A Musical to the Tune of $10 Million

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

When “The Phantom of the Opera” opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1989, its $8.5-million budget made it the most expensive musical ever to hit town.

In 1997 Los Angeles, 8.5 may still be big for an earthquake--but judging from the money spent to produce big musicals in recent years, it takes at least $10 million to even nudge the needle on the Richter scale.

Both “Sunset Boulevard” and “Beauty and the Beast,” which recently played the Shubert Theatre in Century City, boasted budgets of about $12 million; “Miss Saigon” weighed in at $10.9 million; and the acclaimed revival of “Show Boat” at the Ahmanson downtown cost $10 million.


“Ragtime,” which opens at the Shubert next Sunday, is no exception to the costly rule.

This latest new musical from Garth Drabinsky’s production company, the Toronto-based Livent Inc. (which also produced “Show Boat”), is powering into the Shubert on the fuel of strong ticket sales and positive reviews for the show’s world premiere in Toronto. The show opened in December at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, where it will close Aug. 31, before moving to Broadway in December.

“Ragtime,” based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 best-selling novel, examines the social politics of turn-of-the-century America through the interweaving stories of three families: Mother, Father, Younger Brother and the Little Boy, a white family of Victorian values enjoying prosperity in New Rochelle, N.Y.; black musician Coalhouse Walker and his beloved Sarah, in a doomed search for the American dream; and Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant with a daughter about the same age as the Little Boy, using his street-smart ingenuity to claw his way out of poverty on New York’s Lower East Side into the brand-new motion picture industry.

Into this mix comes a cast of real-life historical characters, including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, anarchist Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington.

The physical production is as complex as its story: “Ragtime” has 22 different settings ranging from a re-creation of the now-demolished 1910 Pennsylvania Station designed by architect Stanford White, the Atlantic City boardwalk, the deck of a ship and the imposing J.P. Morgan Library; “Show Boat,” by contrast, had only five settings. “Ragtime” employs highly detailed and historically accurate props--including a life-size replica of a 1906 Ford Model T--as well as an elaborate projection system and more than 50 channels of automation that move sets and people on, off and around the stage.

And though “Ragtime” has a smaller cast than “Show Boat”--50 versus 75--it has the same number of costumes (about 500) and still tops the Broadway musical average of 20 to 30 cast members (“Sunset Boulevard” had a cast of 23).

Both the Los Angeles and the planned Broadway “Ragtime” productions have budgets of about $10 million--L.A.’s is $9.815 million, New York’s slightly higher, because of a longer pre-opening publicity period and other minor costs.


And where does the money come from? Unlike many Broadway producers, Livent does not offer profit participation or limited partnerships, so it is the primary risk taker. It is a publicly held, for-profit corporation with an internal cash flow from ticket sales, merchandising, sponsorship revenue, investments and interest.


The following tracks where the dollars went in turning the Doctorow novel into a musical, adapted by Terrence McNally, with music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The show is directed by Frank Galati of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with costumes by Santo Loquasto, scenic design by Eugene Lee, sound design by Jonathan Deans and lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

The three largest expense categories are detailed below; others appear in the accompanying complete cost breakdown chart. It should be noted that all these figures have been converted to U.S. dollars, and they document the “pre-production” budget of “Ragtime”--that is, money spent on getting the musical up and ready for its first paid performance (that includes lower-priced preview performances, which began May 29 at the Shubert). Additional salaries, maintenance and marketing costs will kick in at the opening and continue throughout the run of the show.

Drabinsky says the Los Angeles pre-production costs are virtually the same as the costs for starting up the world premiere production in Canada. Even though the expense of creating “Ragtime”--such as writing and workshopping the book, music and lyrics and designing costumes and sets--was already paid before the show came to Los Angeles, higher American labor and rental costs offset any expected pre-production saving.

This is not a touring production in which the same sets and costumes could be brought in from Toronto; since the Toronto production continues, new ones had to be made for L.A., as well as a new cast engaged. In addition, the original creative teams of designers and directors must be on hand during at least part of pre-production to adapt their previous work to a new cast and new stage.


