The Case Against Drabinsky And Lincoln Center

I regret singling out Lincoln Center Theater for some harsh criticism. As André Bishop, Lincoln Center’s well-liked artistic director, put it when I spoke to him a few days ago: Life’s tough enough.

But what concerns me is the surprising news that Lincoln Center has joined forces with Garth Drabinsky-whose company, Livent Inc., produced Ragtime and Showboat on Broadway-to produce the new musical Parade . Based on the story of Leo Frank, the Jewish factory manager who was persecuted in Atlanta in 1913, Parade , directed by Hal Prince, will open early next year in Lincoln Center’s main house, the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The nonprofit theater and Livent, the commercial production company, will be splitting costs on a 50-50 basis. On the face of it, what’s wrong with that? Lincoln Center gets to produce a big new musical; in return, Mr. Drabinsky has an excellent showcase for Parade , and, if all goes well, an eventual transfer to a commercial Broadway house.

My strong objection is this: The artistic independence of nonprofit theaters ought to be sacrosanct. What do we see all around us but more and more compromise and conformity-a diminishment, if you will, of individualism and freedom of choice. The already threatened independence of nonprofit theaters is a vitally important issue that shouldn’t be compromised further by alliances with commercial producers. I’ve nothing against Mr. Drabinsky. Let him take his chances in the commercial arena. I’ve nothing, of course, against Lincoln Center producing new musicals. But let it not end up a tryout theater subsidizing Mr. Drabinsky’s shows.

Artistic excellence doesn’t exclude commercial success (and vice versa). But nonprofit partnerships with commercial producers blur the crucial differences. Unlike Broadway theaters, Lincoln Center can-and should-keep an important production running at a loss, if it so chooses. The right to fail is the central idea of every healthy nonprofit theater. No one believes that more than André Bishop, who fought long and hard for the artistic integrity of nonprofit theaters. I put it to him that the Drabinsky-Lincoln Center alliance is a mistaken policy.

He pointed out, firstly, that Parade is one of the three new musicals being staged by Lincoln Center. The other two-William Finn’s A New Brain and Michael John LaChusia’s Marie Christine -will be wholly produced in-house. “Livent had been developing Parade , but the only reason we’re doing it is because we believe it’s a good show,” he told me. “A transfer to Broadway couldn’t be further from my mind. All we care about is the quality of the show. It’s just too expensive for us to produce it alone.”

In which case, don’t produce it. Sweetheart though Mr. Drabinsky surely is, he owns 50 percent of Parade and would no doubt like his views heard. Nor, as I say, should Lincoln Center become, in effect, Mr. Drabinsky’s public workshop; nor should public money be used to finance his shows. The principle of nonprofit independence, I argued, is more important than pragmatism-though Mr. Bishop didn’t see it that way, arguing strongly that no artistic compromise is involved.

But the Drabinsky deal is a warning sign and a symptom of what’s going on elsewhere. After Mr. Bishop left his former theater, Playwrights Horizons, which he led with such distinction, Playwrights accepted a deal with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. In return for first option on film rights, Amblin has so far financed 13 new plays at $10,000 each. Could anyone name the plays? The impression I have of those I’ve seen is that they’re made for TV, or for movies. Either way, the line has been seriously blurred. Is the responsibility of Playwrights Horizons to Steven Spielberg or to theater?

Then again, the nonprofit Public Theater’s production of On the Town in Central Park last summer was invested in by commercial producers looking to make the transfer to Broadway. No doubt George C. Wolfe needed the injection of extra cash to produce such a spiffy production. In which case, to hell with spiff. Joseph Papp must have been spinning in his grave at the sight of producer Scott Rudin big-dealing on his mobile phone before the curtain went up. Mr. Rudin was one of the Broadway investors in the show.

The late Mr. Papp first produced A Chorus Line at the Public without help from the commercial theater. When Mr. Bishop ran Playwrights Horizons, he premiered with equal independence such musicals as Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George and Assassins , Once on This Island by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty of Ragtime , and William Finn’s two Falsettos . Productions were cheaper to stage then. But without commercial investors, they prospered. Two of today’s biggest musical hits, Rent and Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk , were wholly developed by the nonprofit theaters that created them before they transferred to Broadway.

Mr. Bishop is right. Life is tough enough. I could, for example, pick on Lincoln Center’s new, Donald Trump-ish gold water fountains, not to mention the bright new neon signs in the foyer that remind us of a suburban mall, what with the pianist playing selections from My Fair Lady on matinee days. But I won’t do that. I could make a case that the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s awesomely homespun Ah, Wilderness! is nicely produced, but a crashing bore. It was O’Neill’s only domestic comedy, thank God. It ought to have been called Blah, Wilderness . But I won’t say that.

In any case, artistic choices can change for the better; even the design of foyers can change for the better. But whatever the financial pressures on Lincoln Center, the alliance with Garth Drabinsky is bad policy. Our nonprofit theaters are not in business for the convenience of commercial producers. Our theaters are compromised enough. The Lincoln Center-Drabinsky alliance should be canceled.