You don’t have to play Broadway anymore to have a hit show.
Take the example of “The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album,” which opened at the Mark Taper Forum on Aug. 28, 1986, after an initial production at the Denver Center Theatre. Written by Mark Harelik about what befell his Russian Jewish grandfather in Hamilton County, Tex., the play did excellent business here despite mixed reviews.
Actor Harelik, who played his grandfather at the Taper, re-created that role at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, his alma mater, and at Washington’s Arena Stage, but the show didn’t stop there. Harelik counts 21 regional theater productions so far, with another 11 expected this season.
“There are many plays about immigrants and lots specifically about Jewish immigrants,” says Kip Gould, founder of Broadway Play Publishing in New York, " but this is a Jewish immigrant play with a new twist.” Adds the Taper’s Gordon Davidson: “Unlike ‘Nothing Sacred,’ ‘The Immigrant’ had to earn its reputation. . . . Success at the Taper helped give courage to some other producers to do it, because it’s a play that really lifts off the printed page, that comes alive in the theater.”
The thing about playwrights, says 37-year-old Harelik, “is that we really want to get our work done. We just want somebody somewhere to produce it. We would love to have our plays produced by rich theaters with high ticket prices and make lots of money. But this can’t always be the case.”
On the other hand, a playwright can apparently do quite well just in regional theater. Harelik says that he discussed both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions of “The Immigrant” with New York producers “and the figures I was looking at with a continuous run in New York, either on or off Broadway, would have been about half what I would have made with a continuous series of regional productions.”
None of those economic issues influenced his ultimate decision to bypass New York, he rushes to say, and the Los Angeles-based playwright has “no plans whatsoever” to take the show to that city. “Everyone who read it said ‘it’s a wonderful play but (New York Times drama critic) Frank Rich will hate it,” says Harelik’s agent, Margaret Henderson, in Beverly Hills.
But that’s not the only reason, Harelik adds. He doesn’t even like New York-- “I find New York and New York theater to be extremely provincial.
“I come from regional theater. Regional theater has given me my experience and offered me support in getting my first two plays going. It pleases me that regional theaters can actually be a center stage for new works without having to be credentialed by an appearance in New York.
“If a play appears in New York, even if you run one night and close to hideous reviews, a writer’s asking price goes way up because he’s played in New York. Do you think that anybody with any integrity would want to participate in that kind of a marketplace?”
It’s better to play resident theaters with big subscription audiences that “make many plays almost reviewer-proof,” he contends. “A play can reach a broad national audience without being in danger of one reviewer closing it down.”
Or, as Davidson puts it, “Even if critics find the script (of “The Immigrant”) vulnerable, audiences really respond to it, it’s eminently producible and it has only four characters.”
Harelik says his second play, “Lost Highway,” which closed the last Taper season, is expected to go to Washington’s Kennedy Center next summer or fall. Meanwhile, he has completed a screenplay of “The Immigrant” for an independent production company and is working on another screenplay.
He’s also continuing to nurture more productions of “The Immigrant.” “I’m sure we’ll reach a dropping-off point, but the news seems to be spreading, and because of regional theater, more of the country is able to see this play than if it were playing (only) in New York. I think that is much healthier than to have an occasional road show visit from Mt. Olympus.”