Rocco to the Rescue! Remember Your Raison d’Etre

I love a man who’s trouble. And exactly how Rocco Landesman turned out to be a man after my own heart is the pretext for this week’s column.

My love for Rocco will doubtless surprise some people, including Rocco himself. He is, after all, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, whom I once challenged to sit in one of his own awesomely cramped Broadway houses and swear to the theatergoing world that there was enough legroom for even a severely depressed dwarf. He did not rise to the challenge. Not only is our Rocco well over six feet tall on a good day, he would have had to sit through his own production of The Sound of Music one more time. He’s no fool! To the contrary, this leading commercial producer (and former professor at the Yale School of Drama) turns out to be trouble with a capital T, which rhymes with “we”-and we are delighted.

In a stunning attack on nonprofit theaters-stunning because it came from so unexpected a source-he accused the nonprofit movement of selling out by modeling itself on-of all low things-the commercial theater! Now that must surely be a first. In effect, a Broadway producer is saying to the nonprofit opposition: Don’t be like us. Writing in the June 4 Arts & Leisure Section of The New York Times , Rocco took particularly lethal aim at the Roundabout Theatre’s artistic director, Todd Haimes, for playing it safe with star-driven, mediocre subscription fare and for selling the name and dignity of his theater to American Airlines for a few more pieces of silver.

“It would, I suppose, be hyperbolic to say that Todd Haimes has had a more pernicious influence on English-speaking theater than anyone since Oliver Cromwell (and it wouldn’t be nice, either, since Mr. Haimes is a personable and honorable man),” Rocco wrote in his best I-come-not-to-bury-Caesar style. “But it can be reasonably argued that the forces of the marketplace through the years have been just as effective a censor as government edicts.”

He was boldly arguing that subsidized theaters like the Roundabout have lost their way by pandering to sleepy subscribers and Broadway values, or that they function increasingly in open, unembarrassed alliance with the commercial producers themselves. In other, bitter words: There no longer exists a clear difference between the commercial and the nonprofit, between the bottom line and the artistically independent-and for some of us, the lifeblood of American theater is at stake.

When Lincoln Center jumped into bed with the Broadway producer Garth Drabinsky in 1998 to co-produce an expensive new musical, Parade , my strong objection was that the independence of our nonprofit theaters ought to be sacrosanct. What do we see all around us but more compromise, more and more conformity-a diminishment, if you will, of individualism and freedom of choice. I look to our nonprofit theaters not to compromise more, but less . I look to them as the last stronghold where certain stories may be told in liberty. The enduring strength of nonprofit theater-of the very identity which accounts for its unique contribution and artistic vision-resides in the rejection of Broadway values.

It’s argued that without Broadway investors and their “enhancement money,” nonprofit theaters like Lincoln Center, the Public Theater and the Manhattan Theatre Club wouldn’t be able to produce big musicals. My answer to that is: Then produce small musicals. And let the theaters that are held in public trust remain proudly independent-producing musicals and plays that Broadway daren’t risk, which is why they’re in business in the first place.

Why, then, do commercial producers make alliances with nonprofit theaters? Not for art’s sake, surely. There’s only one reason: It’s a safer and cheaper way of producing. From New York to Los Angeles to Seattle to San Francisco to San Diego, the nonprofit theaters of America are being used simply as try-out houses for Broadway. A musical version of The Full Monty is currently in production at the nonprofit Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where it’s partly financed by Fox Searchlight, the producers of the 1997 hit movie. The show, once tested in the less pressurized regional marketplace, is heading for Broadway (where it’s due to open at one of Rocco’s Jujamcyn Theaters!). But the question of whether the Old Globe should function as a try-out house-or whether The Full Monty , the musical, is a particularly thrilling idea-has been lost in the typical commercial opportunism of it all.

Then again, the nonprofit artistic directors argue back with their glib mantra of righteous defensiveness that their artistic integrity is always maintained and that their theaters share in the Broadway profits that help to subsidize their “real” work. They never mention that they also share in the losses and could lose their shirts-thereby jeopardizing everything else they do. Nor is their artistic independence truly maintained, any more than one can become a little bit pregnant. When the Public Theater’s recent Wild Party opened on Broadway to a thumbs-down Times review, one of its principal co-producers, Scott Rudin, wanted to close the show immediately. The idea of nurturing a show or an artist through rough times is itself uncommercial.

The “right to fail” is a more typically English concept. That hallowed right-created by the legendary George Devine at the nonprofit powerhouse Royal Court Theatre-is the bedrock of government-subsidized theater in England. “Failing,” like not making a profit, is an un-American activity. Yet this country’s own subsidized theaters-supported primarily by endowments, corporations and philanthropy-were actually created in the 1960’s as a daring alternative to commercial theater. They created their own “right to fail,” or the nerve to take uncommercial artistic risks. But today, the line has become so blurred that Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the immensely powerful Shubert Organization on Broadway, can claim that the differences between profit and nonprofit are essentially obsolete. There are differences, even so. When was the last time the Shubert independently produced an unknown dramatist on Broadway? But when the Roundabout produces such hackneyed, sure-fire commercial crap as Neil Simon’s Hotel Suite -a collection of one-acts taken from Mr. Simon’s well-known Plaza Suite , California Suite and London Suite -we’re entitled to ask whether this is the most adventurous work a nonprofit theater can offer us.

Our theaters are compromised enough. The nonprofit theater is nontaxable. If it can’t behave, it should pay tax like the commercial theater. If it sleeps with Broadway producers, it should forfeit its special status. Let our compliant nonprofit theaters wake up from their smug, slumbering capitulation and return to their unique raison d’être , which is their fierce artistic independence, their social contract with the community, their belief in the intelligence of all audiences, their faith in new talent and in our theatrical heritage, and their joy in creating lots and lots of trouble.