Too Costly to Run, Ragtime Will Close on Bway Jan. 16, 2000

News   Too Costly to Run, Ragtime Will Close on Bway Jan. 16, 2000 The Tony Award-winning musical, Ragtime, will close after 26 previews and 861 performances Jan. 16, 2000, the show's producers announced Oct. 28.
Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the original Broadway company of Ragtime.
Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the original Broadway company of Ragtime. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

Observers say that Broadway will never again see the opulence of Ragtime, which had a massive physical production and 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." The show won 1998 Tonys for Best Score, Best Book, Best Orchestrations and Best Featured Actress. The loss of the Best Musical prize to The Lion King was a blow to the company and the box office.

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The week of Oct. 11-17 the production grossed $600,010 of a possible $892,172. Weekly attendance has hovered around 85 percent for several weeks this fall, which is solid for a smaller show, but less desirable for a high maintenance production like Ragtime.

The New York Times reported the show's running cost as $530,000 a week.

The now-deposed producer Garth Drabinsky, the founder of Livent, Ragtime's original producer, believed in attaching all the bells and whistles to his shows, and Ragtime is a prime example of his showmanship: The show includes moving bridges and walkways, rising and falling stage floors, a large cast, sets pieces that only appear briefly in the three-hour performance, and more.

Members of the Broadway company of Ragtime were told the week of Oct. 18 that the opulently-staged musical about the turn of the last century might not be around at the dawn of the new century.

SFX Entertainment Inc., which acquired Ragtime when it bought Livent in 1999, was said to be looking at various options for the expensive-to-run Tony Award-winner, several company members confirmed.

Those options, outlined in a New York Times item Oct. 22, included shutting down and scaling back the cast, scenic elements and crew at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (which would require a six-week hiatus, per Actors' Equity); scaling back and moving to another theatre (as The Scarlet Pimpernel has done), which would leave the Ford Center free for rental; or closing the show for good, also leaving the theatre available for rental.

Apparently, the producers did not find a scale-back financially possible, or have not yet announced those plans. A company member told Playbill On-Line that hope is alive for a scale-down, and that producers have indicated a scale-down is still being investigated. According the buzz, Jesus Christ Superstar is a possibility for the 1812-seat Ford Center.

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The national tour of Ragtime continues with booking to 2001. Pace Theatrical Group, under the umbrella of SFX, scaled back the national tour of Ragtime in 1999 by trimming cast and scenic elements. Regional reviews have been favorable, suggesting the score and script can survive a more human-scale mounting.

On the road, the show's once-elaborate moving bridges and walkways were scrapped in favor of actor-driven scenes (J.P. Morgan plows down immigrants on a railway cart, for example).

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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.

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.