In revitalizing the north Loop theater district, the Daley administration hoped to give the city an economic and artistic center that would rival New York's Great White Way. But now three of its largest commercial houses--the Shubert Theatre, the Cadillac Palace Theatre, and the Oriental Theatre--have become a clearinghouse for two New York theatrical powerhouses, the Nederlander Organization and SFX Theatrical Group. The two corporations held a press conference on June 20 to unveil "Broadway in Chicago," their joint 2000-2001 season at the Shubert (which is owned by Nederlander), the Oriental (which is owned by SFX), and the Palace (which they lease jointly, now that Nederlander has bought out Chicago producer Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals). The heralded lineup totals 15 engagements, yet the Shubert alone presented 14 engagements last season, from September 1999 through June 2000. In a sense, Nederlander and SFX are simply taking the productions that might have played one venue and spreading them around.
Where's Jean Valjean when you need him? Only a handful of the shows look at all promising, and none of them seems like the kind of blockbuster that can pull patrons back into the Loop. Saturday Night Fever was roundly panned by New York critics, and the musical Mamma Mia! can't rely upon the Abba fanatics that made it a hit in London. Tallulah, a one-woman show featuring Kathleen Turner as actress Tallulah Bankhead, might sustain its two-week engagement at the Shubert. But the lineup is heavy with revivals, including Cabaret, Annie Get Your Gun, Fiddler on the Roof, and a staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's TV musical Cinderella. From out of left field come Blast--sort of a Stomp! for marching bands--and Sundance Radio Theater, a play that adapts radio dramatizations of Hollywood films of the 1930s and '40s. The Scarlet Pimpernel, which opens August 9 at the Shubert, was actually announced last year as part of the 1999-2000 season, and the fall engagement by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is already a fixture on the Loop's calendar. Nederlander and SFX are offering several different packages to subscribers, and they may need plenty of them to compensate for poor single-ticket sales.
The "Broadway in Chicago" banner seems ironic when one considers that Broadway generated fewer than half the productions on the roster. According to the New York-based League of American Theaters and Producers, between 1999 and 2000 the number of touring Broadway shows dropped from 34 to 29, with total receipts plummeting nearly 20 percent. While SFX and Nederlander funnel most of the viable shows into their three downtown properties, the other large theaters in the Chicago market are being forced to rethink their booking strategies. The Auditorium Theatre may focus more on dance, while the Chicago Theatre is keeping its marquee lit with an eclectic lineup of attractions like The Harlem Nutcracker, Eric Idle's Monty Python revue, and Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds with a symphony orchestra. Tim Orchard, who books the suburban Rosemont Theatre, is chasing the family market with shows like Annie, Grease, and a multimillion-dollar stage show based on Pokemon.
Meanwhile the new partnership between Nederlander and SFX has precipitated a restructuring of operations at the three theaters, all of which will be managed by Nederlander with a single administrative staff. Jill Hurwitz has left the Shubert after a long tenure as director of marketing, and sources say that Eileen LaCario, in charge of group sales at the Oriental and Palace, has been promoted to vice president in charge of marketing for all three venues. Margie Korshak Inc. has been retained to handle public relations and advertising for the new triumvirate. Randall Green has departed the Palace after little more than a year as general manager. According to one Shubert insider, a new organizational chart is still being drawn up.
The Philip Glass opera Akhnaten tells the story of the pharaoh who tried to sell monotheism to ancient Egypt. That's nothing--Brian Dickie, general manager of Chicago Opera Theater, has to sell tickets to modern opera in the middle of summer.
Yet the gods may smile on COT's production of Akhnaten, which opens a five-day run at the Athenaeum Theatre on July 19. Glass commands a substantial cult following, and his recent film scores can only have broadened his audience. Lookingglass Theatre's Mary Zimmerman is directing, and COT has organized a series of promotional tie-ins with the Art Institute, whose exhibition "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen" opens the same week as the opera. "I think we will have sold more than 4,000 tickets by July 5," says Dickie. If COT can move another 1,800 in the last two weeks the engagement will sell out--and that's a phrase the company hasn't used much in the last decade.
Dickie is nearing the end of his first year as general manager, and despite his focus on increasing ticket sales, most of last season's productions were lucky to play to 50 percent capacity at the 965-seat Athenaeum. "We need to raise our subscriber base way up," says Dickie. In the late 1980s, he says, the company had 4,000 subscribers, but in recent years that number has fallen to 1,000. Dickie thinks that consistent, quality productions of less familiar opera will bring them back, and next season COT will bring in three new directors: Diane Paulus, who directed the off-Broadway hit The Donkey Show, will tackle Monteverdi's Orfeo; Mark Lamos, who directed The Great Gatsby at the Metropolitan Opera, will mount Handel's Acis and Galatea; and Harry Silverstein of DePaul Opera Theatre will direct Robert Kurka's antiwar satire The Good Soldier Schweik. Though he's bringing in some top-notch talent, Dickie is raising the single-ticket price by only a dollar, from $55 to $56. "I think we have to get back our audience first before we start asking people to pay more."