Tracing the missteps of 'Red Shoes'

December 31, 1993|By Bruce Weber | Bruce Weber,New York Times News Service

The song that opened the second act of "The Red Shoes" was called "Do Svidanya," Russian for "goodbye," and singing it during the Sunday matinee on Dec. 19, the fifth and last performance of the show at the Gershwin Theater, cast members were nearly numb.

"There was such sadness," said Margaret Illmann, who played the lead role, the ballerina Vicky Page. "We never imagined we'd be saying goodbye so soon."

There was, as it turns out, a great deal of bitterness, too. Indeed, if some of the raw emotion that had erupted backstage during the rehearsals and endless previews of "The Red Shoes" -- there were 51 of them -- had ended up in front of an audience, the musical might still be running.

Instead, because "The Red Shoes" had survived a host of travails on the way to the stage, and because it had been more or less revamped in the frantic final weeks, it was presented with the kind of relief that begets false hope. And when the show, which was based on the 1948 film about ballet, received uniform, stake-in-the-heart critical pans, it became one of the greatest calamities in Broadway history, with nearly $8 million lost in a finger snap.

How could some of the theater world's most illustrious figures produce such a disaster?

The answer is that it's hard to imagine a more stark example of what happens when collaboration goes awry. By opening night, Dec. 16, the disagreements between the producer, Martin Starger, and much of his creative team -- which had resulted in his dismissing the original director, two featured players, the male lead and the production stage manager -- had become dishearteningly public. And of course the show hadn't been ready for its scheduled opening on Dec. 2, which had forced Mr. Starger into a costly two-week postponement.

Less public, though, was the nature of the backstage upheaval, a struggle for artistic control that involved nothing less than which "vision" of the show to pursue, and the factions that had developed, largely along generational lines, as a result.

On one side were Mr. Starger, 61, the composer Jule Styne, 88, and the eventual director, Stanley Donen, who is 69. They more or less wanted to put on a staged version of the film; they saw the story of a young ballerina driven to suicide by the conflicting demands of the men in her life as a classic melodrama. In the other camp were the original director, Susan Schulman, who is 47; the playwright Marsha Norman, 45, who wrote the book and lyrics; Lar Lubovitch, who is 50, and the set designer, Heidi Landesman, 42, all of whom felt that to hew so closely to the vision of what they felt to be a cultural artifact would produce a dated, dull show.

Which explains why the critics unanimously saw the show as a hodgepodge. If they liked the dancing or the set, and many did, they found the story a treacly rehash of the film, the score uninspired, the language of the book and lyrics mundane: all in all a stitched-together effort, its seams in embarrassing evidence.

It was astonishing, really, considering the creative minds involved. But it seems they agreed on nothing. In fact, given the principals' willingness to parcel out blame in recent interviews, it's hard to know who, if anyone, was a weak link.

"The amateurism of the producer and the director ultimately sunk the show," Ms. Norman said. "They didn't know what they were doing."

Mr. Styne said, "Marsha's a talented lady, but she doesn't know how to write lyrics."

Mr. Donen railed against what he called "a secret vision" of the play, shared by Ms. Norman and Ms. Schulman, which he said Ms. Norman kept trying to perpetuate.

And Mr. Lubovitch defended Ms. Schulman. "What was apparent early on," he said, "was that Donen's lack of stagecraft was acute."

Ultimately, of course, the fate of a show is the responsibility of the producer, in this case Mr. Starger, most of whose resume has to do with Hollywood, and who, unusual for Broadway these days, sat in the producer's chair alone. Mr. Starger raised the money, contributing a sizable chunk of his own, and from the beginning was in on every decision, on both the creative and business sides. This of course made him the biggest target of all the carping, much of it aimed at what was perceived to be his insensitivity to the creative people he hired. There was particular resentment of his swift closing of the show before it had run long enough to qualify for any Tony nominations.

"Obviously people who are replaced are going to be disgruntled," Mr. Starger said. "But what happens in this situation is that everything that's good about the show, that has nothing to do with the producer. What they find fault with is the producer's fault."

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