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A Tony Awards round table with L.A.-area theater leaders

Tony Awards
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The Tony Awards, airing Sunday night on CBS, mark the official end of the Broadway season. To get the West Coast view on the Broadway year, I sat down with four leaders of the area's most prominent theaters: Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie, the Pasadena Playhouse's Sheldon Epps, the Geffen Playhouse's Randall Arney and (via Skype) South Coast Repertory's Marc Masterson. This discussion, which has been distilled and edited, took place in a rehearsal room at CTG headquarters.

How would you assess the health of Broadway based on this season?

Epps: I'm a Tony voter, and I'm about to leave tonight on the red eye to start my voting sweep, but overall, based on what I've seen and what I've read, Broadway is certainly economically very healthy. But I always wonder whether it's artistically healthy. The boast has always been that you go to New York to see the best theater in the country. I certainly don't believe that's true anymore. There's great theater happening in this city, but also all over the country, that never makes it to Broadway.

Ritchie: I thought that the best musical category would be much broader and deeper. Some of the earlier shows that opened didn't seem to have the success that was presumed, either critically or at the box office, but what's, nice, then is that some dark horse comes along like "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" that opened early, had no great fanfare behind it but was able to keep a steady drumbeat of business through the season and has suddenly emerged as a big contender.

Arney: I think there's less a sense of clear favorites this year, both in terms of the musicals and the straight plays, so it should be a good Tony Awards night in terms of suspense. I'm not sure it's the strongest season. With regard to the Geffen, we take many fewer shows from Broadway, so we're not out there shopping for shows in the same way.

How important is an award in terms of your thinking as a producer?

Arney: Clearly, success gets everyone's attention. But we find that our compelling partnerships with New York happen much more often with off-Broadway or with the smaller shows on Broadway. What we love is to take a show that's in New York that the writer has a great interest in the second opportunity to write.

Speaking of subsequent productions, Michael, I thought the Taper's staging of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Christopher Durang's comedy that won the Tony for best play last year, was much better here than in New York. Christine Ebersole had a lot to do with that, but the production as a whole just worked better for me.

Ritchie: I didn't see the Broadway production. I saw it three nights after it opened at the [Lincoln Center's] Mitzi Newhouse and said, "That's good enough for me." Nicky [Martin, the director] got sick after it opened on Broadway and was still planning on coming, but then at a certain point it became clear that he wasn't going to be able to. I was in New York visiting him when he said, "What about David Hyde Pierce directing?" David based his production on Nicky's direction but brought his own thoughts and conceptualizations to it. So there was some added value, and then you had a mix of actors who had done the play before and others who were discovering it, so it turned out to be a very vibrant rehearsal period.

Arney: Another testament to a second production.

Ritchie: We're looking at a show for next year that we'll eventually announce for the Taper. I don't know who we will do it with in terms of the creative team. That's the conversation we're having right now with the playwright. Do you want a remount of this show, which is fine. It's a show I happen to like. But I also like it when we can add a little element that makes a show more of ours, more for our audience. With "God of Carnage," we had the original Broadway cast and I said, "We're going to do this and it can be an event."

Do actors want to perform here for the visibility?

Ritchie: Yes, but it's also an advantage in terms of the talent pool. The vast majority of actors who come to L.A. are coming to work in television and film, but there's a huge amount of them that are stage actors who still have that desire. When I was going through the interview process for this job, I had questions about the L.A. audience, and my wife [actor Kate Burton] had done four plays prior to that and said to me, "Forget it. They're a great audience." She said that no one goes to the theater casually in L.A. If they go, they're committed — they're not killing a night. They're not tourists.

Epps: There are people who go to the Pasadena Playhouse who literally have been coming to that theater for 40 years. That's a dyed-in-the-wool, intelligent audience. And in terms of casting, this is a great pool of acting talent. You don't have to worry if you choose to do a play and you don't get the people who did it in New York.

Arney: And it's not just actors, it's directors and designers as well who love the exposure in Los Angeles. The boundaries between New York and Los Angeles have fallen down.

Ritchie: Everyone's on a loop around the country.

Arney: Back to the Tonys specifically — Neil Patrick Harris, Bryan Cranston, Jefferson Mays, all nominated this season, all Geffen alums.

Marc, glad you're able to join us via Skype. South Coast Rep has been producing some edgy Broadway plays of late — "The Mother... With the Hat," "Chinglish." Next season you're doing "Venus in Fur." What would you like to add to our conversation on the benefits of subsequent productions?

Masterson: The economics of doing a play in New York are such that a number of plays get into houses that are larger than they benefit from. I think one of the advantages we all have is the ability to put the play in the space that best suits it and to gain a certain amount of intimacy through those productions that may offer a better way to see a particular work.