Although $10 million is a lavish budget for a musical, “Ragtime” producers don’t have the monetary resources available to most Hollywood producers when it comes to period props and special effects, called “gags” in the theater. So, for example, when they needed a full-sized 1906 Model T Ford--prized possession of “Ragtime” character Coalhouse Walker--they headed for North Manchester, Ind., to see a used-car dealer known as “Pudge” Egolf.


Egolf had been building vintage cars as a hobby, using parts from car models past and present, and was discovered by the show’s properties supervisor. Livent first sought him out to build a turn-of-the-century automobile for “Show Boat,” and he ended up building three of them for various productions of the show.

Egolf’s “Ragtime” cars--powered by golf-cart motors--cost about $30,000, said technical director and production manager Peter Lamm. “If you went to a dealer for cars for the movies, you’d pay a lot more,” Lamm said.

The most expensive aspect of mounting “Ragtime” was the physical production--the arena of winches, widgets and technical wizardry. Sets, props, set dressings, lighting, sound, automation and fees for the people who make it all happen fall into this category. While salaries and fees to performers will become the most expensive budget item during the run of the show, this is where the bulk of the money goes during pre-production.

In terms of budget breakdown, people fall into a gray area. Sound and lighting equipment, along with the technicians who run it, fall into the “scenic elements” budget, but the sound, set and lighting designers fall under “creative fees.” A simple way to look at it: The creative team designs the look and sound of the show; the technicians keep the vast array of equipment necessary for realizing their vision from falling on your head.

During an interview at the Shubert a couple of weeks before opening night, Lamm talked about setting the scene over the high-decibel sound of drills and hammers, as the show’s turn-of-the-century sets began to take shape onstage.

“There are more than 50 channels of automation in the show, and the spectacular entrance at the top of the second act [no details to be revealed here] is achieved with a manual mechanical winch device,” Lamm said.


Lamm said that “Ragtime” involves as much high-tech gadgetry as other big musicals, if not more, but to different effect: In this case, the goal is simplicity.

“I’m sure there is pressure on the producer, the director and the designers to come up with things that are exciting to an audience,” he said. “It doesn’t look high-tech. The ‘gags’ that are there are quite special, but they are very carefully controlled. There is no one effect that is overwhelming, like the chandelier in ‘Phantom’ or the helicopter in ‘Miss Saigon’ or the barricades in ‘Les Miserables.’ ”


On a sunny Mother’s Day morning in Toronto, Drabinsky was at his desk at Livent headquarters, nodding knowingly as the discussion turned to

the marked difference in audience reaction between the cheering Saturday matinee audience, top-heavy with tourists from the United States, and the quietly polite evening audience, primarily Canadians, at the Ford Centre.

Drabinsky offered that Canadian audiences tend to be more reserved generally--but added that “even though tickets sell out in Toronto for ‘Ragtime,’ they don’t completely understand the relevance and the implications of every aspect of what the show is about. . . . We wanted this show to get out to a U.S. audience as soon as possible.”

Such intangible considerations form the basis for advertising, marketing and promoting “Ragtime”--a complex process that began early in February for next Sunday’s opening in Los Angeles.


As of the first paid performance, Livent will have spent $680,000 on print advertising, $340,000 on radio spots, $425,000 on television ads, $170,000 on assorted promotional campaigns and $85,000 on outdoor advertising and miscellaneous costs.

In a city with more walking traffic, said Norman Zagier, Livent’s senior vice president of strategic planning for marketing and communications, a greater portion of the ad budget might have been spent on bus stop displays and ads on buses, or more on billboards in a less sprawling city, where perhaps potential ticket buyers would be concentrated in a smaller geographical area.

Unlike the promotion efforts for Livent’s recent Los Angeles revival of “Show Boat,” or for shows such as “Sunset Boulevard” or “Beauty and the Beast” based on well-known material, Livent’s advertising for “Ragtime” was designed to educate the audience about a story line that may still be unfamiliar to most people. This is also necessary since the show offers no big-name stars. The Los Angeles cast includes John Dossett, Marcia Mitzman Gaven, Scott Carollo, Brian Stokes Mitchell, LaChanze and John Rubinstein in leading roles.

