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L.A. MUSICALS: DOIN’ THE WAIVER

Who says the American musical is dying? You certainly wouldn’t suspect it from a glance at the Los Angeles theater listings. Seldom have so many musicals enjoyed such long and acclaimed runs in Los Angeles.

“Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill” and “Cats” have celebrated their first Los Angeles birthdays. “Nite Club Confidential,” “Back Home,” and “Tomfoolery” have run for months. And a newcomer, “The Wonder Years,” although advertising “last weeks,” is set to run at least through mid-July.

There’s a catch, of course. All of the long-runners except “Cats” are in small theaters. Their total audiences don’t amount to many people, by Broadway or Ahmanson standards. Still, everyone in the house can see and hear the show--at half the cost of Broadway tickets.

“There’s a real magic to a good small musical,” says T. Harding Jones, one of the “Nite Club Confidential” producers. “When you’re so close to the stage, it’s hard not to become completely absorbed. It’s electrifying.”

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Why the boom in little musicals? Something like “happenstance” is most often cited by the producers of the current hits. Many of them also credit the support of critics for their particular shows.

As they keep talking, though, it becomes clear that there are reasons why their field is fertile in Los Angeles right now. Some of the producers also say the field could dry up quickly, just as it did on Broadway, and for similar reasons.

Broadway’s doldrums are often attributed to the high cost of big musicals--for customers as well as investors. As a result, Broadway has relied more on imported musicals, often from subsidized theaters--and lately very few of them have succeeded on a large scale.

Small-theater musicals are the obvious alternative. According to Ted Schmitt, who has presented 36 musicals (including the current “Back Home”) at the Cast Theatre, “an average musical will do better at the box office than most better-than-average plays.”

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The Cast will rely more on musicals in the future, Schmitt expects: “As video victims, we’re constantly looking for material that can’t be done in other media. Because of their element of fantasy, musicals make for a distinctive evening--an experience that only the theater can give.”

Los Angeles is a particularly promising market for small musicals, say producers. Certainly the city has a lot of musical-theater talent, some of it trained at the workshops run by the late Lehman Engel and the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Another major reason is Equity Waiver, which allows producers to pay only token salaries--or none at all--to actors working in theaters seating 99 people or fewer.

In fact, Schmitt warns that if the Waiver is abolished--a possibility that’s under discussion within Actors Equity--"the musical will be the first form to go away.”

Schmitt estimates that actors’ salaries and other Equity requirements could add another $10,000 to the cost of a musical that is now mounted for between $15,000 and $25,000. Considering that he and his Cast cohorts raised $13,500 for an $11,000 mounting of “Back Home” (the remainder went into the show’s promotion kitty), it’s clear that a change in the Waiver might have prevented “Back Home” from opening.

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The actors in “Back Home” now receive $10 per performance. That’s a raise from the original $3.87 per show (representing a combination of percentages of the average nightly gross and matinee net). It isn’t much, but Schmitt recites the standard defense of Waiver: In Los Angeles, actors are willing to work for very little if it will help them snag screen jobs. And it does, he claims. “In every show we do, at least one actor gets a major career break.”

Actors in New York are also allowed to work without payment in showcase productions, but after a few weeks Equity salaries have to be paid, at which point successful productions usually move to one of the smaller Equity-contract theaters. However, Schmitt points out that few such houses exist in Los Angeles.

“The only way most shows can grow (or make a profit) here is by extending into pre-sold weeks at a smaller house, not by moving into a bigger space.”

Besides, he adds, musicals usually require more time to develop than other shows--certainly more than 12 performances within four weeks. It’s another reason why few of New York’s successful musicals originate there. “New York is a huge booking house,” says Schmitt. “Equity plans to create the same onerous environment here.”

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The showcase value of Waiver seldom applies to the pit band. So union musicians who play Waiver productions receive $47.25 for a performance that lasts as long as three hours, with time-and-a-half for the leader of the band. This means the musicians are often paid more than the actors, one of the reasons why musicals are so expensive.

Another reason is royalties. The “Tomfoolery” royalties cost the Burbage Theatre Ensemble more than three times the royalty expense for the long-running (non-musical) “Bleacher Bums,” according to Burbage director Ivan Spiegel.

The present cast of “Tomfoolery” splits 10% of the box-office take, says Spiegel, while the former cast chose to take free tickets--for their showcase value--instead of payment. “Tomfoolery” was mounted for a mere $3,000 (not including theater overhead or royalties).

Not all of the small musicals operate on shoestrings. “Nite Club Confidential” arrived at the 99-seat Tiffany Theatre with a $100,000 budget. Its star, Fay DeWitt, makes $325 a week; the other four members of the cast receive $233 a week. These fees are comparable to the Equity scale for small theaters. Yet “Nite Club” still saves money, for its producers need not contribute to Equity’s pension and welfare fund. Nor did they have to post a bond with Equity guaranteeing the actors’ salaries for two weeks.

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“Nite Club” producers T. Harding Jones and Steve Gideon say they’re making only “a very small profit” now and would like to move their show to a larger, Equity-governed house. But they second Schmitt’s observation about the lack of such houses in Los Angeles. “We can’t find a theater we’re really confident with,” says Jones.

“We could lose that clubby feeling in the wrong house,” adds Gideon. “We’ve talked to muckamucks from the big theaters who approach it from a real estate standpoint. They lack the heart that goes into a small-theater production.” They believe they have found a suitable larger house in San Francisco, however, and they hope to open their show there in August.

“The Wonder Years” is already in an Equity house. Its producers spent more than $15,000 creating it--finding space for 175 seats in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Academy Room and installing their own lighting equipment. Total capitalization for the show is “between $100,000 and $200,000,” says producer Frank Fischer. Each of the six actors in “The Wonder Years” is paid $285 a week, with another $60 a week per actor going into Equity’s pension and welfare fund.

The longest-running of the town’s little musicals, “Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill,” may move to an Equity house, the Westwood Playhouse, sometime soon, depending on whether producers can raise $65,000--compared to the $16,000 needed for the show’s third incarnation last fall.

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In the meantime, “Berlin” executive producers Karon Kearney and Paul Hough hope to open a second musical, “Summer Stock Murder,” next fall at the Callboard. The Callboard stage has the right dimensions, and the place has “the feel of a summer-stock house,” in Kearney’s words. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have enough seats since it’s a Waiver house. Kearney and Hough haven’t found an Equity house with the same characteristics.

Kearney and Hough would like to sign an Equity contract in order to attract the star they want for “Summer Stock,” yet the mounting cost for an Equity production of “Summer Stock” would be around $75,000, compared to $40,000 for a Waiver production. If they went Equity, they would have to sell out six shows a week for 20 weeks to return an investment at the Callboard. They’ll probably go with the Waiver, and hope their star can live with that decision.

It isn’t a decision that makes Kearney happy. She’s an actress who believes that some Waiver producers do exploit her fellow Equity members: “You shouldn’t spend a lot of money on the set if you can’t pay the actors.” While the “Berlin” set cost $200, its actors all have invested in the show and receive a percentage of the net as payment.

Kearney wishes there were more small Equity houses in Los Angeles, as there are in Chicago, where she and Hough first staged both “Berlin” and “Summer Stock.”

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However, she wouldn’t eliminate the Waiver. “Keep the Waiver,” she advises, “but add a contract and a lot of rules, like those we have at ‘Berlin.’ If we get rid of the Waiver completely, everything will shut down--and musicals will be the first to go.”


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