While all the world's a stage, the question in the coming weeks will be: How much of a stage is New Orleans? When White Noise: A Cautionary Musical opens at Le Petit Theater du Vieux Carré on July 9, it will be the first theater production to take advantage of the state's live performance tax credit program. The hope is for New Orleans to become a Broadway feeder city, where a producer can try out a play before bringing it to the Great White Way.
It will be the Broadway-bound musical's national debut, and a lot is riding on this production. Mitchell Maxwell, producer and co-director of White Noise, says the live performance production tax credits — Louisiana is the only state that offers this kind of incentive — have created a buzz among producers, but that won't be enough to transform New Orleans into "Broadway South."
"The tax credits alone are not going to generate ongoing participation from the Broadway community with New Orleans as an opening city," Maxwell says. "The city itself will make that relationship."
Le Petit managing director Gary Solomon Jr. says the tax credit program was one of the main reasons he opened an office in New Orleans. The program isn't only limited to production, which must have either originated, been developed, or have its initial public performance in Louisiana. There are infrastructural credits available as well, and there's hope these incentives will spur the restoration of theaters across New Orleans and the state.
Maxwell, a veteran Broadway producer — whose credits include the Tony award-winning Damn Yankees with Jerry Lewis and Dinner with Friends, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama — isn't playing it safe a la Mamma Mia!, offering a feel-good extravaganza heavy on familiar and sentimental music, and light on intellect. White Noise may be a musical, but it presents a provocative look at racism, telling the story of two young folksinging sisters, Eva and Kady Siller, who espouse messages of white supremacy in their lyrics (a story partially inspired by the real-life white supremacist sister duo Prussian Blue). The sisters have garnered a small following, but with their songs overtly expressing extremism, there is no way they'll ever make it into the mainstream, until a New York manager convinces the duo to repackage themselves by converting the music to high-energy pop/rock and coding the words to their hate songs. MacKenzie Mauzy and Patti Murin play the sisters, and Maxwell shares directing duties with Donald Byrd, who also serves as the show's choreographer. The show has a projected budget of $2.2 million, which could be offset by as much as $550,000 in tax credits.
The live performance and infrastructural tax credits for musicals and theatrical performances law, Act 482, was signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in July 2007. The law has been on the books for almost two years, but it wasn't funded until last year. The state's Department of Economic Development (LED) hired Philip Mann as director of live performance development in summer 2008. Mann, a former Broadway producer and booking agent, says the theater industry's business cycle projects two to three years in advance. Though he thinks the program is starting to take off, there have been no tax credits issued. He also points out that the credits are an incentive, not a subsidy, for investors.
"They don't get their credit until they've expended all the dollars and go through the audit process," Mann explains.
To qualify, a project can either be an original musical or theatrical production like White Noise, or it can be an infrastructure project that constructs, repairs or renovates a theater. Investors must spend a minimum of $100,000 on a project, and the more invested the higher the percentage of tax credits:
• For a base investment between $100,000 and $300,000, there is a 10 percent tax available;
• Between $300,000 and $1 million, there is a 20 percent tax credit and
• Any expenditure of more than $1 million qualifies for 25 percent tax credit.
Infrastructure credits are capped at $10 million per project with an annual $60 million state cap on total available credits. There is no yearly limit on production credits, and there are additional incentives available to investors: a 10 percent tax credit for payroll for Louisiana residents, and a transportation tax credit for shipping materials used in the performance.
To date, Mann's office has pre-certified two projects: White Noise and the Stage Door Canteen, a 150-seat vintage-inspired theater space that is part of the National World War II Museum. The museum qualifies for infrastructure tax credits and when the canteen opens this November with a new musical production recalling the big band scene of the 1940s, it will be eligible for production credits as well. Solomon's creative and technical management firm, Solomon Group Entertainment, is also working with the museum.
LED is now a member of the Broadway League, a national trade association for the Broadway industry, and Mann says he's advising a number of other productions, though he won't name them. What he will name are the local theaters — the State Palace, the Orpheum, the Saenger on Canal Street and the Carver Theater in the Treme — he's assisting with infrastructural applications.
"From where I sit, the most important piece of this puzzle at this stage is the infrastructure development," Mann says, adding that restoring these theaters is "at least 80 to 85 percent of my work."
Solomon says he's not so much interested in renovating Le Petit, the country's oldest community theater, as he is in giving its audiences a different caliber of performance than it normally offers. He took over in March as pro bono managing director after Le Petit's board announced it had a $100,000 deficit, forcing it to fire five members of its artistic staff.
By that point, Solomon, 23 (who only a year ago graduated from New York University with a degree in production), had already been working with Maxwell to bring White Noise to Le Petit. In December 2008, he provided technical services for a staged reading of the play at the University of New Orleans. Solomon says he wasn't sold on the idea of a musical about racism until he saw the reading before a live audience.
"You could not have scripted better reactions," Solomon says. "This is what theater is supposed to do. It's supposed to challenge the audience."
Maxwell agrees that's part of what the musical is intended to do: confront challenges including the lack of tolerance, the rise of hate and how to break the cycle of hate on an individual as well as a national level. Its creators call White Noise "a cautionary tale," and Maxwell knows he has to use caution along with the song and dance.
"The difference between didactic and being powerful is entertainment," Maxwell says.
The longtime producer says a play in development like this (Maxwell says it's "like a Triple-A baseball team") boosts the host city's economy beyond simply sold-out shows. That translates into increased business for travel agencies, hotels and restaurants, which is especially beneficial when it comes during the normally slow summer months. As for what part New Orleans plays in this relationship, Maxwell supplies the Big Easy answer:
"All the city has to do is come see the show."