The young man in the new-wave clothing took the stage on Wednesday night to a burst of admiring applause. "Good evening," he began. "I'm Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, and today is my 33rd birthday."
More applause, and then he told the audience that was awaiting the start of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, "Merrily We Roll Along," that if it cared to give him a birthday present, it could respond to the playhouse's subscription drive and support what has become, in only three seasons, one of the most admired theater companies in America, "so that we can continue to offer productions like this one."
Lightly as he handled it, this was no perfunctory commercial appeal on McAnuff's part. The La Jolla Playhouse is still basking in the glory of its Broadway success with "Big River" (the musical originated at the playhouse and picked off seven Tonys this year) and is riding high with its revival of "Merrily We Roll Along." But the company's artistic triumphs are being upstaged by the fiscal realities of mounting plays on the home front. As a result, the playhouse staff is appealing urgently to the community for support.
"We've gotten a lot of national attention, and we're going at a full gallop (artistically)," McAnuff, the guiding force of the playhouse, noted in a recent interview. "But a lack of funds could place the 1986 season in jeopardy. At the very least, it could lower our standards, and we're here to raise standards, not lower them. The theater has been in a rapid growth phase (subscriptions increased by 70% over last year), but contributed income has stayed on a par with last year.
"One of our biggest challenges is that people think we are supported by UC San Diego, but that's simply not true," said McAnuff, referring to the fact that productions are held at UCSD's Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts. "My mission is to get 1,000 new members in the theater. There is still a $250,000 gap in our goal for support from San Diego County. We need that community and corporate support soon."
According to marketing director Robert Friend, playhouse subscriptions are now topping the 7,000 level. It has substantial assets to cover funding gaps during its first three years, and has set a goal of raising $700,000 in contributed income this year. The subscription drive is in full gear, said Friend.
"Major mailings have gone out, we're involved in a major telephone campaign, and we are aggressively pitching each audience that attends each performance. It's important for them to know that their ticket purchases only pays for 40% of the playhouse's $1.2-million operating budget."
Friend noted that a subscription booth is set up in the Mandell Weiss lobby during performances, and that special "two-pack" subscriptions are being offered for the final two productions of the four-play season. The nonprofit playhouse also utilizes public service announcements calling for support on TV and radio.
"If you went to Broadway you'd pay $50 a ticket to see productions of this quality," Friend said, "yet we're only getting about $16 a ticket. People who come here from Los Angeles are amazed at how inexpensive the ticket prices are, but we can only charge what the market will bear."
As for contributed income, Friend said, "We're hitting the corporate and foundation markets on a heavy level, letting them know what we've developed here. We've also generated a lot of tourism, and we're working on getting support from the city's TOT (transit occupancy tax) fund. So we're hitting it from all angles, and I think it's going to domino. With the success of 'Big River' and 'Merrily,' the community must be aware it's got something special in its backyard."
Indeed, "Merrily We Roll Along" is playing to full houses and is likely to follow "Big River" to Broadway, according to McAnuff.
"If it was my decision," McAnuff said, "I would take it to a 1,000-seat theater (on Broadway). We're all pretty pleased with the way it shaped up.
"I look forward to a day when we have five shows running on Broadway. But my biggest ambition is to do good work, not to send people to Broadway. I see us eventually taking a show to a downtown (San Diego) theater, and to extend our season here."
Writer Eileen Sondak contributed to this story.