Come to the "Cabaret," but don't come with a program. That was the wish of British director Sam Mendes, who--in his quest to preserve the verisimilitude of his current Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the Kander-Ebb musical--instructed ushers to hand out Playbills at the end of the show, rather than at the start. This back-door relegating of programs resulted in Playbill withdrawing its publication from the theatre last week.
The action was remarkable as the only instance in memory of Playbill, a century-old Broadway institution, removing itself from a production. Playbill publisher Philip Birsh explained that the decision was not based on the violation of any contractual obligation, but on tradition.
"We only have contracts with Equity Broadway houses," said Birsh. "We have no contracts with Off-Broadway houses. But the spirit of our relationships with these houses and the policy in place prior to my birth, is that they must hand out the programs in exact replica of how they are in the Broadway houses."
Birsh said he had been "avalanched" with e-mail from "Cabaret" audience members, asking why they couldn't obtain a program prior to curtain. He also commented that the late distribution was unfair to Playbill advertisers.
To cater to Mendes' environmental vision of the musical, the Roundabout transformed the former Club Expo on West 43rd Street into the Kit Kat Klub, the 1930s Berlin nightclub frequented by the musical's characters.
Speaking for the Roundabout, press representative Adrian Bryan-Brown said the decision "started with Sam Mendes, but it got the full support of the company."
The "Showbill" Must Go On
For a short time, the Roundabout was reduced to handing out printed single-page credits at the Kit Kat Klub. Recently, however, the theatre came to an agreement with Playbill. The publication still refused to lend its flagship title for the show if its creators insisted on handing out programs at the end of the show, but agreed to use one of its alternate titles, Showbill.
In addition, the service will now come at a cost of $1,300 a week, to be footed by the Roundabout. Playbill, which supports itself solely through advertising, provides its programs to Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres free of charge.
The Showbill title is used in only one other New York theatre, Livent's Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
Asked if the Roundabout was smarting at the prospect of paying for a program, Bryan-Brown responded, "They want to do what is creatively best. Obviously nobody wants to spend any money on anything.