I've always thought of South Coast Rep as a supplier of new plays to the rest of the country.

Masterson: We did six world premieres this season, so the mixture of work and familiarity isn't necessarily what you might think it is. A lot of plays that have been successful in New York might as well be new plays to our audience. The Tony Awards serve to raise the visibility of the art form for us and give us a way to talk about the value of theater in the culture we live in. I can't speak for everyone, but I suspect we want a healthy mix of work that is new for our audience and also work that is sometimes more familiar because of its life in New York.

Epps: It's a little bit like star casting. I would never put a play in the season [only] because it won a Tony Award, but I wouldn't hold it against the play. People go after you for casting an Oscar winner. If the Oscar winner is right, I'm not going to say, "I'm not going to cast you because you won an Academy Award." The prestige of the Tony is certainly helpful in terms of getting focus for the play.

The paradox for me is that while the artistic health of Broadway has suffered in the last decade, its influence has grown greater, especially in the nonprofit realm in which all of you are producing. First, what's your diagnosis of what's ailing Broadway?

Epps: The audience has changed drastically. I don't know the exact statistics, but a huge number of people going to Broadway now are tourists, and they're going to say that they've been to a Broadway show not necessarily because they are theater lovers but because it's kind of like going to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It seems to me that Broadway has become more about who can build the most attractive Eiffel Tower, because the tickets are very expensive.

Arney: Oftentimes Los Angeles is thought of as this place where all these stars are on stage, but actually I think Broadway is much more pressured to put stars in the bigger theaters, even as producers may be looking to straight plays again. You're seeing many more straight plays on Broadway than you were 10 or 20 years ago, but inevitably it's with some matinee star they feel is going to sell tickets.

Ritchie: When I started out in New York as a stage manager, there were Broadway stars that were virtually unknown elsewhere. Phil Bosco. You could put Phil Bosco above the title and you knew you had a solid show. I think now there are probably a handful of women in musicals — Idina [Menzel], Audra [McDonald], Kelli [O'Hara], Sutton [Foster] — who can drive a show, but there are fewer than when I started out in the early '80s. And certainly when I think of the generation before mine — Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton, Colleen Dewhurst — there was a cadre of actors who swung between off-Broadway and Broadway with the occasional film, but they were stage animals and you could count on them every season or two doing a production and people would turn out for them.

A different era.

Ritchie: You look at something like "The Bridges of Madison County." I listened to that score after Jason [Robert Brown] wrote it and I thought, "This is a beautiful score." I didn't know the book. I didn't know the movie. I thought, "All right, this is a great composer working, and I know this deserves to be on Broadway." And then look what happened. I haven't seen the production, so I can't judge any of it, but for me that was one of the disappointments of the season that it was not able to gain an audience, and it did have one of the leading Broadway actresses in Kelli [O'Hara].

Does the fact that "Bridges" wasn't a hit on Broadway affect your interest in producing the show?

Ritchie: It's actually on my list, and the question is: How do we do that production in a way that is reasonable for us to take an appropriate risk? We all live in a risk business.

Marc, as the leader of one of the most important theaters in the country for new play development, do you have any suggestions for how playwriting can flourish again on Broadway?

Masterson: I think it's useful to think about the whole New York ecology. We've been talking about how tourist-driven Broadway is now, but it's also worth recognizing that the off-Broadway nonprofits have taken the place of the commercial off-Broadway theater and are providing a huge volume of new work. So New York theatergoers who are interested in straight plays do not lack for opportunities.

Are you disappointed that nonprofit theaters with Broadway stages aren't having a more robust influence in terms of new plays?

Masterson: I think if you look at all three examples, Lincoln Center [Theater], Roundabout [Theatre Company] and Manhattan Theatre Club — they're all operating second and third spaces where they're doing a great deal of their original work. So the work is being done — it's just not being done in that tourist-driven economy.

Ritchie: Of the three nonprofits, two of them have best plays: Lincoln Center has "Act One" and Manhattan Theatre Club has "Outside Mullingar" and "Casa Valentina."

Epps: I think "Outside Mullingar" is one of [John Patrick] Shanley's best plays. I was actually very proud of Manhattan Theatre Club for doing that.

Arney: In answer to your question, the hope for Broadway is going to be the regions. I said that we all keep our head down and create for Los Angeles. We created a few years ago Donald Margulies' 'Time Stands Still" without any future plans for that show. We did it with Anna Gunn here and then it was done at Manhattan Theatre Club with Laura Linney. Manhattan Theatre Club then commissioned Donald to write "The Country House." Donald and Daniel Sullivan, the director, said they'd like to work this out a little bit more before doing it in New York. So we're in rehearsals for that right now. A partnership that started between us and Manhattan Theatre Club back in the day has created a partnership in which we're going to do the co-world premiere of that play that's going to Broadway

A sort of Broadway co-pro.

