Hard Times: The Heidi Chronicles Chronicles

If you doubt that times are tough in the local theater business, consider the problems that Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt (CH&P) are having with Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles. The veteran commercial producers have held the Chicago-area option on The Heidi Chronicles since July 1990. That option expires in April, and the producers have so far been unable to put together a production that they feel would have a reasonable chance of succeeding. Whether or not they ultimately do succeed, CH&P are not the most bullish of producers at the moment. “The Chicago market is weaker than it has been in at least the last six or seven years,” says Henaghan.

Last week, CH&P broke off discussions with the Apple Tree Theatre Company in north-suburban Highland Park about a possible joint production of Heidi. Apple Tree artistic director Eileen Boevers, who is a big fan of the play, had postponed planning on the company’s next scheduled production, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to try and cut a deal with CH&P for a first mounting of the show. Henaghan said CH&P had been thinking of opening Heidi at Apple Tree to determine its commercial potential and then moving the show into the city to a venue on the near north side. But those plans have been stymied at least temporarily, because CH&P have not been able to find a suitable north-side theater willing to book the show at a rental rate the producers can live with. Henaghan makes no secret of the fact she is looking for a weekly rental fee far below the $12,500 that some locations such as the Wellington have requested recently.

Difficulties in mounting a Chicago production of Heidi come as the New York Times reports that the national tour of the show (not now scheduled for Chicago) is racking up strong box-office advances in cities it is scheduled for, despite the absence of a star in the cast. In a report published last week the Times attributed the strong business to the appeal of playwright Wasserstein and her promotional efforts. But such reports have not encouraged CH&P to move forward. “We don’t want to do Heidi unless it is in a favorable financial climate,” says Henaghan, who said a Chicago production would have to be capitalized at $250,000 to $300,000. One source suggested CH&P’s problems may be linked to lack of investor interest in the show, though Henaghan claimed investors were ready to put up money. Henaghan also insisted the three biggest obstacles to successful commercial production in Chicago currently are high theater rental fees, costly royalty packages, and rising advertising rates. “We’ve got to see more cooperation on all fronts,” says Henaghan, and I think we’re starting to see it.”

Other producers reacted with concern to CH&P’s inability to move forward with Heidi. “I don’t think it’s a good sign for the industry,” says Michael Frazier, who was dismayed by the “only adequate” business done by his own top-notch production of Forbidden Broadway, which ended a four-month run here on New Years Eve. Still Frazier is moving ahead with the U.S. premiere of Unidentified Human Remains or the True Nature of Love, a steamy sex thriller by Canadian playwright Brad Fraser, set to open February 19 at Frazier’s Halsted Theatre Centre. The play was critically acclaimed when it debuted last year in Toronto. If Unidentified Human Remains is successful, Frazier hopes to take the show off-Broadway.

Prelude to a Production: Everybody in the Pool!

In a tough climate for raising production capital, Libby Adler Mages, who was a producer of the original Chicago and Broadway productions of the musical Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, has emerged as a possible third producer of the upcoming productions of Prelude to a Kiss and Lend Me a Tenor. The original coproducers, the Payne-Leavitt Group and Fox Associates, a four-partner producing team based in Saint Louis, are seeking to raise a whopping $684,000 to mount the two shows. Mages is the most experienced of several potential new participants, any of whom could become an associate producer of the two-show package by raising a stake of $108,000. Mages says she has until February 20 to raise as much as $228,000, which would make her a full coproducer. Prelude is scheduled to begin previews at the Wellington on February 14, with a cast including Barbara Harris, Mike Nussbaum, and Scott Jaeck. Mages has long been interested in Tenor. “I loved the show when I saw it in New York,” says Mages, “and wanted to produce it right away.” Two of the Saint Louis group, Leon Strauss and David Fay, are the owner and manager respectively of the restored Fox Theatre in Saint Louis. Strauss was at one time expected to operate the Chicago Theatre, but that deal fell through. If Prelude and Tenor are successful, they could move to Saint Louis after their runs here.

Hubbard Street Bound for Broadway

The Hubbard Street Dance Company will make its long-awaited New York City debut early next June, when it is scheduled to be the sole act in a gala performance at a yet-to-be-determined Shubert Organization-owned theater on Broadway to benefit the New York International Festival of the Arts, a biennial extravaganza. In anticipation of that appearance, Hubbard Street dancers have been working the past couple of weeks with dancer-choreographers Gwen Verdon and Chris Chadman on a piece called Percussion Four, choreographed by the late Bob Fosse for his all-dance Broadway musical Dancin’. A source indicates that Verdon, who is Fosse’s widow and is on Hubbard Street’s artistic advisory board, had been talking for some time with artistic director Lou Conte about working together in some capacity. The Hubbard Street version of the piece, danced to the sounds of percussive instruments, most likely will be debuted at the New York gala, of which Verdon is an honorary chairman. The source also indicates that Percussion Four, a piece for one dancer in the original Broadway production, is being set on the Hubbard Street company in such a way that it could be danced as a solo or by several dancers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.