With “Show Boat,” by contrast, Livent faced the opposite problem: trying to persuade audiences that the Hal Prince production was a new attraction, “not a creaky revival of a 70-year-old musical,” Zagier said.

Drabinsky acknowledges that the business of selling a show with strong social themes to a musical theater audience, in L.A. or anywhere, represents a delicate balancing act. Zagier says you don’t do the audience any favors by not preparing them for the show’s blunt approach to social problems.

“Because of the title--’Ragtime’--people may think that the musical is a revue of Scott Joplin songs or [a show like] ‘Bubblin’ Brown Sugar,’ ” he said. “We want [our marketing] to convey the seriousness of the piece; we don’t want to throw people in that way.” Zagier added that Milos Forman’s 1981 film “Ragtime” may have heightened public awareness of the name, but it also causes potential confusion about what audiences might expect to see.


While noting L.A.’s potential affinity for “Ragtime’s” messages, Drabinsky acknowledged that bringing the show to Los Angeles before Broadway was largely serendipity, though the company’s success here with “Show Boat,” which grossed $18 million in 20 weeks, didn’t hurt. Livent reports that advance ticket sales for “Ragtime” in Los Angeles stand at $5 million, comparable to advance sales for “Show Boat.”

“We went to L.A. simply because the Shubert Theatre became available to us when Disney left with ‘Beauty and the Beast’; otherwise we would have gone to New York and then gotten [to L.A.] in due course,” Drabinsky said. “Given the fact that our new theater in New York wasn’t going to be available until the end of December, and the reviews for the Toronto production were so overwhelmingly positive, we didn’t see any reason to hold back the show.”

Drabinsky also opted for the Shubert because it was available for an open-ended run rather than a limited run, so “Ragtime” can last as long as its audience does.

“Nobody expects for ‘Ragtime’ to run in L.A. for three years, but we’re talking about the difference between 12 to 15 weeks at the Ahmanson versus nine months to a year and a half at the Shubert,” Drabinsky said.

The attempt to build awareness of a show begins early, said marketing executive Zagier. The CD “Songs From ‘Ragtime,’ the Musical” was released in Canada and the United States in October, and preview performances began at Toronto’s Ford Centre on Nov. 19, well in advance of opening night.

In Los Angeles, “Ragtime” gets a boost from international reviews of the Toronto performance, and Zagier said Livent has followed an advertising and promotional plan consistent with marketing its other shows.


On Feb. 7, Zagier said, Livent began what it calls “image” ads, large newspaper display advertisements. On Feb. 21, tickets went on sale. Tickets also went on sale in New York for the Broadway production that same day.

Zagier said the window for pre-publicity was shorter than ideal for L.A. because of the eleventh-hour decision to bring the show here; ideally, Livent would have had six months to “ramp up” rather than 12 weeks. “We launched a very strong, aggressive campaign to saturate the market,” he said.

The long publicity period and early ticket sales in New York are also calculated to raise awareness of Livent’s new Broadway theater, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (not to be confused with Toronto’s Ford Centre). In December, “Ragtime” will take up residence in the theater, currently under construction between 42nd and 43rd streets near Times Square on the site of the former Lyric and Apollo theaters. At a cost of $30 million, a new internal structure for a 1,839-seat auditorium and two rehearsal spaces will take shape behind meticulously restored facades of the historic theaters. Livent also plans a Chicago production as well as a touring production.

Unlike its display advertising for “Show Boat,” which Zagier said sought to capture the show’s historic sweep in one image, a series of different newspaper display ads has focused on individual aspects of “Ragtime”--each of the different families, for example, or another series of ads that focused on real-life historical characters who play a role in the show.

Concurrently, Livent launched radio and television spots using the voices of Jack Palance and Lou Rawls, neither of whom appears in the show.

“We have a tradition of using well-known voices that can cut through the clutter,” Zagier said. “For ‘Show Boat’ we used the basso profundo of James Earl Jones, and we used Malcolm McDowell for [the Livent production of] ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ We think the two voices reflect the multiethnicity of the show, and Lou Rawls’ voice speaks of jazz and nightclubs, of a different time and place.”


