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A Coup for the City

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The Addams Family is creepy and crawly and opens a national tour in New Orleans

Broadway Across America commences its 2011-2012 season this month with the popular musical “The Addams Family.” This show is a special one for New Orleans because it’s launching its national tour here. It’s an exciting coup for the city.

The Broadway show and the national tour are presented by arrangement with Elephant Eye Theatrical, a Chicago-based organization headed by CEO Stuart Oken and President Michael Leavitt. A Chicago native, Oken made his name in that city’s theater scene, producing director Robert Falls’ professional debut and presenting regional premieres of early works by David Mamet and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He also spent 10 years in Hollywood, where he produced several successful films and later headed Warner Brothers’ Witt Thomas Films. He returned to his first love, theater, at Disney Theatrical Productions, where he served as executive vice president and co-head of the company. When he moved back to Chicago, he didn’t stay idle, launching Northwestern University’s American Music Theater Project and then starting up Elephant Eye. Recently I spoke to Oken about his career, “The Addams Family” and the decision to launch the tour in New Orleans.

How did you get interested in producing?

My grandfather was an enormous fan of musical theater, and we used to visit his apartment on Saturday and Sunday mornings (when I was a kid). We’d listen to his Broadway show albums and I would read the album covers. That’s how I learned about Broadway stories and songs. . . . I fell in love with it. Sometime during college I realized I had the skills to work in the theater – not as a performer but on the entrepreneurial side.

How did you get involved with “The Addams Family”?

I’m a devotee of the Charles Addams drawings, which I discovered when I was young. The television show was popular in the 1960s, and someone gave me a book of Charles Addams’ drawings because I was a fan of the show. When I was at Disney, I thought it might be a great project for the Disney Theatrical; but at the time the rights were unavailable, mostly due to settlement of the estate. After I formed Elephant Eye, I saw that a settlement had been reached. I was one of a number of producers who reached out to the estate. Fortunately, the estate granted the rights to our company.

To what extent have the Addams drawings and the television series shaped the show?

We worked entirely from the source material. The material shows all sides of these characters, from the ghoulish and macabre to the sweet and loving. They are a human family that worships things that tend to be on the dark side, but they also seek the best for themselves, their children and their community. Only, they are turned on by different things from the rest of us. I think of it as the Addams inversion. They look outside when it’s storming and say, “It’s just the kind of day that makes you glad to be alive.”

Sarah Gettelfinger and Douglas Sills, who star in the national tour, are wonderful performers with impressive theater credentials.

Yes. We’re also very lucky because Martin Vidnovic and Christa Moore play the Beinekes. Martin’s been nominated for a Tony, and Christa’s been nominated twice. Douglas is also a Tony nominee. To take a show on the road with three Tony nominees is quite exciting.

What made you decide to open in New Orleans?

You have to go into a city where they have the time for you to go into the theater and set up shop, and where you can get a qualified crew that can go through more than just a one-week run. And you need to have audiences tuned into the theater, and to have reasonably full houses because you want to learn about your show from an audience that is informed and intelligent. . . . Although the (preview) audiences will see a completely formed show, we’ll be fine tuning things (for the first seven performances, prior to opening night).

Also, we were searching for a city that shares some of the personality traits of the show – the sense of the gothic, the dark, the macabre, the unusual. In general, New Orleans felt like the kind of place where we could be at home in terms of the individuality and uniqueness of our show. In addition, because of all New Orleans has gone through as a city, we felt starting a national tour would give something back to the city. All those factors figured together. Then, there was the tax incentive package, which makes the city more attractive as well.

If the show does well in New Orleans, could that influence future tours to start here?

It would point a spotlight on New Orleans as an attractive place to begin. That, plus the tax incentive, will put the city on the map in a bigger way for people. If our numbers are good and the crews are good, and we have a good time here, that will help the city. I expect all that is going to happen. That said, there are only a handful of tours that go out every year, and everything has to work out right in order to start a show in a particular place.

– BETH HERSTEIN