NEW YORK » With one problem out of the way, James L. Dolan quickly turned to another. On Thursday night, just two days after introducing Phil Jackson as the new president of his beleaguered New York Knicks, Dolan, executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Co., found himself assessing the performance of another troubled property: the musical extravaganza "Heart and Lights."
The heavily advertised show, starring the Rockettes in their first spring production at Radio City Music Hall since 1997, was scheduled to start March 27, and Dolan was watching a final run-through. He grew increasingly anxious over what he saw, and he was not alone. A close friend, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, was by his side sharing similar concerns.
The weak spot was not the Rockettes, whose high-stepping routines were praised by one of Dolan’s lieutenants for their "energy and excitement." Nor was it the sets, which included a 26-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty, high-tech puppets and lifelike talking lions outside the New York Public Library. It was the show’s story line and, to a lesser extent, its songs that fell short of expectations.
So on Friday morning, after two years of work and a cost of $25 million, Dolan pulled the plug and ordered an overhaul. Instead of opening Thursday and closing May 4, "Heart and Lights" is now scheduled to debut in 2015.
It is virtually unheard-of for a multimillion-dollar show to be postponed on the eve of previews. In this case, more than 100,000 ticket holders will have to be refunded, a large cast has been left in limbo and Radio City has been left dark for five weeks. In combination, those effects could lead to millions of dollars in additional losses.
Whether the same creative team will continue also remains an open question. Several members said they were furious with Dolan and Weinstein. Doug Wright, the Tony Award-winning playwright who wrote the show’s book, described his experience in a statement as "darkly satiric and at times heartbreaking."
Dolan has long been immersed in the day-to-day management of the Knicks and the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers, often drawing heated criticism from fans for trades that backfired, controversial coaching choices, a constantly rotating front office and recent dismal performances by both teams. Although Dolan plays guitar in a blues band in his spare time, until now, his hand has been less visible in shaping artistic properties for the company and one of its prize locations, Radio City. The company owns the Knicks and the Rangers along with Radio City.
The postponement of "Heart and Lights" has shed light on what his advisers and executives say is Dolan’s determination to try to create a new seasonal franchise for Radio City that would be as popular as the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular.
After recent commercial disappointments like Cirque du Soleil at Radio City, "Heart and Lights" was to be a homegrown show with a New York story line, a Rockette-starring spectacle that has so far cost more than most Broadway musicals. Dolan, who wants it to run during prime tourist weeks in the spring and summer for years to come, concluded that he had to gamble on postponement rather than risk theater critics and audience members savaging "Hearts and Lights" this spring, Dolan’s advisers and members of the production team said.
"Jim Dolan is executive chairman of the company, and a decision along these lines certainly falls to him," said Barry Watkins, a spokesman for Dolan. "Jim saw the show several times, including with multiple creative and financial advisers, and ultimately made the decision to postpone the show."
The move came as a shock to the production’s creators, some of whom signed on as early as 2011. On Friday, they were told the news in groups: the crew and Radio City staff during a noon meeting, followed by the Rockettes at 1 p.m. By the time the rest of the cast was told around 3 p.m., the news had already been announced by MSG Entertainment.
Script and music problems are common in theatrical productions as they make their way to the stage. Some in the creative team working on "Heart and Lights" urged Dolan to let the show work out the kinks in previews, a practice that is hardly unusual: the $75 million musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" ran for months in previews on Broadway before having its official opening.
But Dolan’s own doubts were reinforced by the criticism he was hearing from his advisers, who described the show’s narrative as flat and even a mess.
"It wasn’t a tweak" that was required, said one MSG executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. "The narrative really needed to be reworked."
Wright’s script centered on the story of two teenage cousins roaming New York as they tried to understand their grandmother’s past. Their journey included visits to landmarks around the city, and the show featured ambitious dance numbers intended to evoke places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park.
Concerns about the clarity and energy of the storytelling were raised as far back as June by a marketing consultant for MSG, who warned Dolan and others that the script needed to be fixed, according to advisers to Dolan and production staff members. (Speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing Dolan, they would not identify the consultant.)
Dolan and MSG executives chose to let the show’s director, Linda Haberman, artistic director of the Rockettes, pursue her own improvements. A production staff member and a cast member said in interviews Friday that Dolan had seen workshops of the show since June and appeared pleased with the progress.
Then, about two weeks ago, as he was finalizing the agreement that would bring Jackson to the Knicks, Dolan brought Weinstein to another rehearsal. According to the production staff member and cast member, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for protecting their jobs, Weinstein and Dolan discussed several concerns about the script, with Weinstein saying there was still time for rewrites before performances began. Dolan also brought in Daryl Roth, a lead producer of Broadway’s "Kinky Boots," which won the 2013 Tony for best musical, as well as the publicist Leslie Sloane Zelnick and the filmmaker Jane Rosenthal to offer feedback.
But Thursday’s run-through did not satisfy Dolan and Weinstein, who himself is a veteran investor in Broadway shows and is now producing his first major stage musical, "Finding Neverland." (Weinstein is not an investor in "Heart and Lights.") Haberman, the director, had not had enough time to integrate all of the proposed script changes into "Heart and Lights," according to the production staff member and cast member. (Haberman could not be reached for comment.)
Business considerations made a brief postponement impossible. The National Football League draft is scheduled to be held at Radio City on May 8 to 10. Weinstein, in a statement provided through Sloane Zelnick on Friday night, said: "From what I saw, the show was fantastic. It’s too bad they had a prior commitment to the NFL and were up against a clock."
Sloane Zelnick, for her part, said "The Rockettes were mesmerizing, but there were definitely issues with the story, and I think it’s smart to wait for a better product."
Roth did not reply to a request for comment.
Larry Rohter and Patrick Healy, New York Times