Friday, November 28, 2008

Manipulative Minds At Work

With the economy in dire straits -- and ominous signs that a commercial real estate bubble is about to burst -- what can we learn from the impending bankruptcy of shopping malls across America and the recent death of Gerald Schoenfield? Hired in 1957 at the age of 32 by The Shubert Organization, Schoenfeld was responsible for much of the maintenance and operation of the Shubert theaters.  He helped the organization survive the blight which hit Broadway in the mid 1960s and, from the 1970s on was a major force in the economic turnaround of Times Square's Theater District.

Schoenfeld, who is credited with helping to solidify a strong business foundation for the revitalized Shubert empire, insisted that city government understand the value of Broadway's theaters as an economic engine (a philosophy which has been proven in numerous studies subsequently conducted by regional arts organizations). Having introduced computerized ticket sales to what had, for many years, been an industry handicapped by small-time operators and inane traditions, he soon added links to ticket outlets in other cities. The fact that on-line ticketing for so many shows has become so easy is due, in large part, to the fact that The Shubert Organization now owns and operates Tele-Charge.

Theatrical investments are a form of high-risk real estate speculation.  Although The Shubert Organization had always owned the largest number of legitimate theaters in the Times Square district, Broadway's economic downturn led to the loss of some historic venues.  The Morosco and Helen Hayes theaters were razed to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel (which now houses the Marquis Theater). With its ornate lobby and winding staircase, the beautiful Mark Hellinger Theater (which hosted the original productions of Plain and Fancy, My Fair Lady, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Illya, Darling, Coco, Dear World, and Sugar Babies) was sold to the Times Square Church.

Starting in the 1970s, The Shubert Organization took a more active role investing in shows which had the potential for long runs, and competing with the Jujamcyn and Nederlander theater chains for prospective tenants.  The Shubert Organization also had a unique capacity to open a hit show and, when convenient, move it to another one of its profitable properties.  One need only look at some of The Shubert Organization's anchor venues to see how theatrical longevity translates into steady profits.

Since the 1960s, the Winter Garden Theater has been home to The Unsinkable Molly Brown (532 performances), Funny Girl (2 years), Mame (3 years and 5 months), Follies (522 performances), Cats (7,485 performances), and Mamma Mia! (nearly 3,000 performances).

The Imperial has been home to Oliver, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Zorba, nearly five years of Pippin, They're Playing Our Song (1,082 performances),  Dreamgirls (1,521 performances), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (608 performances), Jerome Robbins' Broadway (633 performances), nearly three years of Les Miserables, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (627 performances).  Its newest tenant is Billy Elliot, a hit musical that can be expected to stay put for several years.

The Majestic's long-run tenants have included transfers from other Shubert-owned theaters of Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, A Little Night Music and 42nd Street (for six years),  as well as such long runs as Golden Boy (568 performances), Sugar (505 performances), and more than two years of The Wiz.  Its current tenant, The Phantom of the Opera, has been there for more than 20 years and will soon pass the 8,700-performance mark.

The Shubert has hosted The Apple Tree (463 performances), Promises, Promises (1,281 peformances), A Chorus Line (6,137 performances),  Crazy For You (1,622 performances), six years of the long-running revival of Chicago and more than 1,500 performances of Spamalot.

Compare this track record to that of a Broadway theater with a great location but surprisingly less profitability.  Originally built in 1910 as the Globe Theater, after serving many years as a movie house, it was purchased by City Playhouses in 1957, beautifully restored and reopened as the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1957.  In 1959, the Lunt-Fontanne became the home of the original production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.  

During the 1960s, however,  it housed a series of mediocre musicals including Julie Harris in Skyscraper (248 performances), Sid Caesar in Little Me (257 performances),  Tony Roberts in How Now, Dow Jones (220 performances),  Norman Wisdom in Walking Happy (161 performances), and Robert Preston in Ben Franklin in Paris (215 performances).  

There were also some notorious flops: Come Summer (one week), Lionel Bart's La Strada starring Bernadette Peters (which closed after one performance), Look to the Lillies (25 performances), the execrable Her First Roman (starring Leslie Uggams as Cleopatra), and Bertolt Brecht's The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (8 performances). Two separate productions of Shakespeare's Hamlet starred Richard Burton (1964) and Nicol Williamson (1969).

