BACK STAGE WEST

 

December 20, 2001

     

 

Commercial Break

As the Shubert shutters early and the Tiffany faces the wrecking ball, L.A. loses two first-class commercial theatres.

 

by Rob Kendt

           

So it's final: Century City's 2,100-seat Shubert Theatre will close Dec. 31, ninth months before it's scheduled to be razed for a new $280 million office development. And when West Hollywood's 99-seat theatre complex the Tiffany Theatres is torn down next year, it won't be coming back any time soon.

 

If there's anything to be learned from the closures of two venues that have been integral and beloved brand-name mainstays of the Los Angeles theatre scene for decades, it may be that in L.A., real estate trumps all. Both the Shubert and Tiffany are victims of developers' new plans for their respective areas, and both of those neighborhoods happen to be prime real estate where a money-losing enterprise like theatre can seem as fragile as a hothouse flower.

 

A corollary lesson might be that L.A. audiences are fickle and unpredictable--both the Shubert and the Tiffany were commercial, rent-driven houses, albeit with strong producing leadership at the helm, and both were designed to thrive, if at all, on the promise of open-ended hit runs rather than on building seasons and subscriber bases.

 

Indeed, L.A.'s Shubert, according to Shubert Organization CEO Gerald Schoenfeld, was the "last theatre built in America with totally private funds," in 1971. The theatre opened with the West Coast premiere of Sondheim's Follies--a show, set in a crumbling old Broadway house, that seemed to look back wistfully on the American musical theatre. But the Shubert's greatest musical-theatre successes were still to come, all of them Broadway-minted blockbusters: A Chorus Line, Annie, Evita, Les Misérables, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and Beauty and the Beast had healthy Shubert runs in L.A.

 

The Shubert's main competition for Broadway shows has long been the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A., which has the edge of season subscription audiences and institutional nonprofit status through the Center Theatre Group. The historic four-year run of The Phantom of the Opera at the Ahmanson--during which the Center Theatre Group took its Ahmanson seasons to the Doolittle in Hollywood--had already tipped the scales toward Downtown, and when Miss Saigon at last came to Los Angeles, in 1995, the producers opted for a limited run at the Ahmanson. Show Boat, Rent, Death of a Salesman, Fosse, and Chicago all followed suit.

 

Meanwhile, the Shubert hosted a brilliant but troubled run of Andrew Lloyd Webber's underrated Sunset Blvd. in 1993 and gambled on the U.S. premiere of Ragtime, Livent's fin-de-siecle-Americana budget blowout, in 1997. Both were creative successes and box-office disappointments. And then, of course, when Disney opted to re-mount its Broadway juggernaut The Lion King in Hollywood, the Shubert's fate was in the cards. Its final season--Riverdance, Mamma Mia, Dame Edna, Saturday Night Fever, Kiss Me Kate, and Tommy--looked more like a pre-booked performing arts center series than a thriving commercial theatre schedule.

 

"We've been very happy there," said Schoenfeld, looking back on the Shubert Theatre's years in L.A. Its closure marks a retrenchment, as it was the only West Coast beachhead for New York- and East Coast-based Shubert Organization. "We brought great musical theatre… to Los Angeles. I think that we also caused people to discover where Century City was located. We made a very good community contribution."

 

The Shubert's commercial booking status was unique for L.A. at the time, but rather than become the model for other theatres, purely commercial theatre ventures have become an endangered species nationwide, as profit/nonprofit collaborations have become the rule.

 

"We conceived the idea of operating the Shubert as an open-ended booking theatre," recalled Schoenfeld. Did it work for L.A.'s then-untested theatregoing market? "It's a success for that market as long as you have the product--it's based on the strength of the shows, and that changes," he said. Though Schoenfeld wouldn't identify a high point for the theatre, it's clear from a roster of shows that 1978-'86 was a peak era for the theatre, with long runs for Annie, Evita, Amadeus, The Wiz, and Cats, a period that ended with a renovation in 1987. The 1990s were weaker, with Sunset Blvd. closing suddenly amid a casting controversy, leaving the theatre dark for nearly a year. "It closed peremptorily, and you don't just have shows standing by," said Schoenfeld.

