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Fall Arts Preview

A toast to the coast

California Has Emerged As A Creative Staging Area For N.y.-bound Plays. The Evidence: A Flock Of Works With West Coast Roots.

September 19, 2004|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

"One doesn't want to act superior to Los Angeles and the theatrical hits that, from time to time, it sends us. Yet if these exports continue to be more or less in the class of 'Zoot Suit,' which is only slightly below the grisly norm, what else is one to do?" -- John Simon, New York magazine

When the Center Theatre Group's "Zoot Suit" went to New York in 1979, Luis Valdez's mythic musical drama about pachucos in '40s L.A. seemed to have everything -- everything Broadway didn't like.

"We came with trumpets blaring," says CTG artistic director Gordon Davidson. "It was an enormous hit here, but it's not unbelievable that the critics might've been sharpening their knives over this big deal coming from the West Coast to occupy a Broadway theater."

And, he adds, "no one understood the references, what a Chicano was. They didn't know what to make of the whole thing." The show closed in a month.

Plays arriving from California don't get treated like strangers from a strange land anymore. They may be panned, of course, but not because of their roots. In fact, the relationship between East and West has grown increasingly close, a marriage of convenience having turned into an out-and-out romance.

New York initially looked to the Pacific for relief from skyrocketing costs, seeking artistic and financial opportunities a safe distance from Times Square. But in the quarter-century since "Zoot Suit," the Golden State's best regional companies -- following a national trend -- have gone from satellites to stars. They've amassed the talent, resources and clout to serve not only as attractive partners but as creative forces in their own right.

"California's fairly fertile territory," says Benjamin Mordecai, one of New York's top producers. "Some of it is economics, but I believe it's always really about artistic leadership. And there are a lot of leaders out there."

As the 2004-05 season begins, stages across the country are filled with shows that were conceived, written, developed or given their debuts here. At least a dozen that originated in the state have plans of moving on or off Broadway, which may no longer represent the apex of American theater but retains a place in many hearts. Even more important, California audiences are getting the first look at some of the nation's most exciting work, as years of investment in new voices are paying off.

"Something's definitely going on out here," says Jack O'Brien, artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe since 1981, whose recent New York transplants include "The Full Monty" and the Tony-winning "Henry IV." "We're lucky because a theater like ours turns out no less than 14 productions a year, everything from Aeschylus to Stephen Sondheim. When you do so much, you're going to get some stuff to Broadway."

O'Brien and Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, have made the region a hot corner, especially, though not exclusively, for musicals.

The Globe will mount two world premieres this season, including "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," based on the 1988 comedy film of the same name. The highly anticipated musical is scheduled to go to Broadway in March, with a cast led by John Lithgow and a creative team that reunites O'Brien with composer David Yazbek ("The Full Monty") and scenic designer David Rockwell ("Hairspray").

At La Jolla, McAnuff will direct "Jersey Boys," the story behind the doo-wop sounds of the Four Seasons. "This is the quintessential American immigrant tale set to music we grew up with," says McAnuff, who has led the Playhouse -- with one hiatus -- since 1983. In that time, a dozen productions have landed on Broadway, among them Frank Wildhorn's "Dracula, the Musical," which is playing now, albeit to disappointing reviews. La Jolla has helped to develop nonmusicals too. Alumni of its Page to Stage program include the 2004 Pulitzer and Tony winner "I Am My Own Wife" and Billy Crystal's autobiographical "700 Sundays," which will open in New York in December.

"We were the first to do a jump as big as La Jolla to Broadway," says McAnuff. The breakthrough coming in the early '80s when producer Rocco Landesman came to the Playhouse with "Big River." Landesman was sure that Huckleberry Finn's story set to Roger Miller's music could have a future in New York. It did -- winning seven Tonys, including one of McAnuff's two directing awards. (The other was for "The Who's Tommy" in 1993.)

"It was clear to Rocco that the resident theaters were better places to develop musicals," McAnuff says. "The commercial theater was too expensive. Developing stuff on the road was too difficult. So these partnerships started forming."

BROADWAY'S BOTTOM LINE

Gone are the days when a single impresario can green-light a show. Changing economics have changed the way plays are made.

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