Sunday, February 25, 2018
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Troubled 'Wonderland' creates opportunity for Straz Center

There is life after Wonderland.

A year ago, the Frank Wildhorn musical, which had been developed at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, was just one week away from opening on Broadway, and hopes were high.

Then Wonderland received scathing notices, and it closed before summer, one of the biggest flops in recent Broadway history. The show probably lost virtually all of its estimated $16 million investment.

But something came from the ill-fated production that could pay dividends for theatergoers in the bay area. This week, the Straz announced that it has formed an alliance with the Nederlander Organization, which was a producer of Wonderland on Broadway. It is Broadway's second-largest theater chain, with nine theaters, including the Marquis Theatre, where the Wildhorn musical played.

"The Nederlanders are going to be able to hook us into a lot of things that are going on a little bit sooner, things that are in development, things that are coming from Broadway," said Judy Lisi, Straz president. "They're just in the know on everything."

As part of the arrangement, it seems likely that Nederlander and the Straz could try out other prospective Broadway shows in Tampa.

"They don't all work," said Nick Scandalios, executive vice president of the Nederlander Organization, adding that the alliance between his company and the Straz had its "genesis" during the development of Wonderland. "But whether or not a show works or doesn't work may not be the defining issue of whether or not the process worked. With Wonderland, while the individual show turned out not to work, the process that the show went through in its nurturing and maturation was a good process and the right process."

Despite its unhappy outcome, Wonderland benefited from being birthed at the Straz. The center staged the musical in its second-largest theater, Ferguson Hall, which, at about 1,000 seats, replicates many Broadway theaters. Theater production companies in Sarasota and Orlando provided specialized services to the show. And Florida is more convenient for Broadway decisionmakers than the West Coast cities where a lot of shows have had their tryouts in recent years.

Most important, with a Broadway subscription base of 8,000 this season, the Straz offers new shows a large, built-in audience.

"I think it can only help to have an association with a producing entity like Nederlander that does it all the time," Lisi said. "They can give us knowledge we don't have and the ability to see where things might make sense to workshop and start them here. I still think there is a model here. Now this is bringing the people in the know behind it so we can do it better."

Along with its Broadway theaters, Nederlander owns or operates theaters in the West End of London; Chicago; Detroit; the Los Angeles area; San Diego; Tucson, Ariz.; and Durham, N.C. The company also operates outdoor amphitheaters and arenas, such as the RIMAC Arena in San Diego and the San Jose, Calif., Civic Auditorium.

"We do a lot of different partnerships, but this is new for us to work in an alliance role with the Straz," Scandalios said.

No financial terms were disclosed. "We purposely left all of that quite open," Lisi said. "I don't think there's a big financial expectation by them at this point."

The alliance has no project as yet. "Our season is set for next year, so there's really nothing we're likely to do," Lisi said. "We might do a workshop or something that could be a little add-on."

Though the Straz is no longer involved, Wonderland lives. It was announced this week that the show will be staged at the Aoyama Theatre in Tokyo, Nov. 18-Dec. 4. Set to star in the production are Kei Aran and Megumi Hamada. Hiromi Suzuki will direct.

And the piano/vocal score of songs from the Wildhorn musical has been published by Cherry Lane Music. The 144-page songbook includes sheet music to Advice from a Caterpillar, Down the Rabbit Hole, Finding Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, Welcome to Wonderland and more.

"Frank sent me a copy that he autographed," Lisi said. "It was really sweet of him. We went through a lot together."

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

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