 

In the current climate, Schoenfeld said, "New theatres can only be built… with government support." L.A.'s newest large venue, the Kodak in Hollywood, was built as a commercial venture, though its situation is doubly unique--it's part of an urban development with a large retail component, and it's been built to the specs of the Oscar telecast. Indeed, next year's Oscars are the only show booked at the Kodak at the moment: The Full Monty, originally scheduled to shimmy into the Kodak in April, will go instead to--where else?--the Ahmanson.

 

Tiffany in Limbo

Like the Shubert, the two-theatre Tiffany Theatres complex was conceived as a commercial venue, though rather than operating with Equity contracts it has operated under L.A.'s unique 99-Seat Theatre Agreement (colloquially known as Equity Waiver). Built in 1985 on the site of an old soft-core art house cinema on the Sunset Strip and run all this time by producer Paula Holt, the Tiffany has long been the theatre of choice for high-profile rental productions in the under-100-seat category. Its sleek lobby and high-end, industry-friendly location made it stand out from much of the town's seat-of-their-pants, actor-driven small-theatre scene.

 

When plans were announced in August for the theatre to be demolished next year for a three-block development by Sunset Millennium, slated to include a 10-story hotel, Holt told Back Stage West that she would be offered a theatre space in the new development and looked forward to "rising out of flames like the phoenix." She said she would independently produce shows at other venues in the 18 months slated for development.

 

She has since learned that the 18-month time frame was an overly optimistic prognosis and has thus resigned herself to the "short-term" reality of the Tiffany's closing for the foreseeable future.

 

"The long-term picture is that there will hopefully be a new hotel built on the space," Holt said. "And within that complex there will be a theatre. But the short term is where we all live. Mar. 31st is the closing date of Tiffany as we have known it." In the meantime, she said, "I'm going to take a deep breath."

 

If anyone deserves to rest on her laurels awhile, it's Holt, who kept the profile of the theatre so high in large part due to her own producing efforts there. Long-running hits like Nightclub Confidential, which ran for 15 months, or Bouncers, which ran almost a year and swept eight L.A. Drama Critic's Circle awards, bolstered the theatre's reputation. So did such well-publicized local premieres as Woman in Mind with Helen Mirren, Marvin's Room with Mary Steenburgen and Jean Smart, Kindertransport with Jane Kaczmarek and Holland Taylor, two one-woman shows with Sandra Tsing Loh, The Bermuda Avenue Triangle with Bea Arthur, and The Mystery of Irma Vep with John Fleck and Tony Abatemarco. She had long associations with such directors as Dennis Erdman and the late Ron Link, for whom she produced such shows as The Killing of Michael Malloy and Twist of Fate.

 

Among the Tiffany's biggest coups was nabbing the local premiere of Oleanna with Lionel Mark Smith and Kyra Sedgwick, after playwright Mamet had a much-publicized row with the Mark Taper Forum over the casting. She later got the rights to stage the local premiere of Mamet's Lakeboat, and the Mamet-directed Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants (the only show she recalls that had scalpers hawking tickets out front, for as high as $300).

 

In her years of commercial producing, she has seen the local scene become a "stronger and more cohesive theatre community" and saw "an expansion in the number of good venues, which speaks to the seriousness with which 99-Seat theatre is embraced in this town. When we opened in 1985, there were really just a handful of decent venues. In the last decade quite a few theatres have developed quite impressive physical plants."

 

For her own producing ambitions, she remains cautiously hopeful.

 

"For a theatre to stay on a piece of property as valuable as the Tiffany's, it has to be because both the developer and the city see it as a value," she said. "Clearly they do--the Tiffany is mentioned by name in the Sunset Specific Plan of West Hollywood, which governs the development of the Sunset Strip. The city of West Hollywood does want to maintain its creative profile."

 

Like the Shubert, the Tiffany relied on rental receipts to keep the doors open, but at the end of the day, she confessed, "Theatre is a money loser. But the wonderful thing about L.A. theatre is that you have the entire spectrum—theatres that are writer-driven, actor-driven, producer-driven. What they have in common is that they're all driven by passion. When the passion leaves, we can all pack up and go home."

 

When the history of L.A. theatre is written (and who's going to do that, by the way?), the Tiffany and the Shubert will go down as two of the best and brightest. As rental houses go, they weren't just the cream of the crop in their size class--they were almost alone in their class. They will be missed.