Changing Commercial Theatre in Los Angeles

Special Features   Changing Commercial Theatre in Los Angeles
 
How one world-premiere musical hopes to change the way L.A. theatre gets made
(L-R) Constantine Rousouli, Nikki Bohne, Jared Gertner, Kayla Parker and Justin Michael Wilcox in <i>I Only Have Eyes For You</i>
(L-R) Constantine Rousouli, Nikki Bohne, Jared Gertner, Kayla Parker and Justin Michael Wilcox in I Only Have Eyes For You Michael Lamont

In any given season, only a handful of world-premiere musicals are produced within the city limits of Los Angeles. Even fewer feature massive scenic and lighting designs, large tap dancing ensembles, completely live orchestras or 800-plus seat venues. And rarer still, are opportunities for L.A.-based members of Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), United Scenic Artists (Local USA 829) and the musician’s union, AFM - Local 47, to band together for a brand new musical, under contracts that echo the salaries and job security associated with working on a Broadway show in New York or its respective national tour.

In the enigmatic Los Angeles industry, making a living exclusively in theatre is a complex equation solved by only a select few. Much theatre happens in smaller houses on mostly low-tiered contracts such as the LORT contract (though relegated to the not-for-profit sector) and the now infamous minimum wage 99-Seat Agreement, which in 2015, due to AEA-proposed restructuring, drew vehement opposition across the country from its members. (Objectors speculated financial strain on small theatre companies due to the new required minimum salaries for actors.)

Enter Corky Hale’s production of I Only Have Eyes For You: The Life and Lyrics of Al Dubin, a Broadway-scale commercial world-premiere, made for a Los Angeles audience. Housed in a large historic theatre in the heart of Hollywood, the production aims to lead by example and generate a robust discussion about the future of independent commercial theatre in southern California.

Al Dubin and Harry Warren
Al Dubin and Harry Warren

Centering around the tumultuous life and marriage of the lyricist behind the songs of 42nd Street and such standards as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” I Only Have Eyes For You depicts how Dubin’s plaintive and seemingly simple phrases were often the perfect disguise for a man trying desperately to escape his personal and professional demons.

Producer Hale has enlisted top-tier talent to direct, design, choreograph, play and star in her show’s debut at the Montalban Theatre. And as a major vote of confidence in the project and its assembly of artists, Broadway-adjacent contracts have been executed.

Director/choreographer Kay Cole says, “It’s like a big Christmas package. At this moment, we’ve been supported by every union to create a real production contract that serves the community well, but also serves the show.”

For Cole, a member of SDC, it means a first class agreement comparable to what her Broadway counterparts directing in New York receive. For the company of actors, it means AEA’s Western Special Production Agreement, a seldom-used permutation of the Standard Production Agreement (or Broadway Contract), which according to Equity’s National Director of Communications, Maria Somma, has only been implemented three times in L.A. since 2001.

While Somma can’t speak on producers’ reasoning for such infrequent use of the contract, I Only Have Eyes For You casting director, Michael Donovan supposes, “We [L.A.] have a fairly limited number of mid-size houses, so opening a brand new show in a very big house is a real risk.” (The Western Special Production Agreement has a house capacity designation of 700-1,000 seats.)

Certainly securing the right cast, in a town that spreads its talent pool over three major entertainment industries, also contributes to the statistics. “Our missing piece has always been finding the [right] Al Dubin,” Ms. Cole says. Their search, however, came to an end last year, after a serendipitous encounter with longtime Book of Mormon star, Jared Gertner.

Jared Gertner
Jared Gertner

For Hale, who fell in love with Al Dubin’s canon at the 92nd Street Y in New York in the late 1980s, this long-awaited perfect storm of personnel, material and resources was more than enough to convince her that reward would far outweigh any risk there was, including financial support for her company members that this contract provides. “I look out for my actors and musicians. I always have,” she says.

Gertner, a more recent transplant to L.A. and its idiosyncratic theatre scene, admits that while the most salient distinction of his current contract is certainly the salary, he believes that’s only one part of a much larger whole. “It’s so nice to see actors out here in a town that’s harder to make a living as a theatre actor—certainly than New York—to see them being valued and appreciated in this way, so that they can really give themselves over to the project fully,” he says. “I hope that if our show does well, it can act as a model for other producers to continue to do work like this—to make L.A. a commercial theatre town. Because the talent is here and I think the audience could be here, too.”

Donovan, who has long cast productions from 99-Seats to the Hollywood Bowl, shares that hope. “There’s a vibrant theatre community here. There are a lot of shows in L.A. that have a future. I’m hoping that this will be the start of a trend that will lead to more independent productions.”

I Only Have Eyes For You: The Life and Lyrics of Al Dubin runs thru Sunday, June 12 at The Montalban Theatre, 1615 Vine Street, Hollywood. Tickets available at Flavorus.com or by calling 323-461-6999.

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