Ritchie: But between nonprofits.

Are there any qualms about this in terms of mission?

This started not because we were looking for Broadway co-pros but because we were really focused on creating the best work we could. And Manhattan Theatre Club noticed.

Do playwrights find L.A. a hospitable environment to premiere work?

Arney: I'd say L.A. has really come on in the last two decades. I was in Chicago in the '80s. It's now thought of as a theater mecca. It wasn't always that. We were all focused on doing the best work we could in Chicago, and pretty soon New York started to notice. In the last 10 years I've seen a very similar dynamic here. And it's not because we're creating theater with our eye on New York. It's that we get to create new theater in a more risk-free environment.

Epps: I think there's very little real prejudice in the artistic community against L.A. I think there's some prejudice elsewhere from New York to L.A., but in the artistic community I'd be very doubtful that you'd ever hear a playwright or a director or an actor say, "I don't want to do L.A."

Masterson: I'm still relatively new here and really hadn't seen a lot of theater in L.A. prior to coming here, and I think I probably carried some of the prejudices about what to expect out of L.A actors. Those clichés that say you get a lot of actors whose performance is no more than 3 feet in front of them, and that it's all in their face and not in their bodies. In fact, I've seen more good theater in L.A. since I came here than I've seen in New York, and I go to New York pretty regularly.

So if Broadway is increasingly focused on the tourist audience yet seems to be having a greater influence on artistic programming across the country, what does that say about the state of the American theater?

Ritchie: I don't know how unbalanced it is. When I started in New York in the late '70s, early '80s, Broadway was dying. It was virtually dead. There were seasons that it was surprising that they could put together Tony Awards because so few shows had opened. It's a whole different dynamic now. It's commercial — they're putting on shows because they have investors and producers, many of them with great artistic integrity, but ultimately it's dollars and cents for them. They get judged on their success as much by the quality of work as by the box office income. That's always going to exist. There's nothing we can do or say that's going to change that, so it's how are we going to fit into the larger environment.

Has the changing economics of non-for-profit producing — the loss of public funding, the continued impact of the recession — forced you to conform to a more commercial model?

Epps: I think those factors are all relevant, and for us to sit here and say we're not responsive to the need to support our theaters by selling more tickets wouldn't be telling the truth. We are. That said, the kinds of theaters we all work for were started so that we did not have to follow the Broadway model. That was what Gordon Davidson was doing; that's what Martin [Benson] and David [Emmes] were doing at South Coast — creating theater that was not subject to the same kinds of economic demands of Broadway theaters. So I think the choices we make are the result of economic realities that we all deal with wherever our theaters are, but they are not the result of a Broadway influence.

Ritchie: And they are not a betrayal of mission. We have the added advantage of having three theaters and doing 18 to 22 productions a year. We can cover all bases of what we need. Even at the Ahmanson we can take risks. Broadway is there. We're all aware of the value of it. We're all aware of the downsides of it. It's been a juggling act, particularly during the recession, which for the nonprofit theater has not ended.

Arney: Key difference is really mission-driven versus bottom-line-driven.

Ritchie: But you do have to balance them because they're businesses.

I was somewhat surprised that the Geffen produced the Bette Midler vehicle "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers." I wasn't as wowed by it in New York as some of my colleagues were, but commercial issues aside, I thought your theater turned out to be the ideal venue for the production, which deepened because of the intimacy of the space and Midler's more subtle, less vamping character work. But were there concerns about how this fits into the theater's larger mission?

Arney: I felt the theater was a perfect place for it. I've known John Logan, the playwright, since our early Chicago days, so I knew that was quality. I knew that Joe Mantello, the director, was quality. And with Bette Midler, that performance had sunk into her muscles, and when she came back to do it again I think she was much better at the Geffen. And it also did a wonderful thing for us in terms of selling and helping us balance our season.

Ritchie: I also think that second productions are becoming more and more part of our missions. I think there was a period of time in the American theater when you wanted the world premiere. Printing that in your brochure was a sign of success. I think what happened to a lot of plays and playwrights is that they got their world premieres and then nobody else wanted to do them. Without any of us talking to each other across the country a lot of us came to the realization that this was not doing any favor to the playwright and that ultimately the idea of second productions was as much value to the playwright, to the play and to the audience as the world premiere.

Arney: Wasn't it the fourth production of "The Glass Menagerie" before it got any good reviews? Imagine if the theater in Williams' day was only interested in new plays.

Speaking of "Glass," it's been a good year on Broadway for revivals. Any chance of these starry productions coming here?

Ritchie: Unfortunately, I've done three of the four of them in the last four years. I've done "The Cripple of Inishmaan," "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Raisin in the Sun."

