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Howard Sherman: Dousing the flames of Rebecca on Broadway for good

The Austrian production of Rebecca
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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It has been, for much of the present decade, one of Broadway’s longest-running stories, without ever actually reaching the stage. I refer to the saga of Rebecca, the musical that almost was, which was twice promised, but never realised. It left in its wake the saga of an imaginary investor and court proceedings. Barring a surprise ending, a verdict last week brought Rebecca’s run to a close.

For those who haven’t been following, a precis: Rebecca was originally a hit musical in Vienna, opening there in 2006. Producers Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza first announced an English-language version of the show for London at the Shaftesbury Theatre, only to drop those plans supposedly when a particularly spectacular effect – a fiery, collapsing staircase – proved impossible at the venue.

In July 2011, it was announced for an April 2012 opening on Broadway, with Michael Blakemore directing a $16 million production. But without financing in place, in January 2012 the show, its budget reduced by $4 million, was postponed, only two weeks before the start of rehearsals, until the next theatre season. In September 2012, with the show scheduled to open in November, it again delayed the start of rehearsals.

And that, believe it or not, is when the problems really started. The newest delay, ostensibly to be brief, was attributed to the death of an investor. However, it quickly became clear that the investor never existed, and was the invention of a serial conman named Mark Hotton, who was ultimately sentenced to 11 years in jail for his scam.

The producers in turn claimed that they had already lined up alternative financing, but that their efforts had been undone by an anonymous figure who scared off the new financier by revealing the Hotton fraud. The tipster was discovered to be the production publicist, a respected Broadway PR veteran, Marc Thibodeau, who asserted that he was a whistleblower who could not stand by idly.

The production collapsed, and Sprecher and Forlenza sued Thibodeau, charging breach of contract, tortious interference and defamation, ultimately seeking more than $10 million. When his trial ended last week, Thibodeau, having previously been judged guilty on the first two charges and then not guilty of the third, learned of his penalty: $90,000 in total, less than 1% of what Sprecher and Forlenza sought.

They have lost the rights to the show and are on the hook for any monies expended on the production using investments that had been directed to be held in escrow until the show was fully capitalised. They apparently can appeal, but hopefully the collapsing staircase is down for good and all remaining flames are doused.

Rebecca is not the first show announced for Broadway not to make it, nor is it the first show to fold with rehearsals about to commence or already underway. Surely there have been lawsuits in such cases too.

But the fictitious investor and apparently easy-to-uncover flimflammery behind him, the disclosure of the fiction by the show’s publicist and the trial that was carefully chronicled surely have made Rebecca one of the few Broadway legends never to set foot on Broadway. The New York Times’ Patrick Healy, who reported much of the story, should he desire, has a great start on a book about all that has transpired.

Thibodeau, while one might take exception to his early anonymity, has demonstrated that he won’t stand by and be party to covering up financial misdirection and fraud, qualities perhaps more prized than ever given the current conversations about the activities of the executive branch of our government.

No one in the US is likely to remember Rebecca the show, because we never got to see it. But Rebecca the cautionary tale, the case study, will hopefully be informing present and future producers for some time to come, lest we go back to Manderley again, with this or any other show.

This week in US theatre

Mark St Germain, whose show Freud’s Last Session has become a US staple in recent years, once again mines the life of a historical figure, in this case Albert Einstein, for drama with Relativity, opening on May 19 at the Northlight Theatre outside Chicago. The amazing Mike Nussbaum – now age 93 – plays the physicist, under the direction of the company’s artistic director, BJ Jones.

Refugia, opening on May 19 at The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, tells the story of “those who find themselves at the crossroads of transition” in the words of the theatre’s website. It’s the work of the Moving Company, an ensemble formed by core members of the much-acclaimed but now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a Minnesota mainstay for 30 years.

Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding is the newest movie into musical transformation, but particularly notable because Nair is directing the stage version as well. With a book by Sabrina Dhawan (based on her screenplay), music by Vishal Bhardwaj and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, the show opens on May 19 at Berkeley Rep in California.

Hamish Linklater has been a mainstay of the New York stage for a number of years, mixing both classical and modern roles, and recently he’s begun emerging as a playwright as well. His newest, The Whirligig, opens on May 21 at Off-Broadway’s the New Group under the direction of Scott Elliott, the company’s artistic leader, with a cast that includes Zosia Mamet and Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz.

Already seen in several regional productions, Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall, a response to the 2016 US election and the policy statements of the new US president, reaches Manhattan with an Off-Broadway opening on May 21. James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie comprise the cast under Ari Edelson’s direction. It’s announced for a strictly limited engagement of 10 weeks, but given how many people have been turning out at political protests lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if it runs longer.

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