaptation of the movie inspired by Irving Berlin’s sentimental ballad. With a large cast and 25 musicians, it plays at the 1,700-seat Curran, which McCollum calls “one of the finest theaters in America.”

“Running only eight weeks, I couldn’t possibly make back all the money I’ve invested,” McCollum says. “Yes, I could have done it cheaper elsewhere. The crew, the orchestra, of course get paid more in San Francisco. But whereas we might normally go four hours overtime (with the crew), here we can get it done (within the regular) eight hours because the crew’s so terrific. It’s only more expensive if we don’t do it right.”

Shorenstein agrees: “We’re housing people, all the encumbrances,” she says, of the finances. “But it’s enormously cost-effective because the time is spent in the creation of art.”

The Magic’s artistic director Chris Smith explains, “Midway through the run, the creative team came back out to the Bay Area and put in three brand-new songs, and a number of New York producers came out and saw the show either again or for the first time mid-run. The big secret weapon is you can afford to do that at the scale of the Magic. We are genuinely dedicated to giving birth to new work, as opposed to simply putting butts in seats. … You never know what works and doesn’t until you put it in front of auds.”

When “Wicked” opened at the Curran, co-producer Marc Platt and director Joe Mantello used local reviews as blueprints for reworking the show before its New York premiere, says Shorenstein, whose passion is supporting “new voices in American theater.” “The work that was done here made it the biggest success on Broadway,” she says.

“We’re obviously conscious of the bottom line, but we go a little below. When we hear about a project, our first comment is, ‘Is it exciting?’ — not ‘What’s the budget?'”

The Magic, a nationally known purveyor of new plays, received an enhancement — “well under half a million” — from New York interests, covering almost a third of the production costs to run the edgy “Opposite of Sex” for six weeks.

Creators Douglas Cohen and Robert Jess Roth found it easier to work without Big Apple critics lurking. (Charles Grodin’s “The Right Kind of People” opens at the Magic Nov. 20, without enhancement.)

Of the Bay Area’s geographical remoteness, TheaterWorks artistic director Robert Kelley observes, “If the critics don’t like it here, at least they won’t come back and not like it again when it comes to New York.”

And producer Reinis says, “The local press can indicate areas of weakness; intelligent criticism can be an advantage,” as on “Opposite of Sex.” “Weaknesses have been pointed out that will hopefully be corrected and it will be made into a better show.”

The suburban nonprofit theater’s house seats 600, with 10,000 subscribers, a relatively mainstream audience representative of the country at large.

“Princess,” with a 14-piece orchestra, ran four weeks and cost about $800,000, with “some” outside money: Enhancements are usually in the $100,000 range. None of TheaterWorks’ premieres has yet gone to Broadway.

The Berkeley-based Reinis relinquished his Theater on the Square in San Francisco after 20-plus years. It costs him $400,000 to $600,000 to stage a show Off Broadway, where the maximum house size is 500; at Theater on the Square he produced those same shows for the same price, but in a 730-seat space.

Often Reinis partners with local nonprofits to produce plays here, in New York and elsewhere. He brought local monologuist Josh Kornbluth’s “Love and Taxes” to Off Broadway’s Bank Street Theater recently and is now producing Kornbluth’s “Ben Franklin: Unplugged” at the Magic.

An advantage to co-producing with nonprofits is the built-in subscription aud that helps spread word of mouth early on, reducing marketing costs.

Matthew Rego, whose Araca Group launched “The Good Body” and the national tour of “Urinetown” at A.C.T. and co-produced “Wicked” at the Curran, speaks for many when he says, “Why you choose to go somewhere to try out a show is intangible. (But) it has a lot to do with relationships.”

Just as playwright Ensler chose A.C.T. to develop “Body” because she knew and liked artistic director Carey Perloff, so do producers and artists gravitate to organizations with compatible colleagues. As with so many things, it often comes down to the human connection.

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