New York, Regional Theater Have a Hot Affair Going, and San Diego Is Basking in the Glow

Two years ago, when Jack O'Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, called several New York producers to see if any of them wanted to come to San Diego to check out Stephen Metcalfe's "Emily" for a New York production, no one got on the plane.

About a year and a half later, the work, which at the time had been hailed by Time magazine as one of the best new plays of the year, opened and closed without fanfare at Playwrights' Horizons in New York.

"Now if I call them and say you must see this, they come out that weekend," said O'Brien, who was in New York putting the final touches on "The Cocktail Hour."

What happened to change things?

"Into the Woods," which premiered last summer at the Old Globe, traveled last year to Broadway, where it won Tony Awards for best music and lyrics and best actress. It's still going strong, and about to start a national tour that will take it to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in early January.

"The Cocktail Hour" has quickly blossomed into a major off-Broadway hit, and Neil Simon's "Rumors," which also premiered at the Globe, is due for a Broadway opening Nov. 17. The word is "wait and see" on "Suds," the San Diego smash now belting out its pop '60s tunes off-Broadway. But, if that confection makes it, it will be icing on the cake.

The San Diego-New York connection actually began when Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, directed "Big River" for first-time producer Rocco Landesman at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., before taking it to the La Jolla Playhouse and then Broadway.

"Big River" won seven Tony Awards, including one for best musical in 1985. That led to Landesman's role as a pioneer in organizing partnerships between nonprofit regional theater and commercial New York theater.

It's a natural coupling, according to Thomas Viertel, who, along with Steven Baruch and Richard Frankel, is producing "The Cocktail Hour" off-Broadway, along with independent producer Roger L. Stephens and Thomas Hall, managing director of the Old Globe.

"The financial aspects are crystal-clear," Viertel said during a New York interview. "The regional theater, because of its built-in subscription base, has the ability to withstand failure. But only the commercial producer can realize a show's financial potential."

The commercial producer's secret? He plucks the show from its circumscribed season slot and gives it a shot at an unlimited run in the international showcase of Broadway.

"Only Neil Simon has been able to go without the nonprofit theater," Viertel said. Then, reminded of "Rumors," he added, "Now even he is doing it."

Emanuel Azenberg, longtime Simon producer who did "Rumors" with the Old Globe, speaks wistfully about the transition from the old method of the pre-Broadway out-of-town tryout, in which the lone producer and a pocketful of investors were all the steam a show needed to get chugging along.

"There are very few Broadway producers left," he said, then paused. "Broadway doesn't introduce many plays, they present them. Most plays initiate in regional theaters."

It's a trend for which Azenberg anticipates no reversal. But he said it is satisfying to have the freedom at the Old Globe to permit Simon to tinker with the script throughout the run. The volume of changes, Azenberg said, would not be feasible in an out-of-town tryout, where there is pressure to make money right away.

Although partnerships between the profit and nonprofit sectors date as far back as the 1960s, when "The Great White Hope" debuted at the Arena Stage in Washington before making its Broadway splash, they have been multiplying in recent years as a way of keeping up with the increasingly prohibitive prices of developing shows in New York.

Landesman said it costs $1 million to $2 million to develop a show by the traditional out-of-town route, and only $100,000 to $200,000 to start in regional theaters.

"Even a workshop in New York costs a quarter of a million, and then you don't even play it in front of a real audience," he said.

Landesman blamed the high cost of producing musicals in New York for the dwindling number of one of America's few indigenous forms of music. He pointed to regional theater productions as a way of revitalizing the breed.

"There's an enormous saving of money, and you're free of time pressures," he said. "There is time to rethink and recast."

Landesman said he keeps his eye on several distinguished theater towns, including Los Angeles, where his wife, Heidi, is designing a set for the Mark Taper Forum; Chicago, home of the Goodman Theatre; and Cambridge, home of the ART.

Certainly, the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., under the artistic leadership of Lloyd Richards, has been more responsible than any theater for New York's steady diet of award-wining plays, from August Wilson's "Fences" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" to Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca."

But no city has jumped so quickly and completely in the collective producing eye as San Diego, with three current New York shows and more on the way.

"We've done a lot in San Diego and we would like to do more," Landesman said. "It's a very exciting place theatrically."

