Less than two years ago, the Kennedy Center moved its revival of the sprawling 1998 musical “Ragtime” to Broadway. It was a group tug: Crowded above the title were the names of almost 20 individuals and producing groups that had a hand in making the move happen.
Now the Kennedy Center has moved its production of Stephen Sondheim’s sprawling musical “Follies” to New York. This time the push north seems largely attributable to Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. And above the title, the producing credits belong almost entirely to the Kennedy Center.
“We’re learning over time,” Kaiser says.
The lessons have been coming more frequently as the Kennedy Center cautiously rekindles what was, during the reign of founding chairman/Broadway producer Roger Stevens, a hot route to New York. The Kennedy Center’s admired 2006 revival of Jerry Herman’s “Mame,” starring Christine Baranski, didn’t make it to Broadway after a long flirtation. “Ragtime” did transfer but closed quickly and lost money.
Now comes “Follies,” already in previews at the Marquis Theatre off Times Square before its official Sept. 12 opening.
In Washington this spring, with Bernadette Peters headlining, the show was practically a sellout (96 percent total attendance). The idea for the Washington production — a rare first-class revival of one of Sondheim’s most beloved but challenging musicals, with past and present intermingling as performers gather at a derelict theater — dates to the “Mame” days. That’s because, Kaiser explains in an interview in his office, “I tend to work five years ahead on big projects always.”
What he was looking ahead to was his anticipated departure from the Kennedy Center when his contract was up this year (he has since renewed through 2014). He needed his last production to be special. Kaiser had made an early impression on Washington with the ambitious multi-show Sondheim Celebration in 2002. So he was drawn to “Follies” as an appropriate bookend to his Washington stay. He quickly recruited his “Mame” creative team, director Eric Schaeffer, musical director James Moore and choreographer Warren Carlyle.
In 2009, Peters was at Schaeffer’s Signature Theatre in Arlington to bestow the troupe’s inaugural Sondheim Award on the composer-lyricist himself. During the gala fundraising dinner, Peters says, Schaeffer mentioned that a “Follies” was on the drawing board. Peters was interested, having long been intrigued by the role of Sally, the chorine who regrets not getting her man (and who thinks she might still be able to).
Last year, as Peters was stepping into the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” Schaeffer and Moore took her to dinner. They told her that they would have a 28-piece orchestra for “Follies.”
“Her eyes lit up,” Schaeffer says, sitting in the Marquis Theatre after a technical rehearsal. “She was like, ‘Really?’ ”
“That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to say yes to bring it to New York,” Peters says in her dressing room at the Marquis. “People on Broadway don’t see shows like this anymore, with 41 in the cast and 28 people in the orchestra.”
So by last August, the Kennedy Center was able to announce that its project had a star. “Then everyone wanted to do it,” Schaeffer says. “You’re like, ‘This is good.’ ”
“I always say this, and I mean it: We don’t produce our works to move them” to Broadway, Kaiser says. But “I would be lying if I said that, once Bernadette agreed to come and as we were moving along with this project that we didn’t say, ‘Hmm, maybe it could move.’ ”
The reviews were largely encouraging when the show opened in May. With a fabled score featuring “I’m Still Here” and “Losing My Mind” accompanying James Goldman’s book and a cast that included Jan Maxwell as Phyllis (Sally’s glamorous rival), Danny Burstein and Ron Raines as the leading men, luminaries Elaine Paige (the original Evita) and Linda Lavin (TV’s “Alice”), transfer buzz was inevitable. Maxwell says the rumor mill churned pretty aggressively backstage. “But there’s nothing you can do about it, except do your best,” she says. “And everybody was doing that.”
A key question was whether a Broadway theater would be available. In June, the Nederlanders, one of the main theater-owning operations in New York, said the Marquis could be had through the end of the year. Kaiser took it, and he sounds as if he was ready for the opportunity.
“We’re much more involved and more in control than we were with ‘Ragtime’ and than we would have been with ‘Mame,’ ” Kaiser says. “Follies” made $1 million above Kaiser’s projections in Washington, and he describes the investment in transferring the show as “substantial.”
“That means that we get to make a lot more decisions,” he says.
The example Kaiser offers sounds banal: about whether to do the Playbill cover in color. But the repercussions can be felt up the line.
“When you have a lot of time and lots and lots of producers and lots of opinions,” Kaiser says, “you can get into really long discussions about lots and lots of stuff.”
The marketing is already aggressive, with “Follies” posters plastered around the city. The August start meant there weren’t a lot of new shows to compete against, but the limited engagement means having to tap into the audience fast. As previews began, “Follies” had more than a $3 million advance, well ahead of the figures logged by “Ragtime.”
The production arrived in New York without much of a shake-up. Jayne Houdyshell and Don Correia have replaced Lavin and Terrence Currier, who had other commitments. Mary Beth Peil has replaced Régine, who was not kindly received as the French chanteuse Solange LaFitte. A trio of “Rain on the Roof,” “Ah, Paris!” and “Broadway Baby” has been put in, the ghosts that haunt the theater are more active, and the party onstage is more fluid. Costumes have been nipped, tucked and even axed (gone is Peters’s too-sexy red dress), but the set is unchanged: Scenic designer Derek McLane built it to move after having to re-size the massive “Ragtime” for its New York stage.
Kaiser says he was “extremely nervous” about keeping his cast together for the move and insists that nobody was optimistically penciling in this transfer. “I’m not lying,” he says with a laugh. “This really was a last-minute thing.” A lot of people had schedules to clear, including Peters (who pushed her concert schedule into next year).
Even before rehearsals began in Washington, Peters says her New York pals were telling her that “Follies” could never come to New York — too big, too expensive.
“But then Michael Kaiser was really determined,” Peters says. “He’s a genius with crunching numbers. He was in love with the show, and he wanted to bring it. And here we are.” She falters a little when asked to assess the effect her own clout had on the project — “They built around me,” she acknowledges.
“Follies” cost more than $4 million to produce at the Kennedy Center (the generally cited $7.5 million figure includes running costs during its 55 performances). It took an additional $7 million to get it moved, recast, rehearsed and marketed in New York. But daunting as that is, Kaiser says the show stands a chance of getting its money back before its scheduled closing at the end of the year.
“It’s a big theater,” he says of the Marquis, listed in Broadway box-office charts as having about 1,600 seats. The weekly running costs are just over $600,000, more than for the similarly sized “Ragtime,” mainly because of the “better-known cast,” Kaiser says. In August, the show was making about $750,000 per week — a good early figure and about half its earning potential. Pointing to his record of balancing the books at an institution that presents 2,000 shows and raises $90 million a year, Kaiser adds, “I’m not a stupid businessman.”
But amid this escalating commercial acumen, Kaiser is keenly aware of his organization’s not-for-profit mandate. Bedrock is Kaiser’s commitment to full orchestras in an era when radical downsizing in the pit is standard — even, in many cases, for Sondheim revivals. Last month came the announcement that a two-disc CD cast recording is in the works, further stamping this “Follies” as a bit of an event.
“My mission is to do work that isn’t just going to be done easily in a commercial way,” Kaiser says. “I don’t think any commercial producer would say, ‘Let’s do “Follies” with 28 in the orchestra and 41 in the cast; let’s go for it.’ I don’t think you’d have that conversation.”