After the theater was acquired by the Nederlander chain in 1973, more profitable shows started to get booked into the Lunt-Fontanne. Peter Pan ran for 554 performances, Sophisticated Ladies for 767 performances, Catskills on Broadway for 453 performances, Titanic for 804 performances, and Beauty and the Beast held forth for nearly six years.

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On Saturday, I attended the opening performance of 42nd Street Moon's production of Ben Franklin in Paris.  Having seen the original Broadway production at the Lunt-Fontanne more than 40 years ago, I was curious to see how it would hold up.  Not as badly as I suspected, not as well as one might have hoped.

Jackson Davis and Stephanie Rhoads (Photo by David Allen)

The original production followed the classic formula for a Broadway musical of its time. Get a proven box office star (Robert Preston), find some reason to put him onstage (who hasn't heard of Benjamin Franklin?), dress everyone in period costumes, and throw in some novelty dance numbers. Put an appealing kid onstage, mix and stir with some dancing monks, get all the men drunk and work some of Franklin's most famous sayings into the script.

What's not to love?  You'd be surprised.

Although Preston was a much beloved Broadway star -- a thoroughly competent film and stage actor noted for having the best diction two octaves south of Julie Andrews -- even his proven stage presence could not anchor such a lightweight vehicle. Ulla Sallert's rendition of a French accent was, for the most part, unintelligible.  The plot seemed forced, to say the least. As shaky as its Act I hot air balloon ride, Ben Franklin In Paris ended up going down in Broadway history as one of those curiously/spuriously conceived "why?" musicals.

Jackson Davis and David Kahawaii (Photo by David Allen)

In the 42nd Street Moon production Jackson Davis worked hard to bring out the joi de vivre in a Ben Franklin who was addled by gout and desperate to win his country's recognition from France.  Although Stephanie Rhoads made the Countess Diane de Vobrillac's romantic intentions more playful and understandable, she could not create enough spark in the character to make the audience really care about the Countess's relationship with Franklin.  Andrew Willis-Woodward did some nice work as Franklin's nephew, Temple, with Jennifer Ekman warbling sweetly as his love interest, Janine.

As most Broadway buffs now know, two of the strongest songs written for Ben Franklin in Paris were actually "ghosted" by Jerry Herman. "To Be Alone With You" stands so far above the rest of Mark Sandrich, Jr.'s music and lyrics that it is almost embarrassing. Sandrich's best songs ("Look For Small Pleasures," "Half The Battle," and "Hic Haec Hoc" remain tuneful, if minimally developed musical numbers.

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A more fully-developed piece of work was to be found in No Parole (Family Is A Life Sentence), the entertaining one-man spectacle being presented by The Marsh in which Carlo d'Amore explores his difficult relationship with his mother (who could easily give Rose Hovick a run for her money in the world championship competition for dysfunctional parenting).

Mr. d'Amore is a short, wiry, and extremely appealing actor with the kind of hyper intensity you might expect to get if you cross-bred a Hispanic Jeremy Piven with the Energizer Bunny. His mother was a life-long con artist who never let the bars of a prison cell get in the way of running a scam -- a woman with the lovably delusional eccentricities of Auntie Mame combined with the ruthlessness of a Chinese girl scout trying to sell more cookies than anyone else in town.

Photo by Michael Owen

As her beloved Carlito describes his growth from a wide-eyed little Peruvian boy (who adores his overly-dramatic mother's Anna Magnini-style histrionics) into a professional actor who must care for his incapacitated mother in his illegally-rented New York apartment after she has suffered a  stroke, one marvels at the precision of his craft, the deftness of his timing, and the ferociousness of the tale he is telling.  It's easy to empathize with d'Amore as he describes his angry confrontation with his addled mother (who, even with her disability, is still running scams) as he looks into her teary eyes and hears her ask if he's angry at her because she used her intelligence for bad things.

I doubt Mr. d'Amore ever expected to hear his mother described as an inherently more stageworthy character than Benjamin Franklin.  But No Parole offers audiences a highly skilled portrait of a complex and damaged soul by someone whose personal life has been riotously funny, profoundly painful, and at times, achingly pathetic -- an artist who has managed to take what he knows about in life and turn it into an entertaining, challenging, and deeply moving piece of theater. Don't miss it!

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