"San Diego has got the hot theater hand right now," Viertel agreed. "And I think it's likely to continue, because people who work out there adore working out there, largely because the people who run the theaters--Jack O'Brien and Des McAnuff--are very talented people. But also because they have wonderful facilities, good audiences and solid financial support."

Up-and-coming playwrights, whose work New York producers follow across the country, have themselves caught the San Diego bug, according to A. R. Gurney, author of "The Cocktail Hour."

"Most playwrights I know want to know how you get a play on at the Old Globe," Gurney said.

Landesman's second production brought him back to San Diego. He was introduced to the Old Globe when James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, collaborators on "Into the Woods," expressed an interest in working with O'Brien.

Last September, Landesman was named president of Jujamcyn Theatres, the third-largest New York producer after the Shuberts and Nederlanders.

Part of Landesman's job is to keep the five Jujamcyn theaters filled. Four are now spoken for, but the Virginia, where the English musical "Carrie" opened and closed in three days, is vacant.

Jujamcyn broke fresh producing ground this year when it commissioned 10 playwrights to write new plays in the hope that some would eventually hit Broadway. Thomas Viertel's brother, Jack, Jujamcyn's creative director, guesses that most of the works will have their debuts at regional theaters.

"We have a real motivation beyond the hope and the dream," said Jack Viertel, a regional theater expert who worked as a critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and a dramaturge for the Mark Taper Forum before Landesman tapped him for Jujamcyn last year.

"What we're doing is new, and it's born of a necessity to fill our theaters," he said. "The fact that we're the smallest producer, and the Shuberts and Nederlanders have much bigger connections with big English musicals, means we have to create our own projects. But that's the most interesting way to fill our theaters. It's the only position I would want to be in."

Good ideas, however, travel fast. Regional theaters are starting to do their own share of commissioning as a way of keeping creative and financial control on projects from the beginning.

McAnuff commissioned Lee Blessing, who created a San Diego smash with "A Walk in the Woods" last year, to write "Two Rooms" this past season.

Under McAnuff's direction, "A Walk in the Woods" traveled from the Yale Repertory Theatre to the La Jolla Playhouse and was opened and closed on Broadway under Lucille Lortel, who produced the show in London and is now taking it on tour in both the United States and the Soviet Union.

"Two Rooms" closed this summer after mixed reviews, but Blessing will resume work on it, says McAnuff, when his latest play, "Cobb," debuts at the Yale Repertory Theatre in March.

The Jujamcyn Theaters will have to wait a bit for the play they commissioned from one of their 10 playwrights, Terrence McNally, who wrote the off-Broadway hit "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." McNally first must finish his Old Globe-commissioned project, "Up in Saratoga," which opens in San Diego on March 9.

Broadway dreams are contagious. The San Diego Repertory Theatre, which received raves for a production ("Holy Ghosts") that journeyed to New York's Joyce Theatre as part of the American Theatre Exchange last year, has co-commissioned a jazz musical by Max Roach with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for 1990.

Similarly, Kit Goldman, managing director of the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, set up a limited partnership to commission "The Debutante," a black version of the Pygmalion myth that is scheduled to star Cleavon Little.

Next on tap for a Broadway opening, however, is the recent world premiere by the La Jolla Playhouse of "80 Days," a musical underwritten by Jujamcyn Theaters.

Landesman said "80 Days" is scheduled for the kind of New York-staged reading that "Into the Woods" received before its Broadway debut.

The main concern echoed by commercial producers such as Landesman, Azenberg and the Viertels, as well as regional theater producers such as O'Brien and McAnuff, is that regional theater not sacrifice its artistic edge by selecting work for Broadway value alone. That would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Hall, the Globe managing director, who doubles as president of the League of Regional Theaters, said the Globe's commitment to serving its local patrons rather than New York can be seen in the scripts chosen for the coming season, which include a mixture of classics, West Coast premieres and just one world premiere--the new McNally play.

"We could have done a whole season of new work that would have had the possibility of going to New York, but for us the script has to be something we would do for its own sake," Hall said. "The whole genesis of regional theater was to get away from that need to make a hit and to do things of artistic value. It's essential to remember who you are and what you do."

All agree, however, that the money is tempting.

"It's no secret that we will never be able to pay our bills at the Globe whatever we do," said O'Brien. "If any of the shows we produce has commercial potential, that would mean money I don't have to raise. But we are not and never will be a tryout theater for anybody. You don't build a reputation on world classics and then depend on the Shuberts."

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