Trading Places

In a drama of mistaken identities, superproducer Cameron Mackintosh brings a musical to a nonprofit stage, while the Guthrie claims a cut of the residuals

Toward the end of Martin Guerre, the big-budget musical currently making its American premiere at the Guthrie, a wooden bulwark representing the French village of Artigat bursts into flames. As actors rush about and an orchestra keeps martial time, sparks shower across the stage and threaten to send the whole theater up. It is a scene of exquisitely choreographed chaos, and will no doubt be hailed as a technical marvel when the musical finally reaches Broadway in the spring of next year. Beneath the clatter and the kindling, though, the immolation of Artigat is a curiously meaningless exercise--a rarefied version of what is called, in less refined sectors of the entertainment industry, "the money shot."

For spectacular climaxes, today's musical rarely disappoints. Think of the outcast feline ascending to kitty heaven at the end of Cats. Or the deus ex machina of a helicopter swooping out of the theater's rafters in Miss Saigon. Maximalism is the order of the age, and none practices it better than Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the composer and librettist behind both Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. So it is with their latest effort, an operatic reworking of an old French tale about a soldier who returns mysteriously to his home village after many years at war to reclaim his wife and his position in society. As it turns out, however, he may be an impostor.

Yet long before its fiery denouement, Martin Guerre raises an even more intriguing question of shifting identity: What is a big-budget, Broadway-bound musical doing at the nonprofit regional theater that Sir Tyrone Guthrie founded in 1963 as the antithesis to Broadway's perennial deluge of dreck? Have the thieves come to roost in Sir Tyrone's temple of high culture?

Unholy matrimony? Martin Guerre (Hugh Panaro) and Bertrande (Erin Dilly) join fortunes in the Guthrie's collaboration with Cameron Mackintosh
Unholy matrimony? Martin Guerre (Hugh Panaro) and Bertrande (Erin Dilly) join fortunes in the Guthrie's collaboration with Cameron Mackintosh

On the surface, at least, the Guthrie's pairing with British theater producer Cameron Mackintosh looks like an odd coupling: The baron of the Broadway musical teaming with a remote dramatic outpost founded explicitly as an alternative to commercial theater. The link between the two is Martin Guerre director Conall Morrison, an associate at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, where Dowling served as artistic director. Like Morrison, all of the actors in the Guthrie's current production are imported, as are the key artistic staff; many come from the musical's recent British incarnation. For an outlay of less than half the $2.1 million cost of staging Martin Guerre, the Guthrie will secure a percentage stake in all future productions of the musical, as well as proceeds from the cast recording (soon to be released by DreamWorks). And the return on the theater's investment carries minimal financial risk--certainly an attractive option given that the Guthrie's last foray into big musical theater, Garland Wright's swan song Babes in Arms, lost $1 million.

For Mackintosh, the arrangement means an audience grateful for fresh product, and a partner with whom to share the considerable financial and artistic burdens of mounting a new musical. "I wouldn't have a career but for nonprofits," Mackintosh explained during a break from rehearsal. "But there's also a right way for a commercial production and a nonprofit to collaborate. These liaisons should only happen for artistic reasons. When you do it to make money or cut costs, those collaborations fail every time."

Returns are never guaranteed, but symbiotic alliances between nonprofit regional theaters like the Guthrie and for-profit producers are becoming increasingly prevalent in the business of show. The Center Theater Group, which runs the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles (where Martin Guerre will appear in February), is collaborating with Jujamcyn Productions, the Broadway player which also produces shows in Minneapolis as part of the Twin Cities "Broadway" season. Elsewhere, regional theaters band together to produce plays--Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit, for example--that are eventually transferred to Broadway. It is a reversal of the old order, in which plays were developed in New York, then shuffled out to the rest of the country in touring incarnations. Broadway is now the petulant child demanding to be fed, and the regional theaters, founded in many cases out of dissatisfaction with the high-stakes, low-quality Broadway game, are the fertile ground where producers sow the successes of the future.

"Broadway is irrelevant," says Guthrie managing director David Hawkanson succinctly. "Everything significant that's happened in the last five years has come out of the regional theaters."

According to the common wisdom, spiraling production costs and the pressure of manufacturing an instant success mean that only deep-pocketed corporations like Disney, with its marketing tie-ins and family-friendly material, can afford to produce new theater on Broadway. And even Disney and Jujamcyn Productions developed their recent The Lion King in the Twin Cities. "Broadway has changed a lot since I started," says Mackintosh. "The whole idea of Broadway is merchandising. These corporations keep a show running come hell or high water, whether the audience likes it or not. I think they'll eventually get bored with that and go back to doing whatever they were doing before.

"Theater should be about mavericks," he continues. "The best writing [and] the landmark productions always come from left field. They're successful because they're unexpected."

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