With a catalogue of cinematic work that has garnered three Oscars (21 nominations), a BAFTA and a Cesar Award, it’s safe to say film producer Jonathan Sanger has a discerning eye for a quality project.
His first produced film, The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch and starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. His subsequent produced feature, Frances, the passionate story of actress Frances Farmer (starring Jessica Lange) was nominated for two Oscars.Â Â He produced the 2005 movie version of Mel Brooks’ The Producers — The Musical.
SangerÂ is a consulting producerÂ ofÂ the current Broadway musical Baby It’s You!, due to openÂ on April 27, following its 2009 Pasadena Playhouse production. It’s based on the true story of New Jersey housewife Florence Greenberg (now played by Tony-winner Beth Leavel) who discovered singing sensations The Shirelles and went on to build one of the most successful independent record companies. Baby It’s You! has the added bonus of a scoreÂ of well-known rock ‘n’ roll standards.
A producer working onÂ projects at this level has now chosenÂ to helm a smallÂ theater production in Los Angeles by a debut playwright. But perhaps Sanger’s involvement is a testament to the quality of Tania Wisbar’s The Birthday Present 2050.
According to Sanger, he originally came to the project while he and playwright Wisbar were collaborating on developing a film based on aspects of Wisbar’s life story. She showed him this play she had written and according to Sanger, he was immediately taken with it. “It amazed me. What immediately grabbed me was the language. This show has a highly poetic script. When I read it, I thought it was very unusual this was a first-time playwright. The words are just lovely.”
What came as the biggest surprise to Sanger, however, was Wisbar’s request that he direct it. “I had directed a lot of film and television projects before, but I hadn’t done any theater directing since almost the beginning of my career. I’d done it back in college andÂ little after that, but the challenge intrigued me. It wasn’t something I initially thought I would do. And the more I thought about it, I realized just how much I enjoyed working with actors. I thought it would be an interesting way to help bring the show to life. Ultimately, it was both my interest and her persistence that wound up getting me into the deep water and saying, “˜Okay, I will do this.’”
The premise of The Birthday Present 2050 isÂ intriguing, to say the least. As the title states, it is the year 2050. “It takes place in a world we recognize,” explains Sanger. “People’s emotions, their reactions and feelings haven’t changed that much. The story centers on the birthday party for the family matriarch, which isn’t a situation we are unfamiliar with. The difference in their society is that disease, poverty and famine have all been eliminated. People have food, clothing and are taken care of. The one major social rule that has changed is that anything not useful or that doesn’t serve a purpose for society is no longer allowed. So pets are not things people have, and flowers grown just for beauty don’t exist.
“In this society, older people who are not working and are no longer productive have no reason to continue to live. There’s a point system. Everyone is given a certain amount of points each year and they use those points to stay alive. So once a person reaches a certain age and can no longer get points, the only way they can stay alive is if their relatives and friends put up their own points for them to keep the elder around. In our story, the decision has already been made for the matriarch when the party starts. They’re celebrating the fact she has another year of life ahead of her. But certain things happen that counter that idea.”
Sanger says the novelty of the storytelling along with the quality of its elements will provide a rich theatrical experience. “It’s a very thought-provoking show. We’re talking about themes and situations we recognize but are not are very open to talking about. These are siblings and children who have to make life-changing decisions for other family members. It has a lot of interesting opportunities, both for tremendous performances as well as thought-provoking ideas.
“It’s fascinating that the world this play creates is one where choice has been eliminated. The past is basically gradually being erased so people will stay in the present. The past holds nothing, presumably, but pain and bad examples. I think it is a somewhat controversial subject matter people will talk about. And those that see it will think about it and perhaps want to see it again.”
Sanger believes the exceptional cast, led by notable actress Salome Jens, will be another major draw for audiences. “Salome Jens is a revelation. She’s really sensational.” The matriarch’s daughters in the story are played by Elyssa Davalos, Janet Hoskins, and Katrina Lenk. “It’s a very solid cast. They really created a family and that’s what it’s about: family in both good and bad times, and the things that can come up that tear the fabric of your relationships.”
When reflecting on what audiences areÂ looking for in an entertainment experience, Sanger comments on theÂ differences betweenÂ film and theater. “I think people go to movies these days to see action and spectacle for the most part. They go to see things that give them a ride. Now people can watch movies with more ease and often better quality from their own homes, and the writing on television programming these days is very good, so there’s less of a reason for people to go out and see movies.
“Going out to the theater, on the other hand, is always very special because it’s a live experience. Things change, things happen from night to night; it’s not always exactly the same. If you are presenting an audience with an opportunity not only to see live actors perform, but also show them something with a provocative theme and the chance to see spectacle elements before their very eyes, you will get people to come and see it. Ultimately the audience wants something they can’t get anywhere else, and live theater is that by definition. For anybody who is interested in the kind of visceral, connective experience that unfolds right in front of you, there’s no place to go but live theater. Film can’t touch it.”
So whether it’s 2011 or 2050, the world’s oldest medium of storytelling still holds clout as the most cutting-edge. When it comes to high-definition, 3D or in-your-face realism, it doesn’t get any better than live theater.
**All Production Photos By Ed Krieger
The Birthday Present 2050, presented by Argyle Road Productions, opens March 19; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through April 17. Tickets: $15-$30. Skylight Theatre, 1816 Â½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; 323.960.7733 or plays411.com or birthdaypresent2050.com.