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December 4, 2008

Theatrical Fratricide, Prop 8 vs. the Arts, and Milk

The Bay Area theatre world is still recovering from news of the sudden closure of American Musical Theatre of San Jose (AMTSJ) - a shocking story that has repercussions for three theatres across the U.S.

AMTSJ announced Monday they were closing immediately and filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.   Although the Bay Area's premier musical theatre venue was carrying a $2 million dollar deficit, it seems another theatre precipitated its final demise.  

The San Jose company had plans to co-produce Disney's "Tarzan" with Atlanta's Theatre of the Stars and Dallas Summer Musicals.  The show was set to open in Atlanta in January and then arrive in the Bay Area the following month.  Both AMTSJ and Dallas Summer Musicals had given Theatre of the Stars an advance of $225,000.

But then, according to a statement made by AMTSJ CEO and executive producer Michael Miller, his company got a call from the Atlanta theatre saying "they had used all the funds that we paid them towards the production on other things.  In essence, they cancelled the show without giving us any warning, and we discovered that the funds we had paid for Tarzan were spent on another production of theirs, which lost a significant amount of money."  

Theatre of the Stars released a statement saying that it actually used the $225,000 from AMTSJ and the Dallas company for preproduction expenses on "Tarzan" and that it is "working with the other theatres on repayment plans for their pre-production advances."  But officials there refused to comment further due to the pending lawsuit filed by AMTSJ to recoup the lost funds.

The $225,000, however, is just a drop in the bucket.  AMTSJ estimates it will lose $1.7 million in revenue from the production, including $800,000 in tickets already sold.

The theatre had high hopes for "Tarzan," which was to be a new version revised by David Henry Hwang, who originally wrote the book in 2006.  "It was an extremely exciting project for us, because Disney was going to take a look at it and maybe purchase it back from us, so it was a really huge opportunity to mount the beginnings of a national tour between the three companies," Miller said.  The new "Tarzan" has been a major hit in Holland where it's approaching its second year.  Now that this production is cancelled, Hwang says he does not know of any other plans to produce it in the U.S.

The Tony Award-winning playwright had just finished worked with AMTSJ on "Flower Drum Song."  He says, "I was shocked to hear about the closing of AMTSJ.  It seems incomprehensible to me that an established, reputable organization like Theatre of the Stars could have engaged in, at best, gross negligence, at worst, outright deception.  It pains me to realize that my first experience [at AMTSJ] appears to have been my last... The loss of AMTSJ leaves a great hole in the Bay Area theatre scene, and serves as a painful reminder of the fragility of even established arts organizations; they all require our vigilant support."  

In this crumbling economy, theatres not only require our support.  They must do whatever they can to support each other, not commit fratricide.


AMTSJ's closure comes on the heels of another shake-up in the Northern California musical theatre world.  Last month, Scott Eckern, artistic director of California Musical Theatre (the state's largest nonprofit musical theatre company) resigned amidst criticism of his donation in support of Proposition 8.  Eckern donated $1000 to the campaign that helped pass the measure banning same-sex marriage.  Gay rights activists and theatre artists, including "Hairspray" composer Marc Shaiman, then led a boycott of the Sacramento theatre, which ended when Eckern resigned.      

Shaiman also recently led a more light-hearted effort to protest Proposition 8 - a "Waiting for Guffman"-like online video called "Prop 8: The Musical."  Posted Wednesday on Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's, the video features stars like Jack Black, John C. Reilly, Margaret Cho, Maya Rudolph, and Neil Patrick Harris.  Black plays Jesus, who fails to get the two sides to find common ground.  It's Harris who coaxes the Prop 8 proponents to admit: "I can see America's calling me.  Yes, gay marriages will save the economy."  

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Movie theatre chain Cinemark is also getting flack for its CEO's donation to the Yes on Prop 8 campaign.  Alan Stock gave $9,999 to help pass the measure, prompting No on 8 protesters to boycott the cinemas.

Cinemark will actually open "Milk" at San Francisco's CineArts Empire Friday - a potentially hypocritical business decision.  The film chronicles the political life of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man to get elected to major public office in the US.  After being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he was later assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White.  Prop 8 opponents are now urging people to see "Milk" at any cinema other than a Century, CineArts or Tinseltown theatre (


Cinemark theatre or not, go see "Milk."  Do not miss this incredible film directed by Gus Van Sant.  Van Sant infuses Milk's story with a realistic exuberance and gritty grace in a city where change is both palpable and passionate.  He celebrates Milk, the hero, but never loses sight of Milk, the man, who didn't start his political career until after his 40th birthday, when he proclaims, "I'm 40, and I haven't done anything I'm proud of."

The movie sets a prescience for America's present political renaissance; Milk starts as a community organizer, like Barack Obama; his fight against a proposition requiring schools to fire gay teachers parallels today's battle over gay marriage.  The cast is superb, especially Sean Penn as Milk.  Penn not only exudes Milk's charm, persistence, and fighting spirit, but he also embraces his dorky giddiness and complicated vulnerability.  The result is at once inspiring and tragic.  For days after, you'll marvel at the human potential for hope and change, and then crash upon the realization that one disturbed force could destroy it all in an instant.  

If you find yourself in the Bay Area, do what you can to see it at the Castro Theatre.  This beautiful, historic movie house, highlighted in the film itself, offers a uniquely complete experience - the film doesn't end when you walk out because you're on the very block where it takes place.  You'll find your own present reality merging seamlessly and uncannily with art and history.

December 4, 2008 3:14 AM | | Comments (0)

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