"Producer's Corner"
by Bruce Lazarus

War Stories

Tuesday nights I host a free TeleCourse in which I invite a different theatre-industry professional to discuss an aspect of the theatrical production process with both experienced and novice producers.

Recently, I started a new series of TeleCourses entitled “War Stories,” in which experienced producers share their stories of success and failure, joy and heartbreak with the participants.  I believe that hearing these “War Stories” can give us insight into the process of producing a show, and can also allow us to learn from another producer’s experience as we develop our own projects.

Our first “War Stories” guest was producer Bill Repecci, who told us how one of the most successful small musical revues of recent years, Swingtime Canteen, came to be.  A hit off-Broadway in 1994, Swingtime Canteen is even more popular across the country now than ever.

The story began in 1991, when Bill met another producer at the annual Commercial Theater Institute conference for producers in New York City.  She asked Bill if he would be interested in seeing a performance of a revue of World War II songs she had put together at her theater in Midland, Texas.  When she offered to fly him out there, he accepted.  Bill thought the show, then called Home Fires, had the potential to follow the route of Forever Plaid, which had been developed and produced by his friend, Stuart Ross.  Highly successful both off-Broadway and “on the road,” Forever Plaid was a revue of 1950s and early 1960s popular songs sung by four men who, according to the book of the show, were supposed to be a ‘50s singing group killed in a car crash but back from heaven for a one-night-only concert.  Bill suggested to his new friend that she might duplicate that show’s success if she choose more popular 1940s songs for her revue, made the book short and simple to allow the songs to be the focus of the show, narrowed the cast to the women only, and made those women the members of the band on stage as well.  He saw in the show what he calls strong “subsidiary value,” meaning the potential to do very well in its future life in many different venues.   The producer was able to put her ego aside and work with Bill to develop a more streamlined show.  They brought that show up to New York and workshopped it at the Actors Playhouse in for 4 Mondays and Tuesdays.

After the new production received mixed reviews in its next life at the American Stage Company, the original producer turned the show over to Bill.  He raised $45,000, and in November, 1992 hooked up with the Light Opera of Manhattan, a not-for-profit that was hungry for new material and therefore not looking for a percentage of future income.  Bill purposely kept critics away from that production, but filled the houses by allowing the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) to offer discount tickets to its subscribers.  Those revenues alone paid the entire weekly running expenses.  Next, Bill made some changes on the creative team of what was now called Swingtime Canteen.  He brought in famed off-Broadway director Ken Elliot, who brought in actor-playwright Charles Busch, with whom he had worked on such hits as The Lady in Question and Red Scare on Sunset.  Busch worked on the book of the show while Bill set up their next production, at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.  Once again, Bill told the TeleCourse, the process would not have worked if anyone involved had listened to his ego and not accepted the collaborative process.  Of the Bay Street Theater production, the New York Times wrote that the creators of the show were obviously “not going to give up,” and that this time they “almost got it.”

In his next fundraising effort, Bill raised $300,00 by taking in 7 associate producers.  Some Bill knew from his speaking engagements, some had seen the show in workshop at the Actors Playhouse, but all were, in Bill’s words, “in love with the show.”  Those associate producers who worked in marketing and other businesses offered their invaluable help and services in their areas of expertise.  By September, 1994 Bill had enough capital raised to set an opening date at the Blue Angel in Manhattan.  Then, very quickly, everything seemed to fall apart.  The Blue Angel reneged, saying they promised the space to a producer who was a potential buyer of the space, and Bill lost his star and $200,000 of his capitalization.  But just when things looked darkest, Bill’s faith in the project would not allow him to give up.  He called the Blue Angel to let them know that he was still interested in the space if the deal with the other producer fell through.  It had, and Bill had his theatre back.  He then hired Tony Award-nominated Alison Fraser (Romance, Romance) for the leading role, up until the day before previews began raised $60,000.  Despite negative reviews in the Post and Daily News, the show carried on until rave reviews in both the daily and Sunday New York Times gave it a boost.  That July, in the midst of a box office lull, Alison Fraser took a vacation and suggested that Charles Busch play her role in drag.  He did, and in Bill’s estimation, his sweet performance was much further removed from camp than many people expected, and gave the show a new tone.  Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters joined the company for a cameo appearance, the box office picked up and the rave reviews continued to flow. When Maxene Andrews passed away it was time to close.

Now, Swingtime Canteen is highly popular all across America.  Bill says that he always believed that if the show had a successful New York production its subsidiary rights value on the road would be very high, and he pressed on through the most frustrating times on that faith.  Sometimes it takes what he calls “an almost childlike petulance,” a refusal to give in and fold up, to get through those times.

Bruce Lazarus the former Director of Business and Legal Affairs for Walt Disney Theatrical Productions and producer of the current off-Broadway show Shakespeare's "R&J."

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