Epps: Revivals is one area that our theaters already do well. Keeping the canon of great American plays alive is part of what we all do.

Ritchie: My great surprise in my 10 years here was "Waiting for Godot," which was virtually all local except for Barry McGovern. It turned out to be a big success in part because the theater community, as spread out and dispersed as we are, recognized this as a great opportunity to see that play with many of their peers in it.

Arney: And endorsing your choice of it

Masterson: Yes, it's true, but we all wanted comps to see the show.

Ritchie: We don't give you comps?!?

This year, the new plays on Broadway have been upstaged by revivals.

Masterson: I think the lines have been really blurring between Broadway, off-Broadway and the not-for-profit. Things are much more fluid than they used to be. I don't feel a great deal of concern with this year's Tony offerings, which represent only part of the picture of the health of New York theater.

Ritchie: And I'm not sure that playwrights have their goal as Broadway, as they might have had 20, 25 years ago when Broadway was the stamp of success.

Still, there's an impulse to get a hot play maximum exposure. I'm thinking of Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a play I greatly admired but didn't necessarily see going to Broadway.

Ritchie: When the opportunity comes it may be hard for a playwright or creators to say no. When someone is saying, "I believe in this play, I believe that it belongs on the biggest national stage," I would be hard pressed to argue against them for doing it. I remember talking to the guys from "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which started out at the Kirk Douglas. When it moved to the Public I was thrilled. And then there was this talk of it moving to Broadway. I wondered whether it belonged on Broadway, not whether it was good enough but would it find an audience. So it didn't have a year and half run, didn't win multiple Tony Awards and it wasn't a huge financial success. But was it successful for them? Michael [Friedman] and Alex [Timbers] are two of the leading creators in the American theater, and in part that came from the fact that they went to Broadway.

Is Broadway's power rising or declining?

Epps: The power is definitely still there, but that power doesn't define the ongoing life of the play or musical. I think what we're touching on in this discussion is the health of the American theater. The health of the American theater is not determined by the slate of the Tony nominees.

So you're not having a harder time reaching audiences?

Ritchie: In terms of economics, the casual ticket buyer, the non-theater-devotee, that's who we're finding it harder to reach, harder to convince.

Are those audiences more apt to come to something they've heard about?

Ritchie: No question

So then there is a kind of tourist element at work.

Ritchie: If you were to describe the casual ticket buyer in Los Angeles as a tourist as opposed to a subscriber or a committed theatergoer, then there's a balance of that.

Do you feel any frustration at this turn in our theater culture?

Ritchie: No, because I don't know who to be frustrated with. It's a frustration with the environment.

Masterson: I think we're all in the same situation. It should be said about regional theaters that they were created to serve the community and to provide an alternative to the commercial model. To the extent that we have to rethink what the community is and how we serve that community, we can continue to serve our mission even if some of the work we do is popular. There's nothing wrong with it being popular.

Ritchie: Our motto here is basically the widest range of theater for the greatest number of people with the deepest impact.

Epps: I just want to amplify something that Marc said: There's nothing wrong with a production being hugely popular, because ultimately that always means that someone in the theater has been moved enough to tell someone else to go see it.

So, gentlemen, what were your favorite shows from the season?

Epps: I really liked "Beautiful"; I thought the use of songs was imaginative, and I think Jessie Mueller gave a great, generous, honest performance. I also really liked "All the Way." I thought the production was magnificent, and Bryan [Cranston] was quite terrific, as was the supporting company — with a lot of L.A. actors.

Arney: I enjoyed "Violet," which I recently got see. I love Sutton [Foster] and wasn't familiar with that material, and so I was really glad, even though it was a revival, to encounter it for the first time. I thought she was incredibly talented and Joshua Henry is phenomenal.

Ritchie: "Twelfth Night," "Beautiful" and "Gentleman's Guide," which, though I have no fingerprints on it, a large part of that group started with me at Williamstown, and so I went in wanting to love it and having that love returned.

Epps: I suspect you will have fingerprints on it.

Ritchie: What, have you been making phone calls?

Masterson: I haven't seen that many Broadway shows yet this season. I'm going to catch up this weekend. The highlight for me is seeing my friends in Broadway shows. I enjoyed seeing "Glass Menagerie" because I went to school with Cherry [Jones] and gave Zach [Quinto] his Equity card. And I thought it was an interesting production, which was a nice bonus.

Sheldon, you have an actor in competition from "A Night With Janis Joplin."

Epps: Mary Bridget Davies. Well, that's a situation which relates to what we were saying before. I did not necessarily think that it was a wise move for the play to go to Broadway. It didn't have a long run there. So for her to come out with the perk of a Tony nomination is really wonderful because she gave an extraordinary performance and this is certainly going to serve her future.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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