A Chicago theater announces an intriguing revival--a somewhat
neglected modern classic by a still trendy playwright.
The artistic team is a knockout--a Chicago-bred director now
based in Hollywood, with a punky young star fleshed out by an
outstanding meat-and-potatoes ensemble.
The opening gets rave reviews. Producers and New York critics
come calling. And then the painful waiting game: Will the play
go to the Big Apple? And, when it does, will it make it there?
The ritual is agonizingly familiar, and has been played out many
times in recent years. In fact, Steppenwolf's "Buried Child" is
in the middle of it right now: Will it or won't it go? (Right
now talks are hung up with author Sam Shepard about the royalties,
and punk star Ethan Hawke has left the scene.) And will it be
Many are called, but few are chosen as hits.
If anything, Steppenwolf's worst enemy is its own expectations.
The troupe hit New York like gangbusters with "True West" and
"Balm in Gilead" more than a decade ago and achieved crowning
glory with the Tony Award-winning "The Grapes of Wrath" in the
late '80s. More recent transfers like "The Song of Jacob Zulu"
in 1993 and "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" in 1994 met with
ho-hum reaction and failed to repay investors. In contrast, Steve
Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," which began its life in
Steppenwolf's studio in 1993, opened off-Broadway last fall to
loving notices and steady audiences.
But whatever the fate of "Buried Child," its saga will take
on a certain predictability along the way: a tale of highs and
lows, nightmares and triumph. Despite the dangers, New York has
become a seductive invitation that nobody turns down.
"Ultimately, it's icing on the cake," says Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf's
artistic director. "We don't begin a production with New York
in mind, we don't ask at the outset, `Is this one a New York possible?'
We're not in the business of producing shows in New York. But
it gives us higher visibility."
Eric Simonson sums up the remarkable roller coaster ride of
remounting "The Song of Jacob Zulu" by saying, tongue only slightly
in cheek, "There is something to be said for a Tony nomination."
"The tide has turned," says Robert Falls, artistic director
of the Goodman Theatre who has met with acclaim as a New York
director in the past year ("The Rose Tattoo" and "The Food Chain")
and who plans to remount his own Goodman sensation, "The Night
of the Iguana," in March at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre. "New
York now subsists on plays nurtured in resident theaters."
On paper, the process seems simple enough. A show opens, and
for whatever reason--great reviews, the influence of the author
or actors involved, the theater company's reputation--a handful
of New York producers and critics come to town to see it.
If they like it, the producers then arrange a financial package
to pay for the transfer.
Financially, there are two primary routes a production would take
to get to New York: Either the transfer is financed by an outside
producer, who then assumes all of the monetary risk (the Shubert
Theatre Organization and others, for instance, financed the transfer
of Steppenwolf's "Grapes of Wrath"); the Chicago theater company
would get some flat fee or a percentage of the New York box office,
and perhaps a percentage of the profits--if there are any.
"We do get some money for selling or renting our original sets
and costumes, but that is sometimes the only money," says Goodman
Theatre producing director Roche Schulfer. "We also might get
a small percentage of what the author gets."
The other way, which is much less common and of course much
riskier, is for the Chicago company to pay its own way.
Once the financing is established, a complex, agonizing series
of negotiations begins a sometimes complex negotiation among the
theater, the director, the author, the producers and the New York
theater personnel over costs, casting and other details.
If the talks bear fruit, the show opens in New York. It makes
it. Or it doesn't.
"Taking a show to New York is never uncomplicated," says Michael
Gennaro, Steppenwolf's new managing director, whose previous job
as managing director at Washington's Ford's Theatre also involved
some New York transfers. "Even if the original production is wanted
in its entirety, you have to nail down when and if the director
and all the actors are available."
Falls has transferred a half-dozen shows to New York not-for-profit
theaters, but they invariably involved important cast changes.
Though an admired New York director in his own right now, "Iguana"
will be the first time Falls' major players--Cherry Jones and
William Petersen--will make the transfer with him.
And that has taken two years. "It only happened now because
Cherry won the Tony for `The Heiress,' last season," he says.
Goodman Theatre resident director David Petrarca and playwright
Wendy MacLeod fought a long, losing battle with Second Stage artistic
director Carole Rothman over the star of "Sin," which was remounted
from its Goodman Studio Theater production and played an undistinguished
eight weeks or so in New York.
"Wendy and I wanted Amy Morton to repeat her performance," Petrarca
says. "Carole didn't." But the issue wasn't the qualification
of either Morton or her eventual replacement, Kelly Coffield.
Petrarca and MacLeod saw the character as a serious player with
some funny moments. Rothman, Petrarca says, wanted an outright
comedienne, such as Coffield, a onetime Chicago actress who was
also a regular player on TV's "In Living Color."
"Carole finally threatened to cancel the whole production over
the issue, and it's hard for a writer to turn down a New York
production just over casting.
"But in retrospect I'll never compromise again," Petrarca continues.
"The integrity of the production was severely altered."
