Are Really Big Shows Dead? Ragtime Shepherd Marty Bell Says Yes

News   Are Really Big Shows Dead? Ragtime Shepherd Marty Bell Says Yes Marty Bell, the man who brought the idea of a musical called Ragtime to Livent producer Garth Drabinsky, was saddened to hear the news Oct. 28 that the Broadway musical would close Jan. 16, 2000.

"I'm not sure a show this big should be done or should've been done [on this scale] in the first place," said Bell, Livent's former creative director. But he added he's sure Ragtime, despite a Broadway run of only two years, will become part of the enduring literature of the American musical theatre.

"I don't think producers are going to do shows this big," Bell admitted from his office at East Egg Entertainment, a musical theatre development organization. Indeed, of a dozen shows being nurtured by his new venture, none are big-cast scripts and he said he doesn't want to go in that direction. Bell said he will shepherd shows that may be able to fit in Broadway's play-size houses rather than the cavernous barns.

Bell said he had heard talk that SFX Entertainment, which bought the financially-troubled Livent in 1999, was considering scaling down or possibly closing Ragtime due to its high running cost, but he did not hear the outcome until Playbill On-Line contacted him Oct. 28.

SFX and Pace Theatricals have not announced any plan to scale down, relocate and reopen, but the hope remains alive in the cast, according to a company member. Producers indicated to the cast Oct. 28 that the scale-down possibility is being investigated.

Bell said this is the second Livent-originated show to close despite a weekly gross of $600,000. Show Boat closed with such a gross in 1996 because the size of the physical production -- including more than 100 people in service of the show nightly -- was so costly to run. Bell said it's easy to say Drabinsky was too extreme in his vision for the shows, but the physical productions were designed as larger-than-usual because Drabinsky was trying to establish a traffic pattern to a large, new Livent-leased playhouse in the northern suburbs of Toronto. Bell said the idea was to offer splashy work so a theatregoing habit was established in Livent's hometown, ensuring future audiences for Livent product there.

The big-show economic template in Toronto did not transfer or translate to the conditions on Broadway, however.

In addition to the prior-to-New York Show Boat and Ragtime, a bells-and-whistles staging of Sunset Boulevard, with Diahann Carroll, played the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts in North York, Ontario. The venue is now operated independently of what was once Livent.

Bell said that once Drabinsky was deposed in 1998, the financially struggling Livent did not invest enough to keep the Broadway Ragtime afloat. "The show had no marketing for a year," Bell said of the Michael Ovitz regime, when the company was trying to prevent financial hemorrhaging. Bell said not even a "savvy marketing organization" like Pace Theatricals (run by SFX Entertainment) could overcome a year of Livent's neglectful marketing. SFX/Pace began a recent, aggressive advertising and marketing campaign (including new TV and print ads) to reach out to new audiences (particularly family audiences), but it apparently came too late.

Bell, who helped nurture Show Boat, Fosse and other Livent shows, had the idea of a musical version of E.L. Doctorow's novel, "Ragtime," since 1988 (and he couldn't get the rights). He later proposed it to Drabinsky, and Doctorow was wooed anew.

Bell also shares blame for the way the show was marketed since its Toronto debut in 1996. "I'm not sure the show ever created the right image for itself, and I take partial responsibility," said the former Livent associate producer. "We tried to say the show was important instead of entertainment. It came off too much like a history lesson."

As a reaction to Ragtime's extreme production values, Fosse was more leanly-budgeted and prudently-produced, Bell said. He said the show has a golden future.

Bell called Ragtime the best creative experience of his career. "I do think it will be part of the literature of musical theatre," he said, adding that a decade from now someone will do a smaller version of the show and it will live again in a commercial staging.

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The Tony Award-winning musical, Ragtime, will close after 26 previews and 861 performances Jan. 16, 2000, the show's producers announced Oct. 28.

Ragtime's massive physical production had more than 160 employees in service of each performance.

The final performance will be the afternoon of Sunday Jan. 16. The current cast includes Alton White, Darlesia Cearcy, Michael Rupert, Donna Bullock, Joseph Dellger and original Broadway cast member Judy Kaye.

The "unwieldy cost" of running the show is the reason given for what many consider to be a premature closing. It was widely considered that the serious-minded pageant, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, still had a potential audience to tap.

But, according to the closing announcement, "given the epic size of the production (the largest on Broadway with more than 160 employees on stage and backstage), the unwieldy cost of weekly operation has forced the show's new producers to shut it down."

"It is never easy to make the decision to close a show," said Scott Zeiger, of SFX Entertainment Inc., in a statement about the show he said "enriched the Broadway landscape for two years."

Ragtime began preview performances Dec. 25, 1997, and opened Jan. 18, 1998. It won four Tony Awards -- for Terrence McNally's book, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's score, Ahren's orchestrations and Audra McDonald's Featured Actress performance. The loss of the Best Musical prize to The Lion King was a blow to the company and the box office.

Critics were split on the show, either calling it a cold spectacle formed by committee or a pageant of 20th-century humanity and emotion.

The show had its pre-Broadway world premiere in Toronto Dec. 8, 1996. That cast moved to New York a year later, and a separate company opened on Los Angeles June 15, 1997