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Commentary / STAGE

The Ahmanson: Some Thoughts on Its Future

February 21, 1988|DAN SULLIVAN

Wanted: an artistic director for the Ahmanson Theatre. Center Theatre Group's board of directors thought they had nailed one down a year ago. Martin Manulis would spend the 1987-'88 season co-running the Ahmanson with Robert Fryer, and take over when Fryer stepped down in June.

But after his first couple of shows, Manulis, who is in his 70s, decided that the job called for a younger person with a strong vision of what the Ahmanson should be about. So when June comes, he'll be gone too.

A search committee has been interviewing candidates for the job this month. These are said to include Gordon Davidson of the Mark Taper Forum, Jack O'Brien of the Old Globe Theatre, and three Broadway producers: Nelle Nugent ("Dracula"), Stuart Ostrow ("Pippin") and James R. Freydberg ("Burn This").

There's also talk of appointing an interim artistic director for a year. If the year is spent in a serious analysis of the Ahmanson's fundamental problems, it will be time well spent.

"We're on the road to making this into a damn good theater," says Lawrence Ramer, chairman of the CTG board. "What it needs is better programming--plays that this city deserves to have."

Ahmanson seasons are likely to remain hit-and-miss, however, until the CTG board finds consensus on these basic questions: What kind of theater was the Ahmanson designed to be? Has it lived up to that dream? Does that dream still apply? How do its fortunes affect the Music Center's resident companies? How does its competition affect other Los Angeles theaters?

What next?

Some of these questions can be answered statistically. Others are a matter of opinion. The last is a question of choice. Yet the choice has got to be made. The first principle to be observed in doing so is the medical one: Do no harm.

Meaning this: The theater that has brought the Music Center to world attention isn't the Ahmanson; it's the Mark Taper Forum. The Taper's program, especially its generation of new plays, must go on. To save the Ahmanson at the expense of the Taper would be a defeat for the artistic life of the city.

In fact, if there's only so much money to go around, it would make sense for Center Theatre Group to withdraw from the Ahmanson and concentrate on strengthening the Taper. The Ahmanson is only a building. It can't be allowed to drag down a living theater.

If CTG did leave the Ahmanson, the Music Center would have to run it or to find another tenant. That might mean some dark weeks.

Still, the Shubert Theatre has been dark for a year, waiting for "Les Miserables." A dark house is no disgrace if there's nothing to put in it. In the Ahmanson's case, it would provide time to refurbish the hall. That depressing black surround and those fraying red carpets have got to go.

It's also possible that the Music Center would find a new tenant right away. It might be the Shuberts, who are going to need a house for "Phantom of the Opera." (Suddenly they face a booking jam of their own.)

This would formally convert the Ahmanson into the thing that everybody said it mustn't become when it was dedicated 20 years ago--a booking house. If that's the only way to keep it from becoming a millstone around the Music Center's neck, to the imperilment of its resident artists, so be it. But there's another alternative.

Note that "Phantom of the Opera" is a musical. That is the kind of show that plays best in a 2,100-seat house with two balconies. It is also the kind of show that mainstream theater goers like best. Moreover, until recently, the Los Angeles audience was in the habit of seeing three or four musicals a season at the Music Center, under the auspices of Civic Light Opera, now departed.

This suggests that there would be a market for a subscription series of musicals at the Ahmanson. They could be offered in cooperation with the new Music Center Opera Company, or the Orange County Performing Arts Center, or the California Music Theatre in Pasadena. Certainly there is an enormous nostalgia for the civility that marked CLO's relationship with its subscribers before it fell under the graceless control of the Nederlander Organization. That alone would bring people back to the hill.

That's one track that the Ahmanson could take. But supposing CTG does decide to make a stand there. It could decide to produce musicals, as above. This would not be cheap, but the shows would at least fill the stage and project up to the balcony--which wasn't the case for the Ahmanson's first play this year, "The Best Man." Not that there was anybody in the balcony.

If the Ahmanson is to continue doing non-musical plays, the board will have to deal with the fact that the house is too large for them. It wouldn't be too large if CLO hadn't insisted on that top balcony 20 years ago, but there you are.

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