"We're doing a show tonight."
Those were the words (March 19) of Judy Jacksina, spokesperson for Rollin' On The T.O.B.A., an Off-Broadway sleeper that had planned to start previews at the Kit Kat Klub at Henry Miller's Theatre March 17 but ran into snags when the building's landlord and tenant renewed their long standing dispute.
T.O.B.A. postponed its March 17 and 18 performances, not because of any financing problems with the production, but because the Durst Organization, owners of Henry Miller's Theatre, are having a row with the people leasing the Kit Kat Klub within the building. Durst, upset at not being asked permission for the Kit Kat Klub to book T.O.B.A., asked for a court injunction to keep the show from starting previews on the 17th. A New York Supreme Court judge granted the temporary injunction.
According to lawyer Gary Rosenberg, a partner in Rosenberg & Estis (which represents the Durst Organization), the next two days saw Durst and the T.O.B.A.'s producers come to a mutual understanding allowing the show to continue. However, the Kit Kat Klub owners didn't agree to the deal. Late in the afternoon March 19, all three sides did agree to the deal, and the show is scheduled to start tonight, March 19.
Rosenberg told Playbill On-Line (March 19), "Yesterday, we came to an agreement [with T.O.B.A. producer Ashton Springer] so that the show could open. The Klub refused to go along. The deal was that any monies to be paid to the tenant at issue could go into an escrow account, so no party would be hurt while the legal issues were being fought out." The war between Durst and the Klub owners first exploded during the run of the Roundabout Theatre's production of Cabaret. Though both Durst and the Klub wanted Cabaret as a tenant, relations between the Roundabout Theatre and the Klub soured late in the run, with the Roundabout ultimately declining to renew its lease.
Rosenberg told PBOL, "At that point, we wanted the bad guys out. We have owned this property for many years, with a specific lease clause in our contract for the past 15 years. The clause says that if we want to put on live theatre, we're entitled to cancel a lease with 90 days notice. We have this clause because the Dursts work with a fair number of theatre groups, so if we bring in a production, more than likely it would be a `Durst family' choice of productions. In the summer, when Cabaret could no longer deal with the Klub and moved to Studio 54, we gave notice to the tenants [the Klub] that we were terminating the lease. We have requests from three or four different producer to put on short-run plays there -- we wanted to do short runs, because the long term plan is to demolish the building and construct a new theatre, a real theatre rather than a nightclub, on the premises." Continued Rosenberg, "We didn't want an open run show, especially with all this fighting going on. But the Klub signed a deal with T.O.B.A. without apparently even telling him [producer Springer] there's all this litigation. Springer claims he unknowingly signed the agreement, and we're inclined to believe that. That's one reason we're doing everything we can to get the show back in and operating. While we'd prefer to have our own production in, we have no desire to hurt the company. We told T.O.B.A. we recognize their dilemma, and if we get control of the space, we won't throw them out immediately. They're shooting for a Tony. If they're successful, they'll move. If not, they'll likely close. We're fine with making sure they can get through the Tonys with time to move afterwards."
"For us," added Rosenberg, "this isn't about money. It's always about gaining control of our theatre. But the Klub won't go along with it. They don't care who gets hurt; they want money. We say let the court decide next week."
T.O.B.A. spokesperson Judy Jacksina told Playbill On-Line the show still intends to officially open March 24. She also praised the Durst Organization for helping get the show back up.
Rollin' On The T.O.B.A., a revue about the early days of black vaudeville previously played at the 47th Street Theatre before moving to the larger Kit Kat venue. In its move to the Kit Kat Klub, the three-person show added drums, bass saxophone and trumpet to the original piano accompaniment. Also added was a larger set (by designer Larry W. Brown). The cast -- Sandra Reaves Phillips, Rudy Roberson and co-creator Ronald "Smokey" Stevens -- remains the same.
According to producer Ashton Springer, the show was originally mounted for $200,000, with an extra quarter million added for the move. The break even point, not counting advertising, will be $70,000 per week.
Conceived by Stevens and Jaye Stewart, T.O.B.A. is subtitled "A Tribute to the Last Days of Black Vaudeville" and offers segments devoted to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Bert Williams and Butterbeans & Suzie. Several pieces are taken from Langston Hughes' "The Simple Stories."
T.O.B.A. is an acronym Theatre Owners' Booking Association, but performers had a different phrase for it: "Tough On Black Asses." No deals have yet been made regarding recording the show for CD release.
Stevens and Leslie Dockery direct the show, which features musical direction and arrangements by David Alan Bunn and additional material by Irvin S. Bauer. Jon Kusner (lighting), Michele Reisch (costumes) and Shabach Audio (sound) are the designers.
Springer, John Grimaldi and Frenchmen Productions, Inc. produced both the 47th Street Theatre engagement and the move.
Assuming T.O.B.A. gets back on track, the question still hangs as to whether the show is officially "Broadway" and/or Tony eligible, though the musical is on a Broadway contract.
A spokesperson for Actors' Equity at Dick Moore & Associates told Playbill On-Line (March 18) the show was on a "special Equity production contract," a variation of the regular contract that makes T.O.B.A. "a Special Production Broadway show." The spokesperson added that Cabaret operated under a LORT contract.
A spokesperson for the League of American Theatres & Producers told Playbill On-Line (March 16) the show was "not a member of the League," though this would not necessarily reflect on the show's Tony eligibility.
A Tony spokesperson at the Keith Sherman press office told Playbill On- Line (March 17) it was too early to determine the show's award eligibility. "The administration committee haven't seen the show yet. Once they do, they'll meet and make a decision sometime next month," said the spokesperson. A League spokesperson noted earlier that while Cabaret was considered Broadway (and Tony eligible), the theatre itself isn't necessarily a Broadway house.
T.O.B.A. producer Ashton Springer told Playbill On-Line that both he and the theatre have independently applied for Tony eligibility. "The theatre made its application, and if they get it, that would start next year for every show that goes in there. Separately, we as a show applied. I've been told the meeting to decide our status is the first week in April.
"We'd wanted to move to a bigger Off-Broadway house," Springer continued. "Broadway was the farthest thing from my mind, especially since there wasn't a Broadway house available. But my accountant mentioned the Kit Kat Klub. It took me a whole week to absorb that concept. Originally, my partner was just hoping to be Obie eligible. We never anticipated... it just sort of happened. They wanted us and worked out a deal that made the whole thing work."
T.O.B.A. opened Off-Broadway Jan. 28 after starting previews Jan. 20.
For tickets to Rollin' On The T.O.B.A. at Henry Miller's Theatre, call Tele-charge at (212) 239-6200.