Although you shouldn’t expect “Ragtime” characters to turn up as stuffed toys at Burger King, Livent has promotional partnerships with various area businesses and nonprofit organizations. For example, KCOP-TV Channel 13 plans to air a two-hour “Ragtime” special on June 20. Area Bloomingdale’s stores will host live entertainment and offer ticket sale hotlines; there will be displays, cast appearances, video screenings and readings at the 60 Los Angeles Public Library branches, and people who bought their tickets through a Los Angeles Times promotion got vouchers for souvenirs, refreshments and free theater parking.

Livent also has been blitzing some 300,000 households in the Los Angeles area in direct-mail campaigns, as well as homes in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Bakersfield, Redlands, San Diego and the Bay Area.

Much as the movie and TV industries do when testing a new product, Zagier said, Livent employs a Canadian polling company to do market research for its productions on such topics as perceived interest in the show, favorite show times, awareness of the CD recording or “price elasticity” (that is, how much a ticket buyer might be willing to pay).

But there, he added, the similarity to the film industry ends: “The show is not going to be changed [the way a studio might change a movie script] because a test audience didn’t like Glenn Close dying in a bathtub in the final scene.”


In the costume room, it’s hardly rag time--with 480 to 500 costumes for 50 cast members, composed of more than two miles of fabric and three miles of various sorts of trim.

The most elaborate women’s dresses require between 250 and 300 hours of labor and may cost up to $5,400 apiece. The 130 individuals involved in this effort include tailors, milliners, decorators, dyeing and painting workers, wig and wardrobe personnel, costume makers and seamstresses.


About $150,000 of the total budget goes to wigs and makeup. Makeup expense is minimal, with most of this amount going for some 60 wigs and miscellaneous facial hair--sideburns, beards and mustaches.

Most of the work putting the costumes together happens in Toronto, but some is done in Los Angeles and New York; fabrics come from all over the world.

“It was amazing--we were barely getting the understudies costumed in Toronto when they called us and said there was going to be a new production in Los Angeles,” said Janet Grant, associate designer/production and costume coordinator, during a backstage interview at the Shubert as crates of dresses, hats, underpinnings and shoes began arriving at the theater.

In January, work began on the costumes for Los Angeles, to be fitted for the L.A. cast when the actors traveled to Toronto to see the show in March.

Among the show’s more elaborate items of apparel are the “New Rochelle” dresses, fashioned of layers of lace in barely differing shades of cream and white.

“These are period dresses, so they have bustles, petticoats with elaborate ruffling, boning in the corsets because you want to get the silhouette of the period,” Grant said. “Some of what is so labor-intensive about these dresses is getting the under-structure underneath.”


Hats must be highly structured for durability and to fit over elaborate wigs; shoes must be danceable. And even with the corseted look, singers must be able to breathe, Grant said, pointing out the stretchy Lycra inserts in a New Rochelle dress that allow the actress to take in enough air to sing. Plus, Grant said, the costumes must last for several years, through quick costume changes, movement, careless actors and sweat.

Cost breakdown for the New Rochelle costume for the character of Mother: $5,400 for the dress; corset, $615; petticoat, $615; hat, $425; high-laced shoes, $250.

Grant acknowledged that such details as minuscule differences in shades of lace or the historical authenticity of an unseen corset may not be important to the audience but make all the difference to the actors.

“The thing about it is what you wouldn’t feel,” she said.


Livent’s Zagier said that while there is no magic number of dollars needed to create a mega-musical, $10-million plus musicals have become common not only because audiences have come to expect state-of-the-art staging but also because today’s directors have become equally demanding.

“What’s happened is that the theater has become more and more sophisticated,” he said, “and the technology at the same time has allowed incredible innovations.

“I guess the best analogy is likening it to Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park,’ where you have all these amazing computer-generated effects,” he continued. “In the 1950s, they made movies about dinosaurs that attacked the Earth with matte backgrounds, and they looked fake. The technology is available, and whether it’s Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker or Frank Galati as director of ‘Ragtime,’ artists want to work with the best.”



* “Ragtime” opens next Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Dark July 4. Ends Sept. 7. $35-$75. (800) 447-7400.