"I sometimes think it boils down to a matter of will," says
Simonson. "I was a cast member in `Grapes,' and the reviews in
Chicago were mixed. But Frank Galati, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney
and other theater heads then willed it there. They had a dream
to create a piece to go that route, and they made it happen."
That contradicts his colleague Lavey's assertion that transfer
isn't in the minds of a show's creators. Lavey concedes the whole
thing is a matter of contradictions. "Eric's right to say if the
people inside a show have an ambition for a future life, it can
prove critical. But the theater as an institution doesn't make
that decision. Then again, I can't say I'm surprised about `Buried
Child.' Gary (Sinise) brings an enormous enthusiasm. He thinks
Once out of Chicago, luck can play a vital role. "Zulu" played
here first and then went to an Australian theater festival just
prior to its New York opening.
"There wasn't enough down time when we got to New York," Simonson
says. "Everyone, myself included, suffered from jet lag." Also,
"Zulu" was a complex drama set about a well-meaning but ill-guided
South African who tosses a bomb into a shopping center.
Bad timing: A week before the troupe arrived, a real terrorist
bombing hit the World Trade Center. "I'm still not sure why we
closed as early as we did," Simonson laments. "We were doing 80
percent capacity. We announced our closing the day before Tony
Award nominations were announced, and then we got 11."
And while investors lost money, Simonson is straight-faced when
he says, "For Broadway, `Zulu' was relatively inexpensive at (a
total cost of) $1.2 million."
But there are stories of shows that get to the Big Apple that
take entirely different routes, that avoid the usual headaches
and find new ones all their own. Some Chicago companies, for instance,
do take the bull by the horns and move themselves to New York.
And to Theatre BAM's managing director Nina Lynn and the company's
own self-financed "Schoolhouse Rock Live!" transfer, Simonson's
$1.2 million is a small fortune.
Based on their long late-night and prime-time cult status beginning
here in 1993 at Cafe Voltaire, the troupe financed its own move
last summer to the off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre for just under
"It has been a struggle," she says. "First, everybody clears
out of New York on weekends in the summer. In Chicago, you usually
struggle during the week and do well on weekends. There it was
"We had a hard time getting local press. We got national press,
including `Good Morning, America,' since our show is a live version
of a classic ABC cartoon. But the New York Times wanted nothing
to do with us.
"But we expected that, and expected to live by word of mouth,
as we had here," she says. "Unfortunately, we rebounded in the
fall, but the Atlantic Theatre Company decided to mount its own
production and told us to leave."
Lynn found the New York attitude especially tough on Chicago.
"`Look,' they say, over and over, `Just 'cause you were a hit
in Chicago, don't expect to make it in New York.' You still have
to prove yourself."
Even odder, "We wanted to charge a low ticket price, but we
were told we couldn't. If we charged $10 or $12, people would
think we weren't any good. We had to charge $25."
Despite everything, Theatre BAM was persuaded to return to New
York in late November, this time at the Lambs Theatre, where the
show is still running.
One of the most extraordinary New York success stories of them
all is the gay comedy with nudity, "Party," and it inspires the
most poignant confessional. The show has been a surprise miracle
since its inception.
Says author-director David Dillon, "At no stage of the preparation
did I ever dream `Party' would be the thing that took me to New
In the fall of 1992, Bailiwick Repertory asked Dillon--an actor-producer-director
knocking about town for more than a decade--to stage a gay-themed
play. He read 30 scripts and found them "all about illness and
death and rejection and how painful it was to be gay. Nobody was
saying it could be fabulous."
He wrote his own play, it opened, and it kept getting extended.
It didn't close until New Year's Eve, 1994.
Meanwhile, Chicago producer-director Leavitt, whose New York
contacts include playwright Neil Simon, took an interest. It opened
after a year of talks last year in the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre
off-Broadway, earning a "what-a-delightful-surprise" New York
"Party" became as big a hit in New York as Chicago. The show's
still running, there's a Los Angeles company now, with plans for
Detroit and even a French translation and a movie. Dillon says
the transfer "cost way below $1 million."
Consequently, Dillon is now an established national playwright.
"I'd warn anybody, `Be careful what you wish for.' You may get
it, and it's never what you think. It has been hard. We were in
Chicago for so long, we lived as a family here. All of a sudden
we're off-Broadway, and we've become industrialized. It's a business,
no longer a group of people who love each other and care about
what they're trying to say.
"There's more pressure. There are something like six or seven
producers above the title.
uccess is strange. You don't feel it and see it as it's happening.
You're aware of it, because so many more people know your work.
But on a day to day basis, nothing changes."
More than anything, "Party" is the story of the bizarre series
of coincidences and serendipity that any move to New York--that
any show business success--involves.
"I often wonder, if just one of those 30 scripts had struck
my fancy," Dillon says. "Or if it just hadn't happened that I'd
been to a party the year before, where a bunch of us played `Truth
or Dare' (which became the plot of `Party'). It all just fell
into my lap, as if by accident."