As many of you Internet readers know by now, the buzz on the Web is that Cablevision is about to strike or already has struck a deal with Livent, the troubled Canadian theater producing company. Garth Drabinsky, the founder of Livent, is the man who brought us the Broadway productions of the revival of Showboat and the end-all musical of the century, Ragtime. Two fabulous productions among many, including the forthcoming Fosse, associated with Livent made this public company a success, until accounting irregularities were uncovered and 2 + 2 didn't equal 5.
Because of the irregularities Livent thought they were earning millions of dollars when in actuality they were losing money -- 31 million dollars this year alone, as of June. Since early August when Livent discovered there was more than one set of books in accounting, Drabinsky was suspended pending the outcome of an investigation. As of yesterday, he was canned moments after Livent filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and released their financial report.
A few years ago, long before the big corporate boys invaded the Great White Way something like this would have been impossible. Broadway was a multi-million dollar business, but it was a cottage industry. Angels came to the aid of producers with anywhere from $1,000 and up to invest in shows. Parties and opening nights were the rewards and maybe profits if you had a hit. Or individual producers like Alexander Cohen and the great (if somewhat infamous) David Merrick came through with the dough for a show. But, those days are gone. Welcome to the new age of corporate entertainment! What is about to happen will be just the first of many, many deals to come.
Soon after Livent announced its filing for Chapter 11, it was announced that a road company of Ragtime would abruptly fold in Minneapolis. Many were shocked by this, but I didn't find it all that surprising. (There is still another touring production of the show in addition to the Broadway one.) In addition, the Canadian company has had many cancelled shows or shortened runs due to poor ticket sales adding to the companies woes.
The first word on the street was that Livent was in discussion with Disney about leasing the Ford Center for the upcoming Hunchback, but I quickly dismissed that as a pure guessing game. (Although, the mere thought of Disney having The Lion King and Hunchback on the same street sent shivers down my spine.) A few years ago we all laughed at the thought of 42nd Street becoming Disneyland East. Think about that! The interesting premise here is that it would take Livent out of "show" business and simply make them a landlord, which is another business altogether.
Then there was the unreported story about the bigwig at Livent trying to seek a partnership with a major Broadway producing organization and some other unidentified company which would give Livent's productions a new type of international exposure while they were still playing on Broadway. However, there is nothing signed as of today on that deal.
Meanwhile, things were happening on Broadway, particularly the salvaging of The Scarlet Pimpernel or Pimp II as many like to call it. A newcomer to Broadway, Cablevision, sunk millions of dollars into the restructuring of a musical that was limping along and would have closed by now. Instead, the new Pimpernel is thriving at the box office and has a healthy advance. Why Cablevision? Good question.
Lest you think they are simply into the cable television business you'd better think again. Just the other day Chuck Dolan, the chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., bid on acquiring the Cleveland Browns (he lost). But the company does have control of Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and Knicks sports teams, 40 retail electronics stores and 65 movie theaters. In short, Cablevision is in the entertainment business. And they know how to make money evidenced by their stock tripling in the last year. Dolan is the guy who started Home Box Office years ago and has since started networks such as American Movie Classics and Bravo. (Last month, Broadway was the featured attraction on Bravo.) Add to this that HDTV is on the horizon (digital broadcasting) and Cablevision is right there with promised future broadcasts from the restored Radio City Music Hall and sporting events from the Garden. When I read that the company spent $245 million dollars in the last 30 days acquiring theaters then things fell into place. Cablevision has a huge supply of cash while Livent is keeping the bill collectors at bay by filing Chapter 11 until they reorganize.
Since August, I've been keeping an eye on Livent wondering how they would handle the Drabinsky scandal. I also was waiting for the accounting report, but as a businessman, I knew the laundry would not be made public until a behind-the-scenes-deal was made. You see, the word on the deal hit the street a full 24 hours before Livent announced its financial report, the dismissal of Drabinsky and the filing for bankruptcy.
So, there you have the word on the street. Cablevision comes to the rescue of Livent. Will we see The Scarlet Pimpernel in the Ford Center? What will happen to Ragtime, its touring companies and other Livent productions in Canada? It all remains to be seen in the next few weeks. Who knows? Maybe, with HDTV we may get a premium channel on cable and be able to see some great Broadway shows ... digitally! (Goodbye PBS.)
The sad part of this whole thing is that this fabulous invalid that we call Broadway, the industry that has been dying for 50 years, will succumb to corporate thinking. Shows will be presented as formula for the masses; the artistry of daring writers and producers will no longer exist on The Great White Way and, as predicted for years, Broadway will, finally, be officially dead.
The great part of this whole thing is that what we're seeing with Livent and Cablevision is the first major step in restructuring how the Broadway product is made available and sold to an international market. Think football - the fans still pack the stadiums even though 99.999% of the audience is watching the game on television. (And yes, every fan agrees that being in the stadium at game time is better than watching the game on TV. But, if you can't get tickets, at least you can watch the game on TV!)
Maybe all this isn't the death of The Great White Way as we know it. Maybe - just maybe - the grand old traditions and excitement of Broadway will finally become accessible to a mass audience for the first time in history.
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