NEW YORK — Two years ago, when Jack O'Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, called several New York producers to see if any of them wanted to come to San Diego to check out Stephen Metcalfe's "Emily" for a New York production, no one got on the plane.
About a year and a half later, the work, which at the time had been hailed by Time magazine as one of the best new plays of the year, opened and closed without fanfare at Playwrights' Horizons in New York.
"Now if I call them and say you must see this, they come out that weekend," said O'Brien, who was in New York putting the final touches on "The Cocktail Hour."
What happened to change things?
"Into the Woods," which premiered last summer at the Old Globe, traveled last year to Broadway, where it won Tony Awards for best music and lyrics and best actress. It's still going strong, and about to start a national tour that will take it to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in early January.
"The Cocktail Hour" has quickly blossomed into a major off-Broadway hit, and Neil Simon's "Rumors," which also premiered at the Globe, is due for a Broadway opening Nov. 17. The word is "wait and see" on "Suds," the San Diego smash now belting out its pop '60s tunes off-Broadway. But, if that confection makes it, it will be icing on the cake.
The San Diego-New York connection actually began when Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, directed "Big River" for first-time producer Rocco Landesman at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., before taking it to the La Jolla Playhouse and then Broadway.
"Big River" won seven Tony Awards, including one for best musical in 1985. That led to Landesman's role as a pioneer in organizing partnerships between nonprofit regional theater and commercial New York theater.
It's a natural coupling, according to Thomas Viertel, who, along with Steven Baruch and Richard Frankel, is producing "The Cocktail Hour" off-Broadway, along with independent producer Roger L. Stephens and Thomas Hall, managing director of the Old Globe.
"The financial aspects are crystal-clear," Viertel said during a New York interview. "The regional theater, because of its built-in subscription base, has the ability to withstand failure. But only the commercial producer can realize a show's financial potential."
The commercial producer's secret? He plucks the show from its circumscribed season slot and gives it a shot at an unlimited run in the international showcase of Broadway.
"Only Neil Simon has been able to go without the nonprofit theater," Viertel said. Then, reminded of "Rumors," he added, "Now even he is doing it."
Emanuel Azenberg, longtime Simon producer who did "Rumors" with the Old Globe, speaks wistfully about the transition from the old method of the pre-Broadway out-of-town tryout, in which the lone producer and a pocketful of investors were all the steam a show needed to get chugging along.
"There are very few Broadway producers left," he said, then paused. "Broadway doesn't introduce many plays, they present them. Most plays initiate in regional theaters."
It's a trend for which Azenberg anticipates no reversal. But he said it is satisfying to have the freedom at the Old Globe to permit Simon to tinker with the script throughout the run. The volume of changes, Azenberg said, would not be feasible in an out-of-town tryout, where there is pressure to make money right away.
Although partnerships between the profit and nonprofit sectors date as far back as the 1960s, when "The Great White Hope" debuted at the Arena Stage in Washington before making its Broadway splash, they have been multiplying in recent years as a way of keeping up with the increasingly prohibitive prices of developing shows in New York.
Landesman said it costs $1 million to $2 million to develop a show by the traditional out-of-town route, and only $100,000 to $200,000 to start in regional theaters.
"Even a workshop in New York costs a quarter of a million, and then you don't even play it in front of a real audience," he said.
Landesman blamed the high cost of producing musicals in New York for the dwindling number of one of America's few indigenous forms of music. He pointed to regional theater productions as a way of revitalizing the breed.
"There's an enormous saving of money, and you're free of time pressures," he said. "There is time to rethink and recast."
Landesman said he keeps his eye on several distinguished theater towns, including Los Angeles, where his wife, Heidi, is designing a set for the Mark Taper Forum; Chicago, home of the Goodman Theatre; and Cambridge, home of the ART.
Certainly, the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., under the artistic leadership of Lloyd Richards, has been more responsible than any theater for New York's steady diet of award-wining plays, from August Wilson's "Fences" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" to Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca."