Chicago Tribune
Sunday, January 28, 1996
By Sid Smith
  
NEW YORK OR BUST: DESPITE RISKS, BIG APPLE TEMPTS MANY CHICAGO THEATERS
 

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 successful?

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 big."

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 $100,000.

"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 the reverse.

"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 York."

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 Times review.

"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.

Yet...

"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."

 


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