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THEATER

A Roundabout Way to Power

Todd Haimes, artistic director of the renowned Roundabout Theater Company, is hoping to apply the lessons he's learning there to troubled giant Livent.

September 20, 1998|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — "I'm not a lunatic," Todd Haimes says more than once in the course of an hourlong chat. The defensive posture is not an idle one. His fortunes of late have resembled the zigs and zags of the stock market.

As the artistic director of New York's bullish nonprofit Roundabout Theater Company, the producer accepted two Tony Awards in June, for best revival of a play ("A View From the Bridge") and best revival of a musical ("Cabaret"). Indeed, the acclaimed "Cabaret" not only won a total of four Tonys, but was also the hottest ticket on Broadway, with A-list celebrities being turned away regularly from the intimate Kit Kat Klub on West 43rd Street where the show was playing.

Then disaster struck in the form of an accident at the Conde Nast Building construction site in Times Square, directly adjacent to the Kit Kat Klub, which paralyzed businesses in the surrounding area, closing down not only "Cabaret" but also Roundabout's two other shows at the theater's 45th and Broadway complex. Making matters worse, simultaneously, the theater's box office became one of the targets of a wide-ranging state investigation into ticket scalping or "ice"--the practice of illegally overcharging ticket brokers for seats to hot shows. While that investigation continues (Haimes has denied any knowledge of improper practices), "Cabaret" has since resumed playing to standing-room-only audiences, but not before losing more than $2 million.

Topping off the wild ride of the last two months, on Sept. 3, Livent, the beleaguered corporate theater giant that has produced such mega-musicals as "Show Boat" and "Ragtime," announced that Haimes would become, effective immediately, its new artistic director. Even with a five-year contract with Livent--which spent more than $250 million last year--he is continuing to head Roundabout--with its $18-million annual budget--for at least another year.

Given the emotional whiplash of the last couple of months, one might expect to find him curled up in a fetal position in a corner of Roundabout's executive offices three floors above the bustle of Times Square. Instead Haimes, 42, appears remarkably calm and focused amid the unimaginable clutter of his office, and a certain ironic glimmer occasionally sneaks into his eyes. According to those who know him well, he is a shy, modest man, self-effacing and uneasy with the spotlight that is now being trained upon him.

"In many ways, I'm constantly a bundle of insecurities waiting for disaster to strike, though I must say I never expected a building would fall down on 'Cabaret'--that brought a new level of disaster I'd never thought about," he says amiably. "But in other ways, I truly am challenged by challenges, and I think of Livent as this extraordinary challenge for me, and it does scare and excite me."

This attitude has worked well for Haimes. Fifteen years ago, armed with a master's degree in business from Yale, he joined a nearly defunct Roundabout as a fiscal manager and--against all odds--restored the company to fiscal health and nurtured it to become one of the largest nonprofit theaters in the country.

"Todd has a very positive approach to, and solutions for, resolving huge challenges," says Christian C. Yegen, chairman of the Roundabout's board, who hired him. "By the same token, he pulls no punches."

During Haimes' tenure, Roundabout has made two major geographical moves, expanded to two stages, quadrupled its budget to $18 million (80% of which comes from ticket sales) and more than tripled its number of subscribers, to 35,000. While he continued to primarily focus on revivals of dramatic and musical classics, he expanded the programming to include new works. Since he assumed the title of artistic director in 1989, Roundabout productions have been nominated for 51 Tony awards.

Says Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, who is co-producing the new musical "Parade" with Livent: "Todd's a combo platter, a businessman with sensitivity for talented people. He's honorable and decent and smart, all the things you would want as a director for a company."

Haimes will need that talent and more in helping to turn around Livent, founded in 1989 by Garth Drabinsky, a flamboyant Canadian impresario who grew the company from a single theater in Toronto to a string of theatrical venues across North America, with Ford Centers for the Performing Arts in Toronto, New York and Chicago and an ambitious roster of plays and musicals. The lineup includes this season's Broadway-bound "Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance" (opening at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles on Oct. 14) and "Parade," the new Harold Prince musical premiering in November at Lincoln Center.

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