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New York Times
January 19, 2003
Broadway Comes to Moscow, and Takes on the Risks
Jason Zinoman is the theater editor of Time Out New York

It sounded like a great idea. Importing an American musical to a Moscow hungry for Western culture and maybe rich enough to pay top ticket prices.

The show was "42nd Street," the 1980 musical based on the 1933 movie classic about a chorus girl who triumphs when she replaces the ailing star. One of the producers, Boris Krasnov, 41, insisted on an inging in English.

"Look," he said in English last fall in his office backstage at the Palace of Youth, a vast auditorium on the outskirts of Moscow, "Russians know ballet, Germans know cars and Americans know musical comedy."

No need to import designers: Mr. Krasnov, a well-known designer in Russia, would make the sets and costumes himself. Last May, he contacted Nicholas Howey and Randy Buck of Troika Entertainment, a production company based in Gaithersburg, Md., that sends non-Equity versions of Broadway shows on national tour. The three men met in New York.

Intrigued, Mr. Howey and Mr. Buck visited Moscow in June. While there, Mr. Buck saw something else that encouraged him: wealth.

"This town is taking off," he said in October, during another visit. Speaking at his hotel, across the street from Red Square, Mr. Buck said: "There are Mercedes all over the place. Jags, S.U.V.'s. Someone is going to break into this market, and we're hoping it's us."

The three men shook hands on July 10. The Troika producers were responsible for casting and the show's license. Besides the sets and costumes, Mr. Krasnov said, he also came up with financing for the $6 million musical, one-third of it out of his own pocket.

"42nd Street" was cast in New York by the end of July and rehearsals began in August. But "42nd Street" in English didn't travel so well in Russia. The reviews were mixed, and while the box office started strong, it tapered off. The show closed on Dec. 31, after running for 11 weeks.

If "42nd Street" was a flop, another import, a Russian-language production of "Chicago" ($5.5 million), has been anything but. Opening just two weeks before "42nd Street," "Chicago" was met by enthusiastic reviews and packed houses. The tawdry, cynical story about criminals with razzle-dazzle seemed as much about mobbed-up Moscow as it does about gangster-era Chicago. According to the show's producers, it is still selling well, consistently filling 90 percent to 95 percent of its theater's seats.

These shows represent the risky yet enticing prospect of introducing blockbuster American musicals to the land of Stanislavski and Meyerhold. But the results have been so different that no one can really say whether it has been a good idea or not.

Compared with imported movies and television shows, foreign stage musicals have taken much longer to arrive in post-Soviet Russia. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "The Osbournes" are popular, and Hollywood movies receive wide release, but the high price tags of most musicals make producing them here financially perilous. And it is still not clear whether there are enough wealthy theatergoers to go around.

Nevertheless, there are signs of a growing musical-theater scene and an expanding class of Russian consumers. In the last few years, a new crop of foreign musicals has arrived in Moscow, including the current French production of "Ntre Dame de Paris," based on the Victor Hugo novel known in English as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and "Metro," a Polish musical (which had a brief run on Broadway in 1996) that closed last spring. There are also a number of smaller-scale Russian musicals, including the long-running rock opera "Junon and Avos" (seen in 1990 at City Center in New York), as well as reworked versions of "Hair" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

The most popular musical may have been "Nord-Ost" ("Northeast" in German), a romantic Russian epic based on a popular Soviet-era novel, "Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin. An Andrew Lloyd Webber-style spectacle of special effects that spans Russian history, it was the first musical in Russia to run for a year on a daily schedule.

These shows encouraged the arrival of "Chicago" and "42nd Street," which opened with huge expectations. Here were American and Russian producers presenting big-budget musicals every night a schedule typical for Broadway but not for Russian theater, which has a repertory tradition.

Only weeks after the American musicals opened, Chechen guerrillas seized another Moscow theater, where the audience was watching "Nord-Ost." More than 750 people were taken hostage. By the time the surviving guerrillas had been captured, more than 100 hostages had died from the effects of the gas used to subdue the attackers. The crisis brought theatergoing to a brief halt in Moscow, and some producers wondered if it would dampen the eagerness to pay the ticket prices that the two American musicals were charging up to 3,000 rubles, or $100. ("Nord-Ost" is expected to reopen on Feb. 8 for the first performance since the attacks.)

The stakes were high, especially for Mr. Krasnov and his rival, a Russian producer of "Chicago," Philip Kirkorov.

Mr. Kirkorov, 35, who also stars in the musical (he plays the slick lawyer, Billy Flynn), is one of the most famous men in Russia, a pop singer often compared to Ricky Martin and Michael Jackson and best known for his outlandish Vegas-style stage shows, which he likes to call "consumerism for the senses."

Mr. Kirkorov is producing "Chicago" with his wife, Alla Pugacheva, a fellow pop music star, and the veteran Broadway producers Fran and Barry Weissler, who are the producers of "Chicago" at the Shubert Theater on Broadway.

Last fall, Mr. Kirkorov was sitting at a desk backstage at the Estrada Theater, where "Chicago" is playing, a renovated house across the Moscow River from the Kremlin. Wearing a bright blue silk shirt with baroque gold letters that read "Armani," Mr. Kirkorov allowed that his childhood hero had been Engelbert Humperdinck. Then he adopted a serious pose. "People are sick and tired of rock stars," he said dramatically, speaking in Russian through a translator. "There is a vacuum for new entertainments, and that's why there is such excitement for `Chicago.' "

The audience's reaction that night seemed to bear him out: they appeared to be transfixed by the sinuous movements of the performers all from the worlds of ballet, classical dance and pop music. The cast had rehearsed more than three months with a Broadway team to master Bob Fosse's choreography.

" `Chicago' is a universal, timeless piece of theater that is understood on all levels and in all languages," said Mr. Weissler, who has produced the show in 255 cities around the world (the figure includes several national and international tours). "We go everywhere and we've done it so many times that it's like a formula."

By contrast, the formula for "42nd Street" never quite worked. " `42nd Street' is a musical about nostalgia for the old days of American theater," said Pavel Rudney, the theater editor of Vash Dosug, an arts magazine. "But our audience has no memories of this. And a musical that has no Russian language and no Russian themes is doomed to fail."

There were some problems with the physical production, which appeared to be the product of artistic compromises. For example, slides that were supposed to summon up New York in the 1930's included, alongside signs for Vogue and Bazaar, a huge red advertisement for the Marriott Moscow Grand Hotel.

Mr. Buck and Mr. Krasnov blamed the "Nord-Ost" hostage crisis for the show's early demise. The week after the siege ended, "42nd Street" sold only 450 seats, falling far short of the 14,000 its producers expected. Security was increased at the theater (as it was at the Estrada), but in the next month there were four bomb threats, all false alarms. The North American cast grew uneasy and five actors gave notice.

If the attack on "Nord-Ost" doomed "42nd Street," why didn't "Chicago" fold also? This question upsets Mr. Krasnov, who was in New York last week, seeking partners to remount "42nd Street."

" `Chicago' had no bomb threats," he said, sitting very still in the lobby of a hotel in the Broadway theater district. "Also, when there are money problems, Russian producers can just tell Russian actors, `Could you hold off on payments?' I didn't have that opportunity."

Mr. Krasnov said he hoped to reopen "42nd Street" in March and, failing that, he wanted to produce another blockbuster ("The Phantom of the Opera" or "Cats") next fall.

Mr. Buck, of Troika, declared he was willing to listen to any new ideas, but said he thought he would handle things differently next time. "We would take a more active role in the production," Mr. Buck said. "There are elements of the physical production where we could have helped them."

While Mr. Krasnov and Mr. Buck remain positive about the future of producing big-budget musicals in Moscow, common wisdom agrees that its long-term success depends on the country's economy.

For his part, Mr. Kirkorov of "Chicago" conceded that Russia has a long way to go. "Right now, there is no middle class," he said. "We have rich and very poor. We sell out the $10 seats and the $100."

If that situation continues, "Chicago" may have trouble filling houses for two years, which is the length of time that Igor Gourevitch, a Russian producer who turned down "Chicago" before Mr. Kirkorov signed on, estimated that it would be necessary to make a profit. "I'm pessimistic," Mr. Gourevitch said. "There aren't enough tourists in Moscow, and musicals need tourists to be profitable."

That hasn't stopped producers from trying, though. There are several new shows in the pipeline, including versions of "Jekyl & Hyde" and "Victor/Victoria" (to be co-produced by and to star Mr. Kirkorov).

Once-skeptical Western producers, like Cameron Mackintosh in London, have started to take a second look at Russia. Mr. Mackintosh turned down an offer to take a production of "Les Misrables" to Russia several years ago because, he said, the market was too volatile. Now he is in talks with several producers to bring "Les Miz" to Russia. He is also working with a Russian producer to bring "The Witches of Eastwick" to Moscow next month.

"In the last few years, Russians have been getting expertise and proving that there's an audience" for musicals, Mr. Mackintosh said by telephone from London.

From those who would see the closing of "42nd Street" as a cautionary tale, Mr. Krasnov asked for patience. "Perhaps we bit off more than we could chew," he said, sounding chastened for only a moment. "But remember, we have almost no tradition of musicals. We have no unions. And then `Nord-Ost' chased away the tourists. Russia is an emerging market and we are only just beginning."

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