L.A. Takes Center Stage for New Musical Theater

By Jill Serjeant

Better known as the home to Hollywood movies, Los Angeles is fast starting to beat to the sound of new musical stage productions that debut here then dance their way to Broadway.

When Dolly Parton's "9 to 5: The Musical" gets its world premiere on Saturday, it will be the fourth musical in as many years to open in Tinseltown before The Great White Way.

That sequence reverses long-standing theater tradition in which musicals such as global hit "Wicked" win acclaim on Broadway, then tour the world with a stop in Los Angeles. In fact, the City of Angels is now being seen as an incubator for new musicals with big ambitions.

"It's a good place to put on a new show. The talent is right here in Los Angeles. We seem to be able to raise the money right now to do it, and we are building an audience base for musicals," Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Centre Theatre Group in Los Angeles, told Reuters.

Much of the success stems from the Centre Theatre Group's program to develop and produce two or three new plays and at least one new musical a year. The group created new shows "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Curtains" which went to Broadway in 2006 and 2007 and earned 21 Tony award nominations -- more than any other theater company outside New York.

Centre Theatre Group also put up the musical "13," about the angst of being a 13-year-old, by LA-based composer Jason Robert Brown, which opens on Broadway in October.

Workin' '9 to 5'

The latest, and most anticipated, is the musical version of 1980 film comedy "9 to 5," about three women making their way in the workplace while fending off a chauvinist boss. It plays for a month here before opening in Times Square in March 2009.

The score was written by country singer Parton, the movie's star and composer of its hit theme song, "(Workin') 9 to 5," and is directed by Joe Mantello -- the director of "Wicked."

Home to many of the world's most well-known actors and musicians, a lack of talent has hardly been the reason for Los Angeles' late arrival on the musical stage. What has proved challenging is luring audiences in the sprawling city dominated by the movie business and often described as lacking a heart.

Unlike Broadway's more than 30 theaters crammed into a roughly 12-block area, the Los Angeles area has only a handful of large, commercial theaters spread up to 20 miles apart.

"There is a lot of stuff to distract people in Los Angeles," said Robert Greenblatt, the producer of "9 to 5: The Musical" and "The Drowsy Chaperone." "You have to work hard to get an audience that will make an effort to get to the theater in LA. It is a problem of geography."

Also problematic are the financial challenges of staging a musical with a large cast, dance numbers and elaborate sets -- about $8 million-$20 million for a Broadway-style opening. That is a big risk, given four of five shows fail to recoup their costs.

To meet the huge expense, the Centre Theatre Group can raise philanthropic donations because it is a nonprofit organization, as well as tapping commercial investors.

But once a show is up and running, audiences in multiethnic Los Angeles have proven to be good indicators of how a new musical will fare in the ballyhoo of tourist-driven Broadway.

"There is such a wide palette here. The world lives in LA, so in effect they are from all over. They have the same dynamic as a New York audience," Ritchie said.

With a big star like Parton attached, a Broadway transfer for "9 to 5: The Musical" seemed a shoo-in. But as in New York, the producers aren't celebrating until after reviews are in.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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