Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Los Angeles, the New Broadway?

If you want to see a Broadway show, go to LA. Okay, you can beat me now for those blasphemous words. We all know LA is a movie town and nobody here cares about theater, except if you're an actor and you want to do Hamlet as a showcase in a 99 seat plan theater so casting directors can come see you - which they never do. But...

The Center Theatre Group, which runs the Ahmanson, Kirk Douglas and Mark Taper Theaters here in LA, just announced they will be doing not one but TWO original musicals this season with an eye toward taking them to Broadway. Previously discussed here, 9 to 5 with music and lyrics written by Dolly Parton, and now Minsky's, the new title of the Charles Strouse-Susan Birkenhead musical comedy once known as The Night They Raided Minsky's. (see Playbill article here). Factoid, Casey Nicholaw and I did Scarlet Pimpernel together.

These are just the latest editions of The West Coast Broadway Pipeline. Curtains started at the Ahmanson, as did The Drowsy Chaperone. And just drive south on the 405 for a bit to La Jolla Playhouse where they gave birth to Cry-Baby (Braodway bound in 2008), The Farnsworth Invention, Jersey Boys, 700 Sundays, Throughly Modern Millly, Jane Eyre, The Who's Tommy and many others.

Oh and drive just a bit further down the 405 to The Old Globe where they premiered A Catered Affair, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, The Times They Are A-Changin', Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and The Full Monty, among others...

So what is it about LA or Southern California for that matter? Are original musicals or plays suddenly in the drinking water? Has all the New York talent moved to the beach for the weather? Yes, and no.

Dig just a bit further and you'll see the real reason why all of these Broadway shows are coming from the regions - Regional theaters are the only game in their respective towns. On any given night in New York, there must be at least 20 Broadway shows, 30 off-Broadway shows and every other media attraction that all the major cities have like movies, dining, etc. However, most of the New York theater shows have single producing entities that don't mitigate risk with investment over multiple shows. It's like a bunch of mom and pop shops, each having to compete against all odds.

Not LA. Everyone in LA knows that if you're going to go to the theater and if it is not at the Ahmanson or perhaps the Geffen, odds are it is NOT going to be good. And when I say NOT good, I mean, it will probably SUCK. Not always and I love it when I am pleasantly surprised, but odds are pretty good it will be pretty bad. So that leaves CTG as the only game in town, and this town has some serious money. So the money goes to the CTG in the form of subscribers. They know the shows will be well funded and produced (if not necessarily good) so they pay the price for the guarantee.

The other important characteristic about the surrounding environs of these theaters is they are in uber-affluent regions loaded with people with lots of money. I did not say these folks are foolhearty enough to throw some money into a show and roll the dice. No, these folks are the ones who have made very good livings in the non arts world (where else), who can actually afford to buy subscriptions series tickets and then fill in that seldom used line on the form that says "additional amount to support the theater." Not only do they add a bit of extra on that line, they also bring their friends as their guests and frequent the restaurants and bars either in or around the theater. These folks are worth their weight in GOLD.

These subscribers and art angels are the reason CTC, The Old Globe and La Jolla can produce and fully fund 1 out of 8 or so productions that they mount. The annual budget for CTG last year was somewhere around $32M, for The Old Globe revenues reached nearly $38M and for La Jolla, revenues were around $10M. The subscribers are the folks that contribute the most to those figures and each of them are happy to see the standard road tours that come through each of these houses (already vetted on Broadway) but they are even more happy when one of their original shows becomes the next hit on Broadway.

All I can say about this, is God bless 'em. Without these angels, we would see nothing but mermaids, dancing plates and singing lions on the stages of what used to be the Mecca for Theater Arts. Now it is often just a road stop for productions envisioned and created elsewhere.

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