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La Jolla Cashes Its 'Rent' Check

April 05, 1998|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

La Jolla Playhouse Managing Director Terrence Dwyer reported seeing "dancing in the halls." The theater is celebrating the elimination of its accumulated deficit, which had risen as high as $1.85 million five years ago.

As the 1997 season began, the deficit stood at $760,000. But last year proved to be golden, thanks especially to La Jolla's West Coast premiere of "Rent." Other shows contributed to the fiscal progress--"Having Our Say" became the all-time top-grosser in the theater's smaller space, the Mandell Weiss Forum. But Dwyer acknowledged that without "Rent," the deficit probably wouldn't have been retired. The hit show provided $1,416,979 of the entire season's $2,239,074 in single-ticket sales.

In search of the next "Rent," the theater is pumping up its play-development programs, which had been reduced to only a few sporadic readings while deficit reduction was the top priority. Commissions for three new plays and two new musicals are in the works, and one of the commissioned plays, Jessica Hagedorn's "Dogeaters," is on the 1998 lineup. Dwyer said the playhouse's last prior commissioned play, in 1991, was Lee Blessing's "Fortinbras."

The company's new five-year plan also includes an endowment and much more extensive education programs. Dwyer said he doubts that attendance figures this year will rise to the height of last year, when subscriptions topped 14,000, but he's sure they will top any year's figures before 1997. As of last week, with six or seven weeks left in the renewal campaign, the subscriber base was approaching the 12,000 level.

FILLING THE SHUBERT: With "Ragtime" to depart the Shubert on Saturday, what's next at the Westside's biggest theater?

Rumors circulated last week that "Chicago" will move to the Shubert after its May 6 to July 5 run at the Ahmanson Theatre, but co-producer Barry Weissler said on Wednesday that a decision had not yet been made. He'd like to keep "Chicago" at the Ahmanson longer, he said, but it must move to make room for "An Enemy of the People."

To many observers, the most logical candidate to be the next long-term tenant of the Shubert would be "The Lion King." A mega-hit on Broadway, it's produced by Walt Disney Theatrical Productions, based in Burbank, which also produced the Shubert show just before "Ragtime," "Beauty and the Beast." When will the company show off "The Lion King" in its hometown?

"We have no plans" as of now, said Disney Theatrical President Peter Schneider last week. "We're taking our time. We'll have a much slower roll-out, as opposed to 'Ragtime' and 'Rent.' " Perhaps the most important factor in the timing is the availability of the show's director, Julie Taymor, Schneider said. But even so, "we'll probably announce our international plans first."

The Los Angeles production of "The Lion King," whenever it happens, will likely be conceived as part of a tour, as opposed to the strategy used by "Ragtime" producer Garth Drabinsky, who presented the U.S. premiere of the show here in an open-ended run, even keeping it going three months after it opened on Broadway.

"Los Angeles has always been a good town if you leave a show here as long as possible and then go on," Schneider said. But he doubts L.A.'s capability to sustain a longer, independent run. The 18-month run of "Beauty and the Beast" only "broke even," he said, despite an earlier report from a former Disney official who had said that "Beauty" made money during every week of its run. "And I don't think 'Ragtime' made a lot of money," he added.

Schneider isn't the only local producer who questions the "Ragtime" strategy. Center Theatre Group Artistic Director/Producer Gordon Davidson recently said of "Ragtime" that "we could have presented a slightly more concentrated run at the Ahmanson with a higher impact, getting a higher gross for a shorter time."

Drabinsky has maintained in the past that he wasn't disappointed by the box office performance of "Ragtime" in Los Angeles, though he didn't disclose any profit or loss figures. He also has vigorously defended the decision to present the U.S. premiere here. He wasn't available for comment last week.

The "Ragtime" company assembled in L.A. will continue to bring in revenue as it journeys on to other cities. When it opens in Vancouver on May 10, among the stars who will continue their roles are Kingsley Leggs, John Rubinstein and LaChanze. And some of the L.A. understudies will now take over the roles for which they've been on call.

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