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Reprise! Looks for Repeat Success

Marcia Seligson couldn't find enough great musicals being done in L.A., so she decided to put them on herself. Talk about your moxie!

April 26, 1998|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg, a frequent contributor to Calendar, is the author of "Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical."

In spring 1995, magazine journalist Marcia Seligson decided she didn't want to write anymore. She'd done it for 25 years, and it was time to move on. She stopped accepting assignments, visited a career counselor and started making lists of things she cared about.

Musical theater was always at the top of any list.

"I grew up on musical theater in [its] glory days," says the former New Yorker, "and I could never find enough good musical theater in Los Angeles to satisfy me. I started thinking I can't be the only one in town who feels that way."

After initial thoughts of producing a musical herself, she focused on how much she enjoyed New York City Center's popular Encores! series of concert stagings of old musicals. "I realized you could do great revivals of shows that are fabulous, worthy of reviving, and that most people haven't seen," she remembers. "You could do it inexpensively by cutting way back on the scenery and extravaganza. There was nothing like that in Los Angeles."

There is now. Seligson's Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert series starts its second three-show season at UCLA's Freud Playhouse on May 6 with "The Pajama Game," starring Christine Ebersole, Dorian Harewood and Peter Scolari. "The Threepenny Opera" follows Sept. 9-20, and the series ends with "Of Thee I Sing" Nov. 11-22.

After a sold-out, critically acclaimed first season, Reprise! has more than doubled its performances of each show this season to 15 from seven. Even above the 85% resubscription rate already achieved, says Seligson, individual ticket sales "are going well. A couple of performances are already sold out."

Never mind that before Reprise! Seligson had never produced live theater.

"The gumption is what you really have to note most in Marcia," says actor Jason Alexander, who starred in the series' first show, "Promises, Promises." "There was a lot she didn't know, but she had a vision and she was fearless. She would call anyone and everyone in pursuit of making this happen."

She still does. Seligson's key resource is clearly the ample Rolodex she's filled through years of writing for such magazines as Life and Lear's and turning out eight books on everything from the wedding industry to humor.

"I know how to bring people together," says Seligson, who was instrumental in assembling

the daylong, celebrity-studded L.A. World Hunger Event in May 1980. "I know lots and lots of people, and I'm a very good networker."

Seligson's networking happens, for the most part, at the spacious oceanfront condo she shares with her husband, management consultant Tom Drucker, as well as their golden retriever named Spirit, and assorted Reprise! staffers who work in the upstairs and downstairs offices.

Boxes full of Reprise! T-shirts, brochures, stationery and programs border the den, and her collection of music-theater CDs is on the bar near the piano.

Seligson can still remember the first Broadway show she saw as a child--Ethel Merman in "Annie Get Your Gun," and she says her whole background is musical. She studied piano, initially majored in music in college, and performed with an amateur choir. She also has what she describes as "a very odd quality--when I don't know how to do something, it doesn't scare me. I know how to get people who know more than I do to teach me. I'm a good student."

In early 1996, for instance, she spoke with New York City Center president and executive director Judith Daykin. While there are several differences between Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert and Reprise!, Seligson readily concedes she modeled her effort on her New York predecessors. "They tapped into this audience, did it economically in a time when shows cost $11 million, and [they] were incredibly successful," she says matter of factly.

"Why reinvent the wheel?"

She started assembling a board, scouted musical properties and looked at theaters. Seeking a midsized house rather than a larger, union house or a smaller, 99-seat one, she looked at sound stages, theaters used for film screenings, even an airplane hangar. It took six months, she says, before somebody suggested UCLA's 568-seat Freud Playhouse, usually used for student productions.

A board member set up lunch for her with Peter Matz, a prominent Broadway arranger and orchestrator she hoped would help her choose from the half-dozen possible musical directors she'd been considering. But when she pulled out her list, Seligson says, "Peter said, 'I hope you're going to ask me to be your musical director,' and I started to cry. I was just so overwhelmed."

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