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Ailing Ahmanson Theatre Suffering From Lack of Product; Catalina Group Will Follow 'Bent' With 'Nighthawks'

March 19, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

The news that the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical "Into the Woods" won't be coming to the Ahmanson Theatre this summer (it was talked about, but not set) is more than the loss of a show. It's a symptom.

In recent years, an ailing Broadway has had less and less product to offer the 2,071-seat Ahmanson. The house is problematic: user-unfriendly above the first balcony, requiring body-miking of performers, too cavernous for certain plays, too limited backstage for dance, opera or large musicals. And money's short, which compounds everything.

Despite a success or two, the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera concluded in 1984 that the house was becoming too hard to fill. It gave up its 16 summer weeks at the Ahmanson two years before it reluctantly surrendered (some say was forced to surrender) the rest of its Music Center contract.

In 1985, the Music Center Operating company was lucky enough to get the popular "My One and Only" into the Ahmanson, but when the Center Theatre Group took charge of booking the house last summer, the artistically triumphant "Nicholas Nickleby" laid an egg at the box office. For a variety of reasons, including poor marketing, losses topped $700,000. And now it seems the theater could remain dark all summer.

"The Ahmanson's had a very hard year at the box office," acknowledged William Wingate, executive managing director of Center Theatre Group. "What it means if we stay dark is that we'll have to amortize 52 weeks of overhead into 32 producing weeks."

That overhead is about $9,000 a week and the 20 non-production weeks will add a burden of $180,000. Not a huge sum, but depressing since it results from an unproductive theater. The other repercussions are lost parking, restaurant, bar and program revenues. But the malaise runs deeper. Overall funding for the Music Center is in trouble and as long as its needs remain "beyond the scope of what the Unified Fund can provide," Wingate concedes the impact reaches everywhere.

Is that why the Taper Rep has had to lower its sights this year?

"Partly. It's impacted by the inability to increase philanthropic contributions. It's the climate all over the country. We've expanded the rules now to do some separate fund-raising (from the Unified Fund) for Center Theatre Group."

As for the Ahmanson, "We're talking to the Music Center Operating Co. about concert possibilities. If we can book 10 or 12 special events (this summer), it would relieve us. In the future, the (CTG) Ahmanson season might extend to a fifth show," Wingate added, though the reality is that the Ahmanson season is having a hard time even coming up with four.

" 'Into the Woods' is a show in some transition," Wingate offered, to explain the non-booking. "It does not have the imprimatur of a New York hit or a big star package. (To bring it in) without subscription, on a single ticket basis, would have been suicidal."

Wingate may be underestimating the star power of composer/lyricist Sondheim.

When "Into the Woods" opened--on a subscription base of 78%, but sight unseen--at the San Diego Old Globe last December, it sold out instantly. The box office was deluged with calls. It even sold standing room. The Globe, however, only has 581 seats to sell and operates on less costly union contracts than the Ahmanson.

"We would have had to guarantee the show against loss," said Ahmanson artistic director Robert Fryer. "('Woods' creators) wanted their costs covered. We could have lost as much as $2 million."

So it's back to the bottom line: How to find profitable product for an expensive, problematic house in financially hard times. Stop gap measures may offer relief; they won't solve the problem.

SMOOTHER SAILING: The new news at Catalina is that they've set the production to follow "Bent" (opening April 5). It's "Nighthawks," a new play by Washington D.C. writer Douglas Steinberg.

"No relationship to the movie I produced with Sylvester Stallone," quipped Levy. "It's (based on) the Edward Hopper painting--a wonderful slice-of-life dramatization of interesting, strange people in that Times Square diner in 1942."

Craig Anderson (formerly artistic director of New York's Hudson Guild Theatre) will direct.

"It's a comic tragedy with a slow reveal at the end," he said.

"Nighthawks" had a workshop outing (in Israel Horovitz's theater in Gloucester, Mass.), but the Catalina presentation will be its first professional production. The real surprise may be its casting.

"Judith Ivey wants to play the lead," Anderson said. The last time we looked, Ivey was in "Two Small Bodies" at the Matrix Theatre. That was 1982--before "Steaming" on Broadway, before the Tony, before Big Films, before Celebrity. It'll be nice to have her back.

PIECES AND BITS: We were wrong to say last week that Stephen Book, on the board of A Directors' Theatre, is on the faculty at UCLA. He's really at USC.

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