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At the outset of every performance of this summer’s Words & Music series, Kennedy Center President Larry Wilker strode to the center of the Eisenhower Theater stage to brief the audience on a few ground rules: There would be no sets and only minimal costumes, he explained, and the actors would have scripts in their hands because they’d had just one week of rehearsals, not enough time to learn all their lines. But in most other respects, the show would be the same as a commercial Broadway production, with choreography, name stars, and a full orchestra playing the original arrangements.
The idea, Wilker told the crowd, was to put the emphasis back on the music and the comedy in musical comedy as opposed to the spectacle to which they had become accustomed. Then he thanked everyone for coming and turned the evening over to conductor Kay Cameron.
At Bells Are Ringing, the series’s first show, patrons applauded politely, then settled back in their seats with a certain skepticism. They had, after all, paid up to $50 per ticket, as much as they’d have spent to see a full-blown Broadway touring show in the Opera House a few years ago. But when Cameron’s first downbeat brought the antique “brrrrrring” of an old-fashioned telephone, followed by Jule Styne’s brassier-than-thou overture, the crowd started to relax. By intermission, Broadway’s Faith Prince, playing a SusAnswerPhone operator with a crush on a guy to whom she makes wake-up calls, had put a silly grin on everyone’s face. And by the end of the weekend, New York producers were standing in line for Metroliner tickets to see what all the fuss was about.
Wilker’s introductory remarks got easier with each show. At the gospel-flavored Purlie, there were church groups in attendance, on hand to cheer not just Stephanie Mills and her TV-star cohorts, but their own, pew-sharing brethren in the onstage choir. At Where’s Charley?, the series’ goofily melodic finale, Wilker could have dispensed with his remarks entirely. He was, by this time, on a first-name basis with dozens of patrons in the lobby before the show.
He was also, it should be noted, losing a bundle at the box office. Even with no sets, and the stars working at union scale, the economics of a concertized Words & Music staging are impossible without grants. There’s still that full orchestra, plus royalties and rehearsal time to pay for. Because each engagement lasts only one weekend, it’s easy to attract name stars. But while each show costs only $220,000 less than one-twentieth of the cost of mounting Footloose for Broadway the short runs pretty much guarantee red ink.
No matter how you crunch the numbers, a five-performance run in the Eisenhower Theater gives the KenCen just 5,500 seats to sell. For this start-up season, with no advance press to speak of, and a tourist-dominated summertime slot dictated by other bookings, Wilker was delighted when Bells Are Ringing filled 81 percent of those seats, Purlie 87 percent, and the starless Where’s Charley? 64 percent. But asked whether the series broke even, he almost laughs: “Not by any stretch of the imagination.”
So why do it? For love, obviously Wilker and his support staff can rattle off obscure show titles and creative personnel as if they were baseball stats (as can we…see the list below) but also for the possibility of outing an unexpected hit from Broadway’s closet. That’s what happened when New York’s Encores! series remounted its 20th anniversary look at Kander and Ebb’s celebrated 1975 flop, Chicago, for a commercial run, winning Tony awards and standing-room-only audiences in the process.
Wilker eschews most Encores! comparisons “They’re in New York with 18 million people to draw on, and we’re here with 43 people to draw on,” he jokes but concedes that he won’t be upset if Words & Music should unearth a Chicago-style treasure. The thought crossed his mind when Faith Prince first mentioned that she’d love a crack at the Judy Holliday role in Bells Are Ringing.
“That certainly isn’t the purpose,” he says, “but obviously these do present an opportunity, if something jumps out at you, to say maybe this could have a life. Faith’s been bugging me for two years to do Bells Are Ringing. Given that, and the audience’s enthusiasm, we’re thinking very seriously about mounting it in partnership with other producers. We’ve gone to all the work and trouble of getting it this far we certainly don’t want somebody else to take it over.”
Nor, it turns out, does he want all the work and trouble to be quite so much work and trouble next time. Wilker says he’s learned a few lessons from this year: “To select the shows sooner and do the casting earlier. Casting was a nightmare. We were going right up until the week before, which was when we finished the casting for Charley. That’s too nervous-making.”
Agreed. Herewith, a few thoughts to get the phone calls started: