In the 1980s, two producing teams dominated the Chicago scene with illuminating partnerships. Criss Henderson and Alan Salzenstein--now leading, respectively, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre--imported innovative shows to appreciative audiences. More impressive still was the team of Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt, who introduced Chicago to such fare as Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune (with a young Kathy Bates, at the Apollo Theatre), Steel Magnolias, and Pump Boys and Dinettes, the latter running over five years.
While their one misstep was perhaps a 1988 production, the admittedly ambitious Some Things You Need To Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening with the Illuminati, a controversial comedy presented at Truman College's O'Rourke Center, the partnership was almost always a successful one, right up through their 1991 production of Shirley Valentine at the Ivanhoe Theatre. After that, Henaghan went on to co-produce the Briar Street Theatre's fabulously successful Driving Miss Daisy, which grew multiple Daisys on its way to box office glory.
Cullen, meanwhile, opened the elegant 300-seat Mercury Theatre which, buoyed by revenues from Cullen's adjoining Irish bar, opened in 1996 and has hosted The Irish--And How They Got That Way, Frank Sinatra--A Tribute to the Man and His Music, Pope Joan, Buckets O' Beckett, The Male Intellect--An Oxymoron, and Triple Espresso. John Astin has played Edgar Allan Poe there and Shay Duffin recreated Brendan Behan. The theater, operated by Cullen and his partner, Joe Carlucci (who operates the nearby Strega Nona restaurant), has given an immense boost to the West Wrigleyville neighborhood, whose only previous attraction, besides the Cubs, was the grand old Music Box art cinema.
The Mercury's current offering, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, the Tony Award-winning family drama by Driving Miss Daisy author Alfred Uhry, has reunited this producing team and, judging by critical notices and audience support, could well run all summer. This must make the strong team of investors that Henaghan and Cullen found very happy, since many of them remember how well the previous Uhry work served them.
The success of the Mercury and other commercial Off-Loop theaters occurs in contrast to the worrisome situation of the "downtown dinosaurs." A big concern to many promoters of Chicago theater is the darkness of such restored and re-opened historic North Loop venues as the Ford Center/Oriental and the Cadillac Palace. The Chicago Theatre as well has seen no extended runs, just touring productions and weekend engagements, while the Shubert Theatre is dark a good third of the year. Says Henaghan, "The problem is that there's just no product, touring or otherwise--as you can see by looking at the Tony Award nominations; these are pretty slim pickings."
Henaghan's experience as a producer buttresses her argument that slow and steady wins the theatrical race. In raising money to mount Ballyhoo--the show cost $400,000 to open--she and Cullen contacted past investors, then moved on to new investors, such as a principal realtor in the area who has seen what the theater has done for local business. "Of course it helps to be selling a quality Tony-winning script by a known writer." As always, Henaghan and Cullen pick plays they love; otherwise, there's no fun in producing it. It also has to have a broad enough appeal to recoup the investment. (Henaghan turned down Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive because she didn't think it could pay off because of its restricted popularity.)
It also helps to find notable draws, such as Ellen Burstyn or Sada Thompson, Daisys both. Still, Ballyhoo, a true ensemble play, needed no such attractions. "When Alfred [Uhry] came here, he said that the local cast that we had assembled [including such Chicago favorites as Barbara Robertson, Carmen Roman, and Joel Hatch] was better than the more prominent one in New York [which starred Dana Ivey]."
Looking back at Henaghan's nearly two decades of producing, she marvels at the Chicago style of doing shows. Some things don't change: The Chicago Tribune and WGN remain the best outlets for advertising. Ticket sales in Chicago are always weak before a show opens or the reviews appear, unless there's a big name attached to the show. "[Audiences] don't really care if a show won a Tony Award," Henaghan says. Perhaps Chicago audiences are less susceptible to hype.
Henaghan detects, unfortunately, an unwillingness in local producers, despite (or maybe because of) the booming economy, to attempt serious or hard-hitting scripts, particularly compared to a decade ago. "The attitude is, 'If it's not funny and doesn't have music, I don't want to hear about it.'" Also discouraging risk-taking is the blockbuster mentality in which conservative theatergoers develop an aversion to the thrill of the unknown and will only bet on a sure thing like The Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables.
Despite the success of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, the next Henaghan-Cullen venture at the Mercury (or elsewhere) may be long in coming. It's just as well, Henaghan says, considering the paucity of promising scripts. (She's about to make yet another pilgrimage to New York to check out possibilities.) At this point only Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends is under consideration. "Even that may not have a broad enough appeal, especially to senior citizen audiences who may not have patience for people sitting around and obsessing over divorce."
Then again, anything to keep those phones ringing off the hook.