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Chicago Aims at Broadway

CHICAGO -- Producers Stuart Oken and Michael Leavitt have formed Elephant Eye Theatrical, a company dedicated to the development of new book musicals for Broadway. Five Cent Productions, a consortium of five large nonprofit performing arts centers, is the third partner in the new company, of which Oken is CEO and Leavitt is president.

Oken, a former executive vice president of Disney Theatrical Productions, counts "The Lion King" and "Aida" among his Broadway credits. As president of Fox Theatricals, Leavitt guided "Jekyll & Hyde," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," and "Death of a Salesman" to Broadway.

Five Cent Productions is composed of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, Conn.; the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston; the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn.; the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia; and the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Bushnell president and CEO David Fay will be the "managing member" of Five Cent Productions.

Elephant Eye Theatrical "will find and initiate projects, assemble creative teams, fund the genesis and ongoing evolution of the projects, and serve as lead producer when projects are fully staged," according to a press release. Five Cent Productions has made a multiyear commitment to fund developmental work, which will be supplemented by more-traditional Broadway funding sources when the shows are ready for commercial production.

Funding and Development

Each of the members of Five Cent Productions may actively participate in the development of new projects, and as Broadway-ready shows emerge, the works may play one or more of the five centers as part of extended pre-Broadway tours. Elephant Eye reverses the usual flow of enhancement money, with the nonprofit performing arts centers putting up cash for developmental work and preproduction under the aegis of two commercial producers. Individually, the centers couldn't afford to develop new Broadway-scale musicals, but collectively they can. Elephant Eye Theatrical expects to be fully capitalized at $8 million, of which $5 million has been committed.

Oken began his career in Chicago with former partner Jason Brett as the first producers to recognize the for-profit potential of Off-Loop theatre. He and Brett built the Apollo Theatre Center in 1978 and then developed the Chicago Theatre Project as a new-play incubator before heading to Los Angeles in 1985. Oken returned to Chicago two years ago to establish not only Elephant Eye, but also the American Musical Theatre Project at Northwestern University, of which he is artistic director.

Director turned producer Michael Leavitt also has deep Chicago roots. In 1985, he co-founded the Payne Leavitt Group (with Wesley Payne), which produced comedies, musical revues, and the occasional drama in city and suburban venues. Fox Theatricals bought the Payne Leavitt Group in 1991. Always Chicago-based, Leavitt initiated the restoration of the Cadillac Palace Theatre and brought Blue Man Group to town.

Initial Elephant Eye projects will include "Bruce Lee: Journey to the West" by David Henry Hwang, intertwining the mythic journeys of Chinese martial-arts star Bruce Lee and the Chinese warrior god, the Monkey King; "1968" by Margaret Nagle, being shepherded by filmdom's Taylor Hackford, the story of a "family in Berkeley, Calif., that is torn apart and then reconnected by events of that year"; and "Beauty Sleeping" by writer-director Tina Landau and composer Jeanine Tesori, adapted from Landau's play "Beauty."

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