Lois Weisberg Throws a Party

Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg may not know much about art, but she hasn’t forgotten how to organize a party. For weeks the Department of Cultural Affairs and no fewer than five public relations firms (working pro bono) have been deluging journalists with information and phone calls concerning the Sister Cities International 35th anniversary conference, a gathering of 2,000 delegates from the four corners of the earth at the Palmer House July 15 through 20.

Sister Cities International, a government- and private-funded organization headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, sets up goodwill bonds between cities in different parts of the world in an effort to promote global unity. Chicago, as usual, came late to Sister Cities. It officially joined the program in February 1990, actually a few months after being selected as the convention site. Mayor Daley appointed Weisberg to head Chicago’s involvement with the group.

Weisberg and her minions have done quite a job preparing for this confab. In addition to the PR firms’ free labor, they have amassed more than $300,000 in corporate underwriting and untold thousands more in noncash contributions; United Airlines, for example, is donating a large number of airline tickets. Deputy commissioner Pat Matsumoto rang up her friend photographer Archie Lieberman and chose for the official conference poster his cluttered photograph of an Oak Street Beach crowd. The Department of Cultural Affairs recently mailed out a newsletter that talks about how Chicago is rolling out the red carpet: a gala reception at Navy Pier hosted by Daley and an Italian night at the Art Institute are among the many social events tied to the affair.

What, you may wonder, will be the business of this get-together? After the preconference conclaves on issues ranging from economic development to public health to urban redevelopment (and yes, one seminar on cultural exchange), the delegates will ponder “the world in transition.” Also on the agenda are a series of talks on the Americas and a meeting to address “Africa: The Experience and the Challenge.” Will these talks yield any information of value? Will the conference, as one public relations executive put it, “help position Chicago as a global city”?

Maybe. But one thing the conference will definitely do is distract Weisberg from the pressing concerns facing the city’s arts community, which if it were healthy and well marketed could be of great help in positioning this city globally. Eventually the commissioner is going to have to stop planning parties and start dealing with stickier issues, such as the fate of the Cultural Center and the city’s desperate need for midsize performing arts spaces.

Will Assassins Come to Chicago?

Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company are discussing a joint production of Stephen Sondheim’s latest work, Assassins, a play with music about famous presidential assassins that had a brief run off-Broadway in New York last winter. Assassins was to have transferred to a Broadway house despite the mixed notices of its New York debut, but the deal fell through at the last minute. Marriott and Steppenwolf executives are talking about a new production that would use the Marriott stage and Steppenwolf talent. But because of its grim and provocative subject matter, Marriott may have to think twice about making Assassins part of its regular subscription series. RCA Records will release the New York cast recording August 13.

Shubert Organization Bowing Out of Chicago

The New York-based Nederlander Organization is now in the final stages of taking over the Shubert Theatre and the adjacent Majestic Building at 22 W. Monroe. The lease, which runs through the year 2002, is now held by Nederlander’s archcompetitor, the Shubert Organization, another New York-based company that produces theater and concerts nationwide. The consummation of the buyout, expected by month’s end, will mean the sad end of a long Shubert presence in Chicago. Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld said he has no plans to operate another Chicago venue, but added that if someone were to come to him with a theater he might be interested. On the bright side, the deal will probably bring considerably more use of the 2,200-seat theater. Look for Nederlander, in conjunction with the Auditorium Theatre, to begin booking a regular schedule of plays, dance events, and, when the Auditorium is unavailable or the show better fits the Shubert’s space, the occasional musical. Columbia College had been investigating a takeover of the theater but backed out because of the expense.

The Goodman’s Musical Mishap

Those seeking some sign that the American musical has been rejuvenated won’t find it in Book of the Night, a costly failure receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre. The show, a collection of loosely connected glimpses of people looking for love or salvation in the big city, was developed at the Goodman under the supervision of Robert Falls; he put the piece through a workshop last year before opting to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a mainstage production. Composed by Louis Rosen and Thom Bishop and directed by Falls, the final product is 90 minutes of unsuccessful attempts at character development and loud songs that mostly sound the same, with five minutes of melody tossed in at the very end. In his review, Tribune entertainment editor Richard Christiansen typically tried to have it both ways, talking about the Goodman’s “remarkable accomplishment” before mentioning such flaws as the musical lulls. Book of the Night should serve as a reminder that considerable talent and lots of money can’t make up for the absence of a good story or any memorable music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.