LOS ANGELES -- An informal poll of managing directors of local theatres reveals that most consider 1998 to have been a good-to-excellent year at the box office.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the bulk of those interviewed said strong ticket sales for individual events, plus "better-than-usual subscription sales and private donations" made the year a success.
The directors attributed the black ink to various factors such as the strong California economy and bold, innovative programming. At the same time, each executive admitted to at least one unexpected failure in the past year.
Broadway L.A.'s big disappointment was the touring company of The Gin Game, with Charles Durning and Julie Harris, which played for less than a week at the Wilshire Theatre in early December. "It was absolutely wonderful, but it just didn't catch on," said the company's general manager Martin Wiviott. "It's the kind of show that just doesn't have any relationship to the holiday season."
On the plus side, Wiviott pointed to excellent ticket sales for Peter Pan, Phantom of the Opera and the forthcoming Annie at the Pantages Theatre. Tom Mitze, executive director of Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, characterized 1998 as "a great year -- and the economy is definitely part of that. I remember tracking subscription sales over a twenty-year period a couple of years ago and comparing it with a graph of the ups and downs of the economy in the 80s and 90s, and they almost paralleled each other."
While the Canon Theatre's co-executive director Joan Stein called 1998 ticket sales "OK, but not stunning," Gil Cates of the Geffen Theatre said subscriptions increased from 7,000 to 8,200 last season.
"Subscriptions is really the essential part of our enterprise, because we are committed to doing a season of plays, five or six plays a year, and there is no upside to that without a subscription base," he said. "It's not like you do a play and you run it until it has no legs. If it's a hit you still have to close it, and if it doesn't do as well as you'd hoped it would, you still have to run it."
Cates said a suprise hit in 1998 was February's Harriet's Return, starring Debbie Allen as Harriet Tubman. And on the downside was Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, which received bad reviews.
Among the other major 1998 successes were Ballet Prelijocal's Romeo and Juliet at UCLA Center for Performing Arts; Chicago at the Shubert and Ahmanson theatres; and the Sondheim Putting It Together revue at the Mark Taper Forum.
-- By Willard Manus
Southern California Correspondent