Manhattan Theatre Club at 25

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Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director Lynne Meadow clearly remembers her very first meeting with executive producer Barry Grove, one year before he started working for MTC.

Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director Lynne Meadow clearly remembers her very first meeting with executive producer Barry Grove, one year before he started working for MTC.

"He was wearing this red-and-white striped shirt, and he was smoking away. Shortly after we started talking, someone called and said, 'An actor has just left Oyamo's play.' We were opening the next night, and in those days, we didn't have much of a staff, so I also did casting. Barry was still talking when I suddenly interrupted him: 'I know this sounds really terrible, but would you mind going away, so we can cast an actor?' He said, 'No, I get it . . . I'll be back tomorrow.'"

That was the beginning of the Lynne-Barry Equation, a phrase sometimes used to describe a thriving, 22-year-old partnership dedicated to nurturing and presenting new works by promising playwrights. With more than 350 productions to its credit as well as two Pulitzer Prizes, four Tonys and numerous other awards, Meadow and Grove have taken MTC--which is currently celebrating its 25th season--from a tiny Off Off-Broadway theatre with a $75,000 deficit to a prestigious Off-Broadway venture with a multi-million-dollar budget.

"I once told someone that in certain ways we're like left brain and right brain," Meadow said. "I often have a certain view of the big picture, but he's analytical and organized and has an ability to bring something to fruition. Our collaboration allows us to solve the problems, create policy and make magic in ways that we wouldn't be able to do individually. That equation? I think it's that one Barry plus one Lynne equals more than two."

"At the very beginning we spent non-stop time talking to each other," said Grove, "perhaps even to the detriment of talking to anybody else, but it's allowed us to develop a kind of intuitive understanding, not only of our own but of each other's perspective on an issue."

One of the major challenges of MTC's early years was getting an audience in to see the plays. Meadow, a graduate of Bryn Mawr who believed a woman could do anything, solved the immediate problem by going out in the street and begging people to come into the theatre. "I did," admitted Meadow, "but that was before Barry."

"I would have been appalled," he shook his head. "Horrified!" Meadow agreed. But the people came, and the audience grew. New challenges presented themselves, and the Lynne-Barry Equation embraced them. Under this tutelage the theatre thrived, and MTC's 1978 production of Ain't Misbehavin' created a bridge to the future. After a critically acclaimed opening, a group of producers moved the show to Broadway, where it swept the awards, including the Tony for Best Musical. Despite this apparent success for MTC, the rewards were confined to a licensing agreement. "We were invited to the opening night." Meadow explained, "and that's about it for a show that we had created. After that experience, we decided that we would move the shows ourselves."

By 1981, three MTC joint-venture transfers were running simultaneously on Broadway: Ain't Misbehavin', Mass Appeal and Crimes of the Heart.

MTC moved from its E. 73rd St. space to City Center just weeks before its 1984-85 season began. "Once we figured how to work in this theatre," said Meadow, "we were doing a lot of work that was both successful critically as well as with the audiences, but we were closing these successful shows down, and it started to drive us crazy. John Tillinger directed Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play, which starred Christine Baranski and Jimmy Coco. We had to close it while the audiences were roaring and having a great time."

In 1989 McNally's Lisbon Traviata became the first play that MTC, as the sole producer, transferred to a Broadway theatre for an open-ended run, and in 1992 MTC produced Alan Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business specifically for Broadway. Mixed reviews limited its run, but the experience acted as a catalyst when three years later under the auspices of the Broadway Alliance, MTC moved McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! from its City Center headquarters to Broadway. Not only did the show win the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play, MTC recouped its investment in six weeks.

Not all MTC's attempts turned into gold. In 1987 Meadow directed actor Nathan Lane in Claptrap, a farce by Ken Friedman. "I did the show for Nathan," she admits, "because he was so brilliant." Although the play received uniformly bad notices, many believe this performance put Lane on the theatrical map. "His talent put Nathan Lane on the map," Grove emphasized, "but Lynne certainly teed it up."

MTC soon became a theatrical home for Lane, who subsequently appeared in six Terrence McNally plays, then joined the board as did other MTC stalwarts like Christine Baranski, Charlayne Woodard and McNally, who has had eight plays produced by MTC. At one point Meadow even told McNally, "Write us another play. Whatever it is you do, we'll produce it." The result was Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987).

From its earliest days, Meadow had the idea that if MTC was going to do new work, there should be a guaranteed audience. "I don't think I ever would have dreamed of the degree to which the subscriptions could grow and really become a vital part of what gives this organization a kind of artistic freedom. Now, with 102 percent subscribed, we don't have enough room to house any more people. We're looking for a Broadway theatre because there are more people who want to see our work and the kind of excitement that is going on here."

"It's not just about how many seats it has and how much it will cost to find a Broadway theatre," Grove explained. "Since new work is the heart of what we do, our desire to find ways to translate that is really important. But the other reason we need more space is as you build relationships with writers, there isn't enough room for all the writers. It's very exciting now because we're bringing forward The Green Heart as the first piece out of our new musical theatre development program."

True to form, Grove admits he's looking ahead to the challenges of the next millennium. "We have never said, 'We've figured out a model, so let's just sit back and ride with it.' As we've grown, we've looked to new directions."

"We feel very confident about our ability to create theatrical evenings that are great for people," said Meadow. "We believe in theatre, and we believe in people's love for the theatre. Our purpose is to produce it in the best possible way."--

By Starla Smith

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