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Everybody Pays/ Bright Spot in the Darkness/ Opera for Operators

The Lyric's first singles soiree was a smash. But will the same crowd show up when the singing starts?

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Everybody Pays

The jig is up for commercial producers who stage their shows at nonprofit venues. Last week, after years of pressure from Chicago's entertainment industry, the City Council voted unanimously to reduce the amusement tax from 7 percent to 3 percent, paving the way for the county to reduce its tax from 3 percent to 1 percent. The new tax code, which goes into effect January 1, applies to both theatrical and concert presentations and covers venues with 751 to 5,000 seats (smaller houses will remain exempt). But the new version has also been carefully worded to close the loophole whereby commercial productions have escaped the tax under the banner of nonprofit presenting organizations like the Auditorium Theatre Council (which currently operates the Auditorium) or the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts (which is booking and managing the Chicago Theatre through at least February 2000).

The most notorious example of a commercial producer laughing off the amusement tax is Garth Drabinsky's 1996 production of Show Boat at the Auditorium. Drabinsky, at that time chairman and CEO of Livent Inc., mounted a yearlong engagement of the musical, crediting it as a presentation of the ATC. This year Jam Productions eluded the tax by booking three shows at the Chicago, including the upcoming Evita and Fame: The Musical. But according to Hugh Murphy, city director of revenue, such deals will be impossible after the first of the year. The new code will level the playing field for Loop theaters, which are already competing fiercely for the few blockbusters--like Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera--that can sustain long runs in venues with over 2,000 seats. Next year the Chicago and the Auditorium will be offering producers the same deal as the Arie Crown, which has been underutilized in recent years, and the Shubert, which has been getting the lion's share of product anyway.

In the wake of the City Council vote there was some confusion about how the new arrangement would impact the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre, where Ragtime just opened. The Ford Center is owned and operated by Livent, which received $17 million from the city to help acquire and renovate the former movie theater; the development deal called for Livent to pay a 7 percent amusement tax to the city for 10 years. Murphy said the Ford Center would have to pay the 7 percent rate as stipulated in the contract, but a staffer at the department of planning and development who claimed its attorneys have the final call said the Ford Center's amusement tax would drop to 3 percent: "We wouldn't want to put the Oriental at a competitive disadvantage that would defeat the purpose of having renovated the theater."

Bright Spot in the Darkness

That awful wind you felt last week might have been a sigh of relief from City Hall now that Ragtime has finally opened at the Ford Center. But the future of the Ford Center's owner, Toronto-based Livent Inc., looks grim. This week the New York Times even speculated the company may have to declare bankruptcy or sell off its assets. At the Toronto Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, bookings have been changing or disappearing altogether. A production of Annie scheduled to open in September was canceled, and a touring production of Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Lieber and Stoller, slated to run for four weeks in late October and November, was cut to two weeks. Barrymore, starring Christopher Plummer, had been scheduled for two weeks starting November 24, but Livent cut the run in half and moved the opening up to fill the hole created by the earlier change. Newspaper ads prominently offered half-price rush tickets for all but the Friday and Saturday evening performances.

A Livent spokesperson refused to comment on the chaos, but the company has been advertising a two-for-one fire sale for tickets to Phantom of the Opera at Toronto's Pantages Theatre (now the AT&T Centre for the Performing Arts). This may signal the end of the show's ten-year run, which would leave the financially troubled company without its biggest cash cow. Last week Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen ended his ecstatic review of Ragtime with the declaration, "Ragtime, now and forever." As far as its own future is concerned, Livent would probably settle for "now and maybe next year."

Opera for Operators

Lyric Opera of Chicago has joined the ranks of cultural institutions aggressively courting the booze-and-schmooze crowd. Lounge Night at Lyric, the opera's first meat market, was a resounding financial success. The event, which featured an opera-themed edition of Brigid Murphy's cabaret revue, Milly's Orchid Show, cost $45 at the door; it pulled in a capacity crowd of 1,100, and another 500 people had to be turned away. According to Susan Mathieson, the Lyric's director of marketing and communications, Lounge Night grossed approximately $50,000, at least half of which will go into the Lyric's general operating budget, and a new auxiliary board is being formed to organize similar events in the future. But whether the attendees will show up for the opera remains to be seen: tickets to upcoming Lyric productions of Romeo et Juliette and Mefistofele were available for purchase, but only about 50 sold. Still, Mathieson says, she's determined to go after that crowd: "I was licking stamps even as they were heading out the door."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lyric crowd photo/ Dan Rest-Lyric Opera of Chicago; Brigid Murphy uncredited photo.

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