Funding issues led to Reprise Theatre Company’s failure to relaunch

Lisa O'Hare performs in the 2011 Reprise revival of the musical "Cabaret" at Freud Playhouse.
Lisa O’Hare performs in the 2011 Reprise revival of the musical “Cabaret” at Freud Playhouse.
(Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)

For 15 years, Reprise Theatre Company brought musical-theater favorites and rarities to devoted audiences at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse and other venues on the Westside of Los Angeles.

The company managed to draw top-notch Broadway actors and directors, and developed a reputation for mounting quality productions on non-Broadway budgets and rehearsal schedules.

But financial problems crept up on Reprise and the company went on hiatus early last year. Last month, leaders sent a letter to subscribers saying that they had decided to permanently lower the curtain, citing the inability to find “sustained funding.”

According to former staff members, donors and others with knowledge of the situation, Reprise made an attempt in the spring to relaunch itself at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Koreatown.


PHOTOS: Hollywood stars on stage

While company leaders were enthusiastic about the venue, some of Reprise’s Westside devotees found the location inconvenient.

The company also was exploring diversifying beyond musical theater to include cabaret, recitals, dance and even straight plays that would take advantage of the Ebell’s smaller performance spaces.

Jason Alexander, the former “Seinfeld” star who served as Reprise’s artistic director starting in 2007, declined several requests for an interview. In a prepared statement, he said that Reprise was able to raise some money in recent months but not enough to guarantee the sustainability of the company.

Reprise was only able to reach about half of its fundraising goal, according to Lawrence Iser, the former president of the board of directors.

“It wasn’t enough to convince the board to go back,” he said in a phone interview, adding that the company had also considered the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills and a space at the Veterans Affairs Greater L.A. Healthcare System in West L.A.

Reprise spent an average of $2.8 million per year during Alexander’s tenure, according to financial documents. Iser said that the recent fundraising target was less than that, but declined to be more specific.

CHEAT SHEET: Spring Arts Preview

The nonprofit company typically produced three or four mainstage shows per season and had full-time staff of only a handful of people. Iser said that leaders were looking to relaunch the company with one or two main shows per season, plus smaller productions.

Reprise didn’t have an endowment and operated with little financial cushion. The company reported assets of about $159,000 in its most recent available statement.

After announcing its hiatus in 2012, Reprise hired veteran L.A. theater producer Joan Stein to lead its turnaround, but Stein died of cancer later that year. The company brought on board Stephen Eich, the former managing director of the Geffen Playhouse who recently helped to resurrect the Pasadena Playhouse after its bankruptcy.

Eich declined to comment when reached by phone. He and Alexander spearheaded an April 7 event at the Ebell that introduced Reprise board members to the venue, which in recent years has hosted rock concerts and other music performances.

The financial problems that precipitated Reprise’s demise stemmed largely from weak ticket sales and subscriptions, according to Christine Bernardi Weil, the company’s former managing director. She said Reprise faced stiff competition not from other theater companies, but from popular entertainment.

“I would call people and ask why they didn’t renew their subscriptions. In a lot of cases, our biggest competition was cable television,” she said in a recent interview.

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times

Weil said Reprise wasn’t in debt and that the company had paid off its vendors. She said that a typical mainstage production cost the company about $500,000 to produce.

During its prime, Reprise managed to attract prominent Broadway names — Kelli O’Hara, Len Cariou, Alice Ripley, Stephanie J. Block, Judy Kaye, Rachel York and others. The company even lured Jerry Seinfeld and Patti LuPone to star in benefit performances intended to bolster the company’s coffers.

The company’s financial frailty was apparent to some as early as 2010. Steve Orich, a Broadway conductor and music orchestrator who worked on four Reprise productions, said that the company asked him to reduce the size of his orchestra for a planned staging of “Kiss Me, Kate” from 17 musicians to four.

“I told them I couldn’t do the show with four musicians,” Orich said in an email interview. “By reducing the cost of the set, they were ultimately able to bring the size of the orchestra up to eight, but that was still unacceptable to me.” The company eventually hired another conductor for the production, which opened in 2011.

Reprise was founded in the mid-90s by Marcia Seligson as a kind of West Coast answer to the popular Encores! series of musical revivals at New York’s City Center.

Alexander starred in Reprise’s first production — a sold-out run of “Promises, Promises” in 1997. While Reprise has mounted popular work such as “Kate” and the recent “Cabaret,” a major part of its mission was to bring back more obscure shows that have fallen off the popular radar, such as “Flora, the Red Menace” and “I Love My Wife.”

In a 2012 interview with The Times, Alexander said, “I can’t tell you that we’ve ever grown our audience… Our entire model broke six or seven years ago. We kept bandaging it rather than addressing it. This hiatus is going to force us to reinvent the wheel.”

Past Reprise donors who agreed to be interviewed said that the Ebell wasn’t an ideal solution for the company.

“I have nothing against the Ebell. But a lot of people live on the Westside and that’s halfway downtown, so it would be inconvenient,” said Paul Swerdlove, a real-estate agent in Beverly Hills. “I don’t think that’s something that should stop you from going to the theater. But the Westside was a better location.”

The company’s last production was the revival of “Cabaret” in late 2011. Despite strong reviews, the show fell short of expectations at the box office. The final planned productions — 2012 revivals of “The Apple Tree” and “The Baker’s Wife” — were canceled.