Corporate Management: the Musical
Numbers Don't Lie...and Other Lies has all the earmarks of a vanity production. Its author and producer, a management consultant with no track record in the theater, has spent six years and nearly $365,000, most of it out of his own pocket, to develop the show. Its composers had never written a musical. And its subject--the disposable worker in today's corporate culture--could make it the biggest downer since Springtime for Hitler.
But Springtime for Hitler, of course, turned out to be a smash, and when Numbers Don't Lie premieres at the Ivanhoe Theater's 500-seat main stage on February 8, Dino Biris will have achieved what many writers only daydream about. Those who've worked alongside the Lake Geneva consultant think he just might have the moxie to conjure up a hit. "He has a vision of the world and genuinely wants to contribute something," says actress Carmen Roman, who serves as assistant to the producer. "Dino is smart and a quick study, with a lot of potential to be a good producer," says Ivanhoe owner Doug Bragan. Veteran director Terry McCabe, who signed onto the project last August, agrees: "I like him because he really listens to what you have to say."
Though Biris comes late to the professional theater, he's been a student for years. He wrote and staged fraternity shows at Hiram College in Ohio before pursuing advanced degrees in divinity and social work from the University of Chicago. While at U. of C., he worked as a drama director for Jewish community centers around Chicago, trying to communicate the theater's magic to troubled adolescents. For 15 years he practiced psychotherapy in the city and suburbs, then in the early 80s he became a management consultant specializing in corporate culture. One of his clients, United Airlines, has been evolving from a business run by a handful of executives to one where all employees are encouraged to have a say, but it's the exception to the rule. "Most of the people in the business world have a heartfelt desire to make a contribution and be a real part of a community," he says, "but most companies are run by the book, with the primary focus on the bottom line."
Biris set out to write a book about the humanizing of corporate America, but one afternoon he fell asleep while reading his own manuscript. "How can I take this stuff and make it livelier?" he wondered. The answer: musical theater! His protagonist, the CEO of a high-tech company, returns from a leave of absence caring for his terminally ill wife to find that the company's fortunes have plummeted; some of his people, he later learns, are conspiring with an outside buyer that wants to take over the company and slash its employee benefits. For the score Biris enlisted musician Ken Johnson and jingle writer Steve Zoloto, who provided him with an eclectic score ranging from pop to gospel. To better understand the mechanics of writing for the theater, Biris enrolled in comedy classes taught by Dennis Zacek, artistic director at Victory Gardens Theater; Zacek was so impressed with his student that he cast him as an understudy in two productions.
In 1996 Biris staged Numbers Don't Lie at the Woodstock Opera House; since then he's sought feedback from Zacek and others in the theater business and has completed at least eight rewrites. McCabe shepherded the play through its last four rewrites, and now he's rehearsing a non-Equity cast of nine. But Biris is still learning the complicated business of producing theater--two weeks before the first preview he was still searching for a costume designer. Group sales have been slow, and earlier this week Biris scheduled a backers' run-through to drum up some last-minute investment capital.
"Unfortunately, the subject is too familiar to too many people," notes Zacek. Yet the conflict between greed and loyalty in corporate America could prove a novel subject for the musical theater, which like most of the fine arts has always turned a blind eye to the world of business. Biris always intended to stage the show in Chicago, and he says he's prepared to lose a considerable amount of money to give it a shot. If Numbers Don't Lie turns out to be a flop, it won't necessarily be Biris's last show; he has more ideas on the back burner. "One thing I have learned in all of this is that I love writing for the theater."
Defining a hit is no easy task in Chicago's shrinking theater market, but Late Nite Catechism has earned the title. The satire of Catholicism is in the fifth year of its Chicago run, most of that time spent in the cozy Ivanhoe studio theater, and it's also played successfully in markets across the country, with more being scheduled all the time. But in New York a Spanish-language production may broaden the show's market even further. Fourquest Entertainment, the New York producer of Late Nite Catechism, commissioned the Spanish translation from actress Alina Troyano, who will also perform the show once a week on Saturdays. "This is an experiment to see what the response will be," explains the play's coauthor Vicki Quade, who says no decision has been made about introducing a Spanish-language version in Chicago. "If we decide to, we could use the New York version or commission a different one for Chicago."
It's not the first attempt to present Late Nite Catechism in a different language. In 1995 a Belgian producer commissioned a French translation, says Quade, but that version was never produced. "The actress they wanted wasn't available."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dino Biris photo by Eugene Zakusilo.