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A Change of Direction for the Shubert

September 03, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

The Shubert Organization is back in business in Los Angeles, but the shape of its business has changed.

The company's Shubert Theatre in Century City was conceived in the early '70s as a home for limited runs of shows within the framework of a subscription series. But after "A Chorus Line" became a big hit there in 1976, running for 18 months, the Shubert drifted into a policy of long runs, more or less dropping the subscription idea. Indeed, it became home to most of the big, commercial shows that "sat down"--to use industry jargon--in L.A. for months.

Recently, however, the long runs ran out. Since "Ragtime" closed in April 1998, the Shubert has been largely dark. Its best chance to continue its tradition of long-running musicals vanished when "The Lion King," generally seen as the only musical right now that could sustain a long run in L.A., decided to roar at the Pantages in Hollywood.

So the Shubert Organization reversed course and will return the theater to its original mission, announcing plans for a subscription series of four relatively brief runs in 2001: "Mamma Mia!," "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour," "Saturday Night Fever" and "Kiss Me, Kate."

"It was very difficult to maintain a series" during the era of mega-musicals, Shubert President Philip J. Smith said. "We couldn't hold people's money for two years and not give them a new show."

But now that era has ended. Smith suggested that the long-term lock the mega-musicals had on some New York theaters--including Shubert's--discouraged fresh mega-musicals from taking flight.

To attract more business to its L.A. outpost, the Shubert Organization has begun offering guaranteed minimums to productions "on a selective basis," Smith said, acknowledging that this is a change in policy. But where will the long-forgotten subscribers come from? Smith said that it wasn't hard to come up with mailing lists of potential subscribers. "That, we're good at," he said. "I hope we're as good at picking shows."

Speculation had spread in recent months that the theater's dormancy meant that the company might give up its lease on the building when it expires in 2002. Smith denied any such intent. "We are going to make every effort to renew the lease," he said, echoing the response of Shubert Chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, when he was told of the speculation in June: "Nonsense," Schoenfeld said.

Although the company plans to make the subscription series an annual affair, Smith did not rule out the possibility of a return to long runs, if shows with that kind of commercial potential should again materialize.

EXTENDED STAGES: Meanwhile, Shubert's longtime rival, the Nederlander Organization, isn't sitting still with its subscription series, Broadway/L.A., even though its flagship Pantages will house "The Lion King" for a long time.

Broadway/L.A. announced a series last week that will make its Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills much more active as it fills in for the Pantages. The Wilshire has traditionally lost business because of its shallow stage, but Broadway/L.A. general manager Martin Wiviott said the stage will be extended over much of the orchestra pit to accommodate the extra business next year.

Still, with the exception of the South African musical "Gunboots," the Wilshire isn't attracting new-to-L.A. shows--as the Shubert is. Other shows slated for the Wilshire are "Annie Get Your Gun," "Stomp," "Catskills on Broadway," Savion Glover's "Foot Notes" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

The Broadway/L.A. series also includes one distinctly non-Broadway oddity: the return of "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding," the interactive simulation of a colorful Italian American wedding. Until now, the "Wedding" has been held in nontraditional theater spaces, including the Park Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles in 1989, but the production that will arrive Nov. 30 will take place in the Henry Fonda Theatre, Broadway/L.A.'s third and smallest venue. However, the stage will be extended over much of the Fonda's orchestra seating, leaving room for only 250 spectators at what is now the rear of the house. They'll watch the opening wedding ceremony, which will take place on the lip of the new extension; then the audience will join the wedding party on the extended stage, sitting at banquet tables. A buffet meal and wine is included in the $75 ticket price--"but you don't have to bring a gift," Wiviott noted.

Although the Fonda didn't work out as the site of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" last fall, Wiviott said the Broadway/L.A. subscription lists should guarantee at least 5,000 spectators, which will help create full houses for the first few weeks (at four performances a week) and generate word of mouth. *

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