It was not a good morning for Leslie Stevens. The previous night his new play, "A Partridge in a Pear Tree," had opened at the Eisenhower Theater, and the reviewers had greeted it with all the enthusiasm of doctors seeing a case of the plague.
Not only did they dislike the play -- a confestion about an English judge and a maid who's up on a murder rap -- but they blasted the production for being under-rehearsed and clumsy. Star James Mason didn't seem to know his lines, they complained, and other actors in the cast didn't seem to know their characters.
"A light play is like a light souffle," Stevens said, sitting in the lounge of the Watergate Hotel and holding two handwritten pages, a draft of a letter he had just written to a friend about the previous night's debacle. "It must be exactly right or it falls," he read. "'Partridge' was served before it was ready and provoked the same ire from the critics that gourmets experience when they go to a fine restaurant and are served excellent ingredients undercooked . . ." g
The undercooking had a lot to do with the fact that opening night was the first public performance, Stevens said, and the actors didn't know where the laughs would come and how to adjust their performances accordingly. Yes, he conceded, it was perhaps understandable that critics might react negatively to a performance that was basically a dress rehearsal, but he thought "they might have been more generous."
Nor does he feel the audience is cheated by paying full price for a ticket when they are seeing an "uncooked" performance. "When America is tuned to theater, they'll know that comedy takes awhile, so you shouldn't go to opening night . . . those who do go to opening night will be the kind who enjoy seeing works develop." (Nonetheless, the director of "Partridge," Phillip Abbott, has since been replaced and Stevens will direct revisions himself.)
He has more than the usual reasons to be interested in the fate of this production: It is intended to be merely the first in a series from Empress Productions," an ambitious new venture headed by Stevens, Hollywood composer Dominic Frontiere and his wife, the former Georgia Rosenbloom, who conveniently owns the Los Angeles Rams -- a nest egg fat enough to provide a $250-million cushion for the company.
Kennedy Center head Roger Stevens (no relation) is joining hands with Empress: The Center is lending what Leslie Stevens called "the imprimatur of its status" to the productions, as well as sharing the costs equally. Each production will open at the Kennedy Center; three are planned now. Roger Stevens has veto power over the choice of plays, but the production details are Empress' responsibility, Leslie Stevens said.
Empress stands for Entertainment in Media Productions, Recordings, Entertainment, Stage and Screen, which is an indication of some of the ways the three producers intend to mount shows that are "critic-proof," an adventurous concept inter-marrying theater with the more technological arts. The idea is to start with a theatrical production, and then reap additional profits by adapting it for television or movies or selling it as a video cassette, and then using those funds to finance more shows.
Avoiding New York and Broadway is one of the company's main goals. "Why should a handful of critics in New York decide what is good?" Stevens said. With advance subscription sales, subsidiary productions such as television or movies, and the use of well-known actors in the leading roles, he envisions a series of plays and musicals that will tour major U.S. cities, like the six "Partridge" will hit after closing in Washington, and break even inancially without ever being declared a hit by New Yorkers.
This is not a new idea, but Empress may be more able to complete the vision than others who have tried -- largely because of the money put up by Georgia Frontiere. (She is something of a soap opera herself, a former singer in her 50s who has been married seven times. She made headlines when she took over the Rams after her husband's death, and then fired her stepson from his post as heir-apparent. She's been a Las Vegas showgirl and a television weather reporter, and Stevens says "she's a wonderful singer of light opera.")
Many producers have discovered the profit potential of a long pre-Broadway tour of the hinterlands -- if there is either a star or an author famous enough to sell tickets. Katharine Hepburn has recently launched a tour of a new play that will not come to New York for 18 months. And the number of plays produced by regional theaters which earn a place in theatrical history is proof that culture outside of New York can flourish.
On the other hand, as one veteran Broadway producer said, "If it's any good, why wouldn't they want to bring it to New York? The person who wants to tour is just trying to avoid meeting the standards of Broadway, which are the highest in the world."
Steens disagrees. "The Broadway stamp is not necessarily the higher standard," he said. "I hate to think a little clique on Broadway has been dictating for 50 years what is and is not theater in this country. Whoever said that Walter Kerr is the Kennedy Center, or that three critics in New York are the taste of Washington? It may have been true way back when they were the Big City and the rest of country was the sticks, a bunch of uncultured boobs. But with television, and paperbacks and all that, taste is more homogenized now, and the power of Broadway to dictate taste is over."
While there is no fixed budget or bankroll for the production company, it cost Empress $200,000 to open "Partridge," a one-set, 10-character play with contemporary costumes. Nearly half of that has been covered by the sale of rights to a cable television company, which plans to film the performance in Seattle. The way Stevens reckons it, a play on the same scale as "Partridge" with period costumes would cost $250,000, one with two sets would be $350,000 and with 10 more people in the cast it would cost $400,000.
"You can't do any first-class production for $200,000," argued the Broadway producer, who asked not to be quoted by name. "It doesn't make any difference whether you open in New York or Washington. It depends on what you're trying to do."
The point, he added, is not the specific amount of money a producer spends, but how he spends it. From the viewpoint of a New York producer, a touring production has to incorporate the major cost of paving actors. Equity, the actor's union, requires that a producer choose a "city of origin" for a show , and in every other town the performers are paid a per-diem sum and transportation costs based on the origin city. Thus, he reasoned, if a producer has to scrimp on anything, it is likely to be the technical aspects of a production, which also must be adapted to fit in different theaters.
Stevens, 57, got involved in theater after winning a playwright contest at Western High School here when he was 15. "It was called 'The Mechanical Rat,'" he recalled, "it was a smash hit. The prize was to go over to the National Theater and watch a rehearsal of Orson Wells directing 'Five Kings.' He thought I was a go-fer, so I just kept hanging around running errands and ended up going on tour with them."
The son of a Navy man, Stevens went briefly to George Washington University, joined the Army, and after getting out studied theater at Yale Drama School and the American Theater Wing. His first play, "Bullfight," was produced by Roger Stevens off-Broadway, and later he had a Broadway hit with "The Marriage Go-Round," which starred Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert.
But his career has largely been in Hollywood -- directing, writing and producing. For 10 years, he was an executive producer at Universal. His credits include "Battlestar Gallactica," "Buck Rogers," "Left-Handed Gun" and "Heroes' Island," which starred James Mason.
"I'm a laborer," he said, showing the callous on his middle finger. "I write in longhand. I'm a working-class dramatist. I write every day, about half a day, and every 15 to 40 days there's another script.
"Arthur Miller might turn out ten 120-page scripts in 20 years -- I write than much every year. Neil Simon only does farce -- I can do comedy or tragedy."
The next Empress production will be another Stevens opus, a "chiller." There are also plans for a musical next fall and a dramatization of Babe Ruth's life story called "The Sultan of Swat." Frontiere's music will be featured, and Stevens is fond of saying that the company is unique because it is headed by "three artists -- not a businessman among us."
"We won't be making a contribution unless we do new things," he said. "We want to do plays that have as their first requirement that they reach and please an audience. We don't have a message, we don't have an ax to grind. We want to communicate everything from trival nonsense to high art."
Next time, however, the show will play two weeks in Orange County before opening at the "status"-laden Kennedy Center. "We made a mistake" with "Partridge," Stevens admits. "I've learned a lot. But I think the best is yet to come."