Chicago Tribune


August 20, 2000

If you want to see "Parade," winner of 1999 Tony Awards for best book and best score of a musical, you can see it in Memphis or in Green Bay, but not in Chicago.

If you want to see "Wit," winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama, you can see it in Milwaukee or Madison, Wis., but not in Chicago.

If you want to see "Dinner with Friends," winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for drama, you can see it in Los Angeles or Indianapolis, but not in Chicago.

If you want to see "The Lion King," winner of the 1998 Tony Award as best musical, you can see it in Los Angeles or Toronto, but not in Chicago.

What's going on here? Why are many major dramas and musicals so slow to arrive in Chicago, a city known for its theater vitality? Why are we left waiting for important shows that should have been booked in theaters here long ago? What are we, chopped liver?

The reasons vary from show to show, but the answer is always the same. Chicago is left without productions that audiences here should see -- now.

Begin with "Parade." This brave and innovative musical, based on the true story of the lynching of a Jewish businessman after a racially charged 1913 murder trial in Atlanta, is an exciting work of high artistry, but, partly because of the nature of its story (and the financial problems of its co-producer Livent), it did not last long when it played New York last year. However, an Atlanta producer, Christopher B. Manos, mounted a tour of the musical, staged by its original director, Harold Prince, that included Atlanta, Dallas, St. Paul, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cleveland and the Weidner Center in Green Bay (Tuesday through Aug. 29). A Chicago stop was planned for one week, beginning Sept. 5, at the Cadillac Palace.

However, when the Palace changed ownership earlier this year, the new owners, the New York-based SFX Theatrical Group and the Nederlander Organization, yanked "Parade."

"We took a hard look at the show and the business it had done," says Louis Raizin, who represents SFX/Nederlander here for their "Broadway in Chicago" programming in downtown theaters, "and we had to be realistic about what the sales might have been. The artistic and business perspectives did not mesh. That has been our frustration with this show."

For his part, Manos says, "My understanding was that the new owners were not ready to put the show into their subscription plans for the new season. That sometimes happens with a new ownership. I'm disappointed, of course, but I'm also a grownup. I realize that `Parade' is not the most popular theater piece in the world. But we're going along just fine, and the reception on tour so far has been very positive. The important thing is that we're getting it out there for people to see."

But not in Chicago.

Meanwhile, "Broadway in Chicago's" bookings include such shows as "Sundance Radio Theatre," which is a staging of old radio scripts, and "Blast!" a revue of "60 brass, percussion and visual performers," in which, presumably, artistic and business perspectives do meet.

The case of "Dinner with Friends," Donald Margulies' intimate and touching drama about two married couples, is particularly sticky. Mitchell Maxwell, a primary producer of the Off Broadway hit, had intended to buy the Royal George Theatre in Chicago and present "Dinner" there. When the Royal George deal fell through, the not-for-profit Northlight Theatre, which early on had suggested presenting the play at its home theater in Skokie and then moving it to the Royal George for a commercial run, suddenly found the play available and announced it as its opening show for the new season.

B.J. Jones, Northlight's artistic director, angered when he was subsequently told by the New York producers that he did not have the show, is absolutely convinced he had a firm agreement. But Maxwell insists that was far from the case. "We never concluded any formal understanding," Maxwell says. "There was no done deal. Nothing was in writing. Their announcement was premature."

Instead, Maxwell says, "Dinner with Friends" will either play the 450-seat Royal George in January in a sit-down resident production, or, more likely, it will play three to four weeks in June at the 2,000-seat Shubert as part of a national tour that opens next month at the 500-seat Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Maxwell, who says he's eager to have "Dinner" in Chicago, says, "The play is a hit, thank heavens, and plays that are hits don't come along very often. We have to make sure that we present them under the right conditions and that we do right by our investors."

"Wit," Margaret Edson's moving drama of a dying woman's battle with cancer, opened Off Broadway in 1998 and, after winning the Pulitzer, played resident theaters all over the country. It opens next month at Madison Repertory Theatre.

Chicago audiences, however, have yet to see "Wit." At first, Chicago was considered as a stop on a national tour, but the tour never developed. Consequently, many another theater, outside the tour route, got the show. As for Chicago, Robert Vaughn of Dramatists Play Service in New York, which licenses rights to the play's production, says, "The producers have been considering two options for Chicago, but nothing has been resolved yet."

One option might have been Goodman Theatre, where management was considering the play for production as part of the opening season in its new theater complex on North Dearborn Street. But, says Roche Schulfer, Goodman's executive director, "While we waited for an answer, we booked other shows by artists associated with the Goodman, and these naturally have priority."

At Victory Gardens Theater, artistic director Dennis Zacek says, "We definitely want `Wit.' I would put it in our upstairs theater and let it run for as long as possible; but so far, I haven't been able to get the rights."

"The irony," Schulfer points out, "is that because of Chicago's reputation as a good theater town, producers want to make money here with their own commercial productions. But while waiting for those tours, we don't get the shows, and sometimes these proposed national tours never get off the ground."

(The Tony Award-winning play "Art," which would have done very well here in a resident not-for-profit theater, did have an excellent commercial production here at the Royal George Theatre two seasons ago, but, despite a run of several months, it lost money.)

"The Lion King," one megamusical that is guaranteed to do big box office, has opened to sensational business in Los Angeles and Toronto and was actively pursued here by the Auditorium and the former management at the Palace. But, in a dumb scheduling move by the producing Disney organization, this monster hit won't get to Chicago until, at the earliest, two years from now, after it finishes its Toronto engagement and five years after it premiered on Broadway.

There is some good news. "The Vagina Monologues," a certified off-Broadway hit, is to open here at the Apollo Theatre Sept. 27 at the start of its national tour; and Chicago is only one of three cities (Boston and San Francisco being the other two) in which the author, Eve Ensler, will perform her one-woman show.

Too often, however, we are left with dust in our mouths, waiting and waiting while other cities with less active theater scenes get the shows.

Whether it is prudence in producers' handling of their product or misguided greed and ignorance in their understanding of the Chicago market, the end result is discouraging and frustrating. Chicago, a theater town of the first rank, a city which once was the first stop on any national tour, is now often one of the last stops in a show's life, productions arriving here long after interest in them has peaked.

We deserve better, and smarter, treatment.

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