A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Costa Mesa

Once upon a time, musical tours were like the sun.

They rose in the East--from a narrow strip of land called Broadway--and set in the West.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa wants to change all this.

By providing half the costs of the La Jolla Playhouse production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which opened Sunday at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, the Center will get its own run of "A Funny Thing" (Aug. 17-26).

And if producers of other theaters are interested, a larger tour may develop, said Thomas R. Kendrick, president of the Center.

It would mean more shared costs, but the money in this production, a 50/50 split of an unnamed sum somewhere over $500,000, has already been accounted for, Kendrick said.

Still, the Center's ultimate hope in a marriage between a nonprofit booking house, like the Center, and a nonprofit resident theater, like the Playhouse, is that an ongoing source of musicals will develop. If the musicals tour--all the better.

It's nice for the Center, where musicals--which they usually obtain from Pace Theatrical--bring in the money that helps pay for dance and classical music events. And it's nice for the Playhouse, which needs to find affordable ways of producing musicals that, traditionally, are the budget busters of anyone's season.

For economic reasons, the Playhouse has co-produced all previous musicals at La Jolla. But what makes this arrangement special is that, in co-producing with a booking house rather than nonprofit theaters or for-profit producing companies (such as New York's Jujamcyn Theaters, which provided enhancement money for "80 Days"), all artistic decisions are made by the Playhouse--a fact reflected in the billing.

Still, observers have expressed wonder as to whether the very choice of play reflects the tastes of the Playhouse or the Center.

The Playhouse, after all, has never done a standard American musical such as "Forum," an oft-revived 1962 Stephen Sondheim comedy, which has been done by nearly every community theater, high school and college in the country.

The Playhouse built its musical reputation on new works such as "Big River," which went to Broadway and won seven Tony awards, including best director for Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff; "Shout Up A Morning," about folk hero John Henry; "Maybe I'm Doing it Wrong," by satirist/stylist Randy Newman, and "Merrily We Roll Along," a reworking of the Stephen Sondheim musical.

The Center, on the other hand, is known for popular "Forum"-like fare: "Gypsy," starring Tyne Daly; "Fiddler on the Roof," starring Topol; "Anything Goes," starring Mitzi Gaynor, and "The King and I" with Rudolf Nureyev.

(Earlier Center co-productions include "Strike Up the Band" and "Babes in Toyland," both with the California Musical Theatre in Pasadena. The Center didn't lose on the shows, Kendrick said, but the collaboration was less than satisfying. The CMT "never had enough money to do it right," he said.)

The question that gets raised in the choice of "Forum" concerns a possible trade-off. Did the Playhouse cater to the Center's taste in exchange for the Center's investment?

Actually, said Kendrick, it was none other than McAnuff who chose "Forum"--much to Kendrick's surprise.

"There was no preconceived idea of what the musical could be," said Kendrick. "Knowing Des, we would not have been surprised if it had been a new musical or a revival of a lesser-known musical. We were a bit surprised at the time. But it turns out that we're not going to do 'Forum' so much as we are going to do Des McAnuff's vision of 'Forum.' "

And just what is that vision?

For one, it is to treat the old standard as a new musical, a goal that McAnuff said is helped by the fact that he has never before seen a production of "Forum"--and to discount how many times the show has been done.

"Amateur groups produce 'Romeo and Juliet,' that doesn't mean it's an amateur play," said McAnuff. "The trouble with musicals is that you tend to get outdated productions. They aren't done often enough by people who are serious students of drama."

He is familiar with the book and score, but the closest he has come to seeing it is in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," in which a segment is devoted to "Forum."

"It was a chance to do something new (at the Playhouse)," he explained. "We felt we could do it with a new vaudeville style."

In the process of working on the show, out went the old choreography, sets and orchestration. In came a high-powered team of choreographer Wayne Cilento, (who collaborated with McAnuff on the national tour of "Chess"), set designer John Arnone (whose last design for the Playhouse was Frank Wedekind's "Lulu") and costume designer Susan Hilferty, who will stay on to design costumes for Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!"

Two songs, one of which was shortened and the other eliminated from the original production, have been restored: "The House of Marcus Lycus" and "The Echo Song."

McAnuff doesn't bring it up, but there is a recent precedent for this production being done in a serious theatrical environment. The Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Mass., best known for its productions of Chekhov and Pinter, took it on the chin in the press when it elected to do "Funny Thing" as its season opener under new artistic director Peter Hunt.

Hunt got the last laugh when the reviewers praised the show and it played to sell-out audiences.

No one at the Playhouse would suggest that the company is motivated by the show's commercial potential. But after last year's financial crisis, which ended with the Playhouse needing $500,000 by Dec. 31 to present a 1990 season, and $500,000 more to stabilize its $703,000 deficit, sold-out audiences would be very welcome indeed.

The Playhouse season opener, "The Cherry Orchard," was a move in that direction. It sold out, erasing some of the painful memories of lagging single ticket sales earlier last season. But there's still $300,000 to raise by Oct. 31 to meet the theater's $1 million goal.

Playhouse supporters would be mighty pleased to see "A Funny Thing" repeat the box office magic of "The Cherry Orchard"--and perhaps bring in new faces as well.

"This is a show about freedom," McAnuff said, shortly before a rehearsal. "This is a nice moment to think about freedom. It's nice to have something to celebrate that's meaningful."

But isn't it also, well, just fun?

McAnuff, who is serious about comedy, conceded the point--but barely. As he awaits the birth of his first child with actress Susan Berman (a daughter to be named Julia Violet and overdue as this went to press), he admits he wanted to work on something lighthearted ("as opposed to Richard III") at a happy time of life.

Even so, he makes it clear that, for him, the pursuit of fun has never been a laughing matter. "It's a chance to create a theatrical ecstasy that is missing from most of our lives," McAnuff said, and sighed. "I just hope it works."

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