Flimflam Forever

Illustration by Matthew Woodson

The “troubled” $12 million musical Rebecca, based on the Daphne du Maurier novel and scheduled to open on Broadway in November, was finally canceled last week. The circumstances surrounding its demise are, in a word, weird. Very weird. Wonderfully, hearteningly weird.

Since early September, an increasingly bizarre story has swirled around Rebecca’s ever-optimistic producer, Ben Sprecher. Sprecher told backers that a promised $4.5 million had failed to materialize after the show’s major investor—a shadowy and quite possibly illusory South African businessman named Paul Abrams—died suddenly. Of malaria. In London. (I am told malaria kills millionaires by the score, every hot season. Really, now: They ought to use the netting.) Abrams’s “death” was unverifiable. There were no obits. A representative of the putative Abrams estate, identifying himself/herself only as “Wexler,” communicated gnomic brush-offs to the media via an e-mail address created just a month earlier. Recently, reports surfaced of a Rasputinesque Long Island moneyman who may have led Sprecher down the primrose path. The FBI is investigating. What will they do for a third act? Cannibalism? ­Arson? Shatner?

Now, what I’m about to say in no way refers specifically refer to anyone living, dead, or Anglo-malarial. But let’s take a moment to celebrate the fact that, despite financial odds steeper than the private mountain where Mel Brooks built his money bin, there are still old-fashioned flimflam men on Broadway. Here I’d been thinking the Great White Way had become far too risky and expensive for the small businesscrook. To heave a production onto the boards today, