Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.
Raise your hand if you have heard of "Rebecca," the Broadway musical. Now raise your hand if you remember ever having heard of the show before Sept. 10? (Where is a snap poll when you really need one?)
Sept. 10, you see, was the day rehearsals were to begin for the $12-million musical based on the '30s Gothic mystery novel by Daphne du Maurier and subsequent Hitchcock movie. Instead, lead producer Ben Sprecher announced that an unnamed investor responsible for $4.5 million had unexpectedly died, that the lavish scenery would not be loaded into the waiting theater and that the Nov. 18 opening would be postponed at least two weeks while Sprecher tried to replace the financing.
Thus began one of the strangest backstories in Broadway history that Mel Brooks didn't make up, including the fake death of a fictional investor, a threatening email and the arrest of Mark Hotton, a financier from West Islip, on multiple charges of fraud. "Rebecca," a little-known Viennese hit that Sprecher had been struggling to get on Broadway or in London since 2009, was suddenly the headline in all the wrong kinds of stories.
Will the show ever open? Sprecher vows that it will, though certainly not this season. But meanwhile, this musical -- which got canceled last spring because of money troubles and was hardly a blip on the list of fall highlights -- is famous. The "Rebecca" marquee is spread across news pages. Sprecher got interviewed on national TV. And, in a phone interview with me, he says the "crazy publicity" has made this a "wanna-see show." In passing, he even mentions a little catastrophe-plagued phenomenon called "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."
And so we have to ask. Can scandals -- or at least massive unattractive controversies -- help make a hit?
It's unlikely that Sprecher could have wanted, much less engineered, this kind of publicity for the biggest project in his career. If he does raise the money to open, however, he suddenly has a title with mass recognition. The weird events of recent months have put "Rebecca" in a category I've unofficially defined over the years -- shows that became megabrands before they even opened because of extra-theatrical intrigue, casting hysteria, even sensational injuries.
This all began in the '80s and '90s with the British mega-musicals and perfected, if you can call it that, with the nonstop negative global publicity around "Spider-Man."
All these shows have had potboiler or masterpiece-musical stories that everybody knows, or, like "Cats" -- which started the whole Big Event marketing manipulation in 1982 -- virtually no story at all. They have music that sounds like music we've heard before, though, in fairness, the score for "Rebecca" has not been heard yet here. The shows all have had spectacular sets and well-publicized high price tags that became part of the marketing, like luxury designer labels.
But what about that extra-theatrical publicity?
In 1987, "Starlight Express" cost a record $8 million, was postponed three times because of safety problems with its -- much hyped -- four huge moving bridges, 10 computers, 22 miles of fiber optics with 10,000 points of light. Actors (portraying train cars in the "Little Engine That Could") had to roller skate around the audience, supposedly at 30 mph. And, stop the presses, one of the leads broke his ankle at rehearsal a few days before previews began.
The next year came "The Phantom of the Opera," which Andrew Lloyd Webber famously threatened not to open on Broadway unless Actors Equity allowed then-wife Sarah Brightman to come from London to star. The union eventually granted her a work permit, but only after two high-stakes denials. Lloyd Webber insisted that nobody else could sing this role. Does anyone know, or care, who's singing it now?
In 1991, high-profile demonstrations by Asian-American actors surrounded the $10 million "Miss Saigon" because of the casting of Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp. He played it, he won the Tony, and Asian actors replaced him without incident.
Remember "Sunset Boulevard," the $13 million extravaganza? In 1994, it made big headlines when Patti LuPone, who created the role of Norma Desmond in London and was contracted for America, was replaced by more glittery Hollywood star Glenn Close -- first for Los Angeles, then for Broadway. LuPone sued Lloyd Webber. Then Faye Dunaway, hired to replace Close in L.A., was fired because Lloyd Webber said she couldn't sing. Dunaway sued, too. (Both settled.)
Then along came the Spider. Rick Miramontez, the publicist who survived the box office-bonanza's legendary legal, artistic and medical disasters, now acknowledges that "the scandals generated a lot more ink, which made the show a lot more famous." Naturally, nobody wished for such trouble. "But people got to know the show via all these interesting episodes," he told me in a phone interview. "They created such curiosity. I think people knew so much they were actually rooting for the show. All that attention became part of its DNA."
Ultimately, after the initial burst of intrigued audiences, "Starlight Express" and "Sunset Boulevard" lost money on Broadway. "The circumstances have to be right for the headlines to take hold," says veteran publicist Adrian Bryan-Brown, who reminded me about the time the infamously tempestuous Nicol Williamson intentionally hit co-star Evan Handler with a sword in a duel during "I Hate Hamlet" in 1991. Handler walked off the stage and the production.
"It made the covers on all the tabloids," says Bryan-Brown, "but the box-office didn't change at all." He agrees that the publicity around "Rebecca" could help attract an audience, adding, "But we don't know what 'Rebecca' is."
We do, however, suddenly know its name.