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#15 - JRL 7176
New York Times
May 10, 2003
Victim of Terror, Russian Musical Closes
By Steven Lee Myers

The theater at the Moscow Ball Bearing Factory was thoroughly, impressively renovated. Walls once pocked with bullet holes were newly patched and painted. The red seats, once stained with blood, had been replaced with plush blue ones. Metal detectors had been installed.

"Nord-Ost," the Russian musical that became popular and then, tragically, notorious, returned to its stage on Feb. 8 in what the authorities at the time declared a defiant triumph over terrorism. On Saturday night, however, it will close, a victim, after all, of the guerrillas who seized the theater in October and held nearly 800 people hostage for two days and three nights.

The theater siege -- called, by some, Russia's Sept. 11 -- remains a lingering, indelible memory, its effects still reverberating more than six months later, despite the authorities' best efforts to move on. At least 129 of the people inside died, most of them from the debilitating gas used by commandos during the daring, but deadly raid that also killed at least 41 guerrillas.

"The most horrible thing is that those who came here came not to see the show," said Andrei M. Subotin, one of the actors who had been on the stage the moment when more than 40 Chechen gunmen stormed the theater. "They came to see the place where it happened, the stage, the hall where the hostages spent those nights."

In the three months since its second "first night," the musical's producers, actors and stagehands have done what they could to avoid turning the show into a requiem for the dead, who included 17 members of the cast and crew. They hoped to recapture some of the ebullience that had met its opening in October 2001 as Russia's first daily Broadway-style musical -- only to see ticket sales steadily drop.

There were moments last night, however fleeting, when it seemed possible to imagine nothing had happened there. Backstage, the musical's 40 actors hurried in and out of their dressing rooms, exercising their vocal cords in a trilling cacophony. Child actors bustled through the corridors, one on a scooter, as the orchestra tuned their instruments.

The theater's new 1,065-seat hall was nearly full, as it has been, though increasingly because of discounted tickets given to students, veterans and others unable to afford the comparatively steep cost, from $10 to $30 a seat. For many of those involved, little was left but a sense of frustration, even of failure. The show, in the end, mustn't always go on. "I'm very upset that we failed to save it," said Pyotr N. Markin, a tall baritone who played one of the lead roles.

"Nord-Ost," which means northeast in German, was a novelty when it opened at the theater, a renovated, Soviet-era cultural center in an otherwise nondescript Moscow neighborhood. It has since been credited with inspiring a flurry of musicals -- from a Russian version of "Chicago" to an American-production of "42d Street," now closed.

Not only was it Russia's first Broadway-style musical, meaning the same show ran every day in the same theater, rather than in repertory, but it was designed and promoted like a Broadway show. Billboards and posters advertising it have been a ubiquitous part of Moscow's streetscape for a year and a half.

It is based on a popular Soviet-era novel, "Two Captains," by Veniamin Kaverin, a story of romance and Arctic exploration that spanned Russian history from the Revolution in 1917 through World War II. "Nord-Ost" has now become part of a new century's history.

The musical's producer, Link Production Company, received more than $700,000 from federal and city officials, as well as corporate sponsors, to replace the costumes, sets and equipment destroyed during the siege. The government also paid the salaries of the its 300 employees during the three-month hiatus that followed.

Even so, as a commercial project, which is what it always was, it has ended in failure.

Georgi L. Vasilyev, Link's president and one of the musical's two writers, declined to discuss its finances in detail. But news accounts at its opening said the production had cost $4 million, a staggering amount by Russian standards.

Mr. Vasilyev said the musical needed to run at least two years in order to become profitable. The guerrillas interrupted the 323rd performance; Saturday's, the last, will be the 410th. Now, Mr. Vasilyev is left hoping to recoup some of the losses by selling off lighting and sound equipment.

A concert version -- minus the sets, which included a life-size replica of a Soviet bomber -- will begin touring at the end of the month. Mr. Vasilyev said he hoped to revive a trimmed-down version next year, opening first perhaps in St. Petersburg. It remains to be seen, however, whether one can be organized.

Most of the performers and stagehands will be out of work after Saturday. Mr. Markin simply shrugged when asked what he would do next. "I will work somewhere," he said.

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