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Can partnerships bail out Broadway? Controversial alliances with regional theaters pare costs for producers

WHILE Broadway ponders a first-ever city-sponsored initiative to involve public money in the production of commercial theater, America's regional nonprofit theaters are witnessing an unprecedented infusion of commercial money from Broadway into their operations. This controversial new alliance springs from one of the more promising among a flurry of new plans to rescue the financially troubled Broadway theater.

Earlier this year, the Jujamcyn Organization, New York's third-largest theatrical producer, announced that it would start producing new American work on Broadway with the help of regional theaters. Such an arrangement marks a major shift in theater production in the United States.

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Traditionally, Broadway producers have functioned as theater landlords and investors, ``transferring'' already completed productions to New York from London, road shows, or even regional theaters.

Now the Jujamcyn Organization, under the auspices of its new president, Rocco Landesman, is actively developing new work by paying regional theaters as much as $250,000 to mount plays for future Broadway runs.

This groundbreaking move, which is also being tried by other producers, is polarizing the regional theater community. Proponents insist that such financial interdependence is necessary for the continuation of both Broadway and the regional theaters. Opponents maintain that the practice not only threatens the nonprofit theater's artistic premise - to produce works regardless of their commercial viability - but could jeopardize the theaters' nonprofit legal status.

``It is a dangerous time for the country's regional theaters,'' says Daniel Sullivan, artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theater. ``The commercial producers have broken down the walls separating us and are now operating openly in our theaters.''

``Rocco is serious about testing Broadway - locating an old audience with a new product,'' says Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. ``Unfortunately most of us in the regional theaters don't believe in this kind of alliance.''

But Mr. Landesman, formerly an independent theater investor who gained credibility as the producer of ``Big River,'' the 1985 Tony Award-winning musical, sees it is an alliance forged out of necessity. As Broadway's smallest theater-owner, Jujamcyn cannot compete for already established hit shows. Rather, Landesman must develop new work with some hard-nosed economics. That's why he has decided to have initial productions staged at regional theaters, where production costs are 50 percent below Broadway's, and why he employs a rigorous cost-cutting royalty pool in which artists' salaries, even those of such big-name stars as composer Stephen Sondheim, are kept to a minimum until the show breaks even.

``We can't compete for the big mega-hits from London or elsewhere,'' says Landesman, who lost out to the deep pockets of the rival Shubert Organization for the forthcoming ``Phantom of the Opera.'' ``So we have to get involved in the development process in a different way.''

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Landesman recently hired Jack Viertel, a former dramaturg at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, as the Jujamcyn's first-ever creative director.

Using an initial investment of $250,000, Landesman and Mr. Viertel staged ``Into the Woods,'' Sondheim's new musical, at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre last April. The show reopened on Broadway this fall with a total expenditure of $4 million - about $2 million below most Broadway budgets.

If the show, which stars Bernadette Peters, continues to sell out, it will return a profit (a percentage of which will go to the Old Globe) in 30 weeks - less than half the time required by most Broadway musicals.

Though such a formula offers fresh hope to Broadway, which is beset by escalating production costs, it also sparks charges of exploitation from regional theater heads, who insist the nonprofit houses are being turned into farm clubs for Broadway.

``It is a question of who controls the process,'' says Peter Zeisler, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, an umbrella organization for regional theater. ``Is the show given to the theater, and then later the producer takes a look at it? Or does the theater simply step aside and defer to the commercial producer?''

``We are the artistic arbiters of what goes into our theater,'' says Jack O'Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe. ``The Jujamcyns didn't come in here and tell us what to do [with `Into the Woods']. We aren't a satellite [for them] but in a real partnership.''

Mr. Sullivan of the Seattle Rep, which turned down the Jujamcyn's offer of production assistance on ``Into the Woods,'' counters, ``How can you legally and ethically take donations as a nonprofit entity and then return to a commercial producer the potential benefit of millions in profit? The answer is you can't.''

Despite these caveats, such arrangements are proving increasingly attractive to a variety of regional theaters and commercial producers.

``The truth is that arts funding in this country is in a very precarious state,'' adds Mr. O'Brien. ``And we have to find ways of getting theater - all theater - working together to confront this issue.''

Second of two articles on plans to rescue Broadway. The first article was published yesterday.

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