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New Image for Civic Light Opera

June 16, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

'Civic Light Opera doesn't mean what it used to mean," said Martin Wiviott. And so the granddaddy of all the local civic light operas, Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, changed its name to something "more contemporary": Broadway/L.A.

Wiviott recently began supervising the LACLO on behalf of its owner, the Nederlander Organization, and one of the first things he said to the company's chairman of the board, James M. Nederlander, was that "we need a new image." Because most of today's theatergoers don't think of Broadway musicals as "light operas," many of the civic light operas are changing their names, Wiviott pointed out. Among the California organizations that formerly were civic light operas are the Music Theatre of Southern California in San Gabriel, Musical Theatre West in La Mirada and American Musical Theatre of San Jose.

The name Broadway/L.A., Wiviott said, "clearly denotes what we are and who we are"--a presenter of Broadway musicals in the city of Los Angeles.

Some of the longtime subscribers probably have a sentimental attachment to the old name, which has identified the organization since the late Edwin Lester founded it in 1938, through his retirement in 1977, through four years of interim leadership and 15 years of the Nederlander era.

Wiviott acknowledged that there may be some protests, but they'll probably be from "the people who have been coming for 50 years. They're loyal subscribers, and we don't want to offend them, but we need to get something that's more appealing to today's audiences."

There certainly aren't as many of those loyal subscribers as there used to be. There are fewer than 10,000 subscribers now, down from a subscriber base that once exceeded 100,000.

Although Wiviott is most identified with the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, which he programmed from 1983 to 1990, this actually will be his second stint with the Los Angeles organization. He went to LACLO directly from his Long Beach job. He stayed until 1993, without making much of a dent in the LACLO decline.

This time will be different, Wiviott said. "Before, I wasn't really involved in what shows came to the Pantages. Now I'm having more of an impact, and my responsibility is directly to Jimmy [Nederlander] in New York," not to local officials of the Nederlander Organization.

Last time around, Wiviott talked about trying to produce his own shows in addition to booking the tours. This time, he's not so ambitious--yet. His first task will be to rebuild the subscriber base, he said. Only when there is enough guaranteed revenue from subscriptions will Broadway/L.A. feel confident enough to invest the extra money required for its own productions. However, in the meantime he hopes to book in some pre-Broadway shows produced by others, in addition to the mostly post-Broadway shows of his debut season.

Only one item on the new season, an Irish song-and-dance extravaganza called "Riverdance," hasn't played on Broadway--though it did play a few blocks from Broadway, at Radio City Music Hall. The others are all post-Broadway tours, and some of them have already made Southland appearances: "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Jerry Lewis in "Damn Yankees," the Tommy Tune production of "Grease," "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "The Phantom of the Opera." More notable than the freshness of this list is the presumed consistency and the quantity: six shows scheduled through 1997, as opposed to the sporadic and reduced nature of recent LACLO seasons.

LACLO's use of the Pantages Theatre was undermined by subway construction in recent years, but the new subscriber brochure emphasized that "the area is about to be spruced up to bring back the glamorous Hollywood of yesteryear. With that in mind, your Civic Light Opera has begun its own sprucing up"--complete with a new name and a breezier logo, featuring a palm tree under a spotlight.

That letter was just the beginning--Wiviott said that 500,000 Broadway/L.A. brochures will go out soliciting new subscribers. He guessed that only about 100,000 went out last year. "There is a bigger investment [from Nederlander] to make this click," Wiviott said. It follows on the heels of a similar rejuvenation of the Nederlanders' San Diego Playgoers series at San Diego Civic Theatre, though the San Diego series isn't getting a new name, Wiviott said.

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