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The Tricky Business of Cross-Cultural Theater


February 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.


A scene from "4 Guys Named José . . . and una Mujer Named María!," whose cast includes Lissette Gonzalez and Juan Rivera, above. The mostly Latino audience has helped the show survive for over five months, but on Sunday it plans to close and move on to Miami. (Richard Termine for The New York Times)


Dasha Epstein, the producer of "4 Guys Named José . . . and una Mujer Named María!" a musical revue playing off Broadway since September, says she never counts on advance sales to tell her how well her show is doing on any given week.

"It gives me an ulcer because you never know what's going to come in," Ms. Epstein said. "This audience wants the ticket in their hand. It's a spontaneous `What are we doing tonight?' "

The audience for "4 Guys" is mostly Latino, and despite its idiosyncrasies it has helped the show survive at the Blue Angel Theater for more than five months. The musical, which is to close on Sunday and is likely to reopen in Miami, has succeeded in tapping a cross- cultural market of Anglo and Latino theatergoers with a high-energy revue of Spanish songs, many of them old standards with familiar English versions.

Reviews have been generally favorable, and Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it a "chipper, very likable musical revue."

Even so, finding an audience in New York has not been easy. The experience of "4 Guys" underscores the challenges of creating and marketing theater, whose traditional audience is largely white, not only to different audiences but to the diversity within those audiences, the Latino one being a prime case in point.

"It's been an education," said Ms. Epstein, a veteran Broadway producer who won Tonys for "Ain't Misbehaving" and "Children of a Lesser God." "If I'd known then what I know now, I would have done one major thing differently. I would have said `limited engagement.' "

"The one disappointment I've had," she said of the Hispanic audience, "is that they haven't come quickly enough." She said she spent 10 years looking for a musical like "4 Guys," something different that would lure first-timers. She had considered and rejected financing projects like "Zoot Suit," the Luis Valdez musical play about the imprisonment and subsequent vindication of a group of young Chicanos in World War II Los Angeles. Ms. Epstein said she feared that the work was too Mexican and would not speak to the more diverse Latino population of New York City. ("Zoot Suit," the first Latino-theme musical on Broadway, opened at the Winter Garden in 1979 and closed after 58 performances.)

She also rejected investing in "The Capeman," the Paul Simon musical about the gang-related deaths of two teenagers in New York in 1959 and the life of their 16-year-old killer, Salvador Agron. Hurt by bad reviews, the show closed in 1998 after 68 regular performances.

"I didn't want negative," she said. "Negative works sometimes, but you live in a society where you should walk out of the theater with hope."

She found what she wanted at a staged reading presented by Amas Musical Theater at the John Houseman Theater last March. David Coffman and Dolores Prida were trying out what became a humorous celebration of Latin music and dance that played on the cultural pride and nostalgia of Hispanic groups in the United States.

"4 Guys" is about a show being presented by four Latino men and one Latina at the veterans hall in Omaha. Forty-one songs, spanning the decades from the 1940's to Ricky Martin, constitute the core of the show.


From "4 Guys Named Jose": Dolores Prida, the writer, at left; Dasha Epstein, the producer; and Susana Tubert, the director. (Richard Termine for The New York Times)


For Ms. Prida, a playwright based in nonprofit community theater and better known for comedies with social commentary, "4 Guys" was a departure and her first venture into Off Broadway theater. But this time she managed to make "important points," exploring Latino identity and sending up stereotypes within the community, Ms. Prida said.

More important than appealing to both Spanish and English-speaking audiences was luring diverse Hispanic groups, which often gravitate toward theater from their own countries.

To enhance the show's crossover appeal, Ms. Prida selected songs by composers from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, four major nationalities well represented in this country's Latino population. Many songs, like "Bésame Mucho" and "Sway With Me," were familiar to American audiences in either Spanish or English.

At first the theater got calls from people asking if they would understand the show, Ms. Epstein said. But English-speakers now make up 20 to 30 percent of the audience on most nights, she said.

Latinos also had to be drawn in. So Ms. Epstein enlisted Enrique Iglesias as a producer in name only – he has no financial investment in the musical, she said – because Mr. Iglesias, who happens to be her godson, was the only name Latinos would recognize in a show performed by unknowns, she said.

Ms. Epstein also advertised on Spanish-language radio, television and in print, including a promotion with El Diario La Prensa that allows the newspaper's readers to pay only $25, instead of the regular $47.50, for some performances.

Still, the audience was slow to build and the show was sold mostly by word of mouth. Ms. Epstein, the show's sole financial backer, said that "4 Guys" cost about $500,000 to produce and is recovering costs but not making money yet.

So when the owners of the Blue Angel Theater said the show had to leave by March to make room for a new restaurant, she decided to take the company to Miami sooner than planned. Despite certain peculiarities of the audience – "Tuesdays and Wednesdays we need the Anglo audience," Ms. Epstein said, because few Latinos attend those days – she said she has refuted those who warned her away from the show on the assumption that Latinos prefer concerts to the theater.

She noted that "Ain't Misbehavin," the celebrated Fats Waller revue, took a full year to pull in the black audience, while the white audience came immediately because it was about jazz. "It took us a year to get the black audience because it was considered a white show," Ms. Epstein said. "Now I'm having problems in reverse because the Anglo audience asks, "Will we understand it?"

Other producers noted that it is necessary to market shows differently when the target audience is more diverse.

Michel Vega, a former producer of the touring musical "Selena Forever," which played several cities in the Southwest last year with mixed success, said that this was particularly true outside New York, where there is a less developed theater audience.

"I probably would have tried to put some star on the show just to help create awareness for the show itself," Mr. Vega said.

But the assumption that Latinos do not support Broadway is not justified, he said, citing the popularity of shows like "Forever Tango" and John Leguizamo's "Freak." The dearth of Latin-theme shows may be more a function of a shortage of Hispanic writers and directors than public apathy.

"You need to make a special effort to make sure they have a proprietary interest in the show, that they feel proud of the show," he said. "Not just a positive portrayal, just that it's not a condescending view of the Latino existence. It has to come from an authentic point of view."

Dan Klores, one of the producers of Paul Simon's ill-fated "Capeman," said that show, which featured well-known Latino stars like Marc Anthony, attracted "extraordinary support" from the Latino media and ticket-buying public. The Latino turnout, about 18 percent of the audience, was higher than usual for a Broadway show, he said.

But after negative reviews in the English-language press, the show failed to attract enough of the general theater public, which is essential to a musical playing in a 1,600-seat house. "You can't start out zeroing in on an ethnic audience," Mr. Klores said. "The overhead is too high."

At a recent Saturday performance of "4 Guys," most of the 230 seats were occupied, with many Latino couples and groups, sometimes including three generations of a family who grew up listening to the same oldies. The Spanish-speakers sang along while everyone else, regardless of ethnic background, clapped and danced.

"It makes you realize how far back the music goes," said Debi Brown, 41, a director of operations for a multimedia company, who said she recognized many of the tunes. "It just brought back a lot of memories."

Among the five actors in the ensemble cast, some said they had tried to be sensitive in their portrayal and not overplay stereotypical traits associated with a particular nationality. One was Henry Gainza, 25, a Cuban-American who plays the Mexican José in the show.

"If Mexicans come to see the show, I want them to feel well represented," he said. "We still play characters because it's the nature of the piece, but within the character we try to be as real as possible." Judging from the audience reaction that night, Mr. Gainza need not have worried.

"I was impressed with all five," said Felix Vasquez, 46, a retired New York City police officer who was seeing the show for the second time and had brought three friends. "The singing and the dancing and the performers – they put on a great show!"

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