Financial tremors are hitting L.A. theater. In the wake/aftershock of the Los Angeles Festival, several houses are half-empty or worse--a situation reminiscent of the aftermath of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival when theater attendance in Los Angeles also plummeted.
Can there be a connection?
Consider: "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" closed unexpectedly Sunday at the Hollywood Playhouse. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is planning to close Sunday at the Westwood Playhouse, three weeks prematurely (although the producers are still holding out some hope for an extension). And "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which was scheduled to reopen at the Doolittle Theatre last night canceled before opening because of sluggish advance sales.
Yet all three were solid shows with strong selling points.
Elsewhere the picture is cloudy too. At the Music Center, box office is below expectation at both the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson. Future sales for "The Best Man" at the Ahmanson are reported to be down and box-office figures for the show's second week were a slim $175,148 (against a potential capacity of $378,696). The Taper's "Babbitt: A Marriage," which ends its run Sunday, has done only 61% of capacity business, according to the theater's press office--well below the Taper's last-season average.
"Flamenco Puro" at the Pantages is dancing to half-houses or less. Last week's take was $226,000, against a potential sellout of $540,000. The Chernobyl-disaster themed "Sarcophagus" and Dario Fo's "Elisabeth Almost by Chance a Woman," which both had mixed reviews at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, are not doing thriving business but are subscribed and will complete their runs.
The brightest exception to this desultory picture is, not so oddly, the black musical "The Gospel Truth" at the 1,300-seat Beverly Theatre. That show is clicking at 70% audience capacity (the majority of it black, according to press spokesman Dick Spittel), and its success has spurred a move Nov. 3 to a new locale, the 1,000-seat downtown Variety Arts Center.
The producers of "The Gospel Truth," Mary Evelyn Card and Ashton Springer, enjoy two advantages: Neither the Beverly Theatre nor the Variety Arts Center is a union theater, so the producers do not have to comply with costly union requirements. And their show is tailored to a black constituent audience.
In contrast, novice producers George LaPorte and Kate Axelrod of the inventive "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Westwood never found a constituency. And if they want to extend past Sunday, they must re-post a $26,000 bond with Actors' Equity by Friday. That appears unlikely, because the show has averaged only a third of its break-even point (called a weekly nut in theater circles). Mounted for $250,000, "Midsummer" drew several rave reviews, but trouble loomed.
"There was no star to sell," said press spokesman Tom Brocato, "and it was Shakespeare that was not part of an outdoor summer festival."
Television critics ignored the show's opening, added LaPorte. "And one evening there were only 29 people out front. The actors outnumbered the audience."
More curious was the failure of the impressive Billie Holiday drama with song, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." Jazz aficionados apparently turned a deaf ear.
Unlike "The Gospel Truth" (which successfully mines the memberships of black churches), black audiences had just started coming to "Lady Day," said the producers. Total attendance at the unflinching look at racism and the struggles of a great black singer last Sunday was a mere 55 for the matinee and half that for the evening in the 240-seat Hollywood Playhouse. The weekly house nut was $18,000 and for three days last weekend the box office tallied only $1,500.
So what is going on with L.A. theater? Did the festival and the fringe wear audiences out? Some think yes. "I spent $400 going to festival shows," said a theatergoer (Peter Brook's "Mahabharata" alone cost $90). Others scoff at the festival connection, citing current, disappointing product.
The co-producer of "Lady Day," Eddie Davis, a recent emigre from Broadway, has another view: "L.A. is not a place you can make money in the theater and too many critics here are lackadaisical about opening nights. They show up whenever it's convenient. Reviews run days after the opening. That dilutes the impact. The TV critics wait until after the print reviews are out. The trades have no impact if they review at all.
"This is a movie and TV town."
Yet for Rosalie Lazarus, considered a major player as the group sales representative for several theaters, "one blockbuster like 'Cats' will spur people to go to theaters."
Lazarus is a Geiger counter of group tastes. Her business centers on the four key categories for theater group sales--travel clubs, charities, companies and schools.
"Those are my people," she said, "and they are making the revival of 'Mail' (reopening Nov. 1 at Pasadena Playhouse) my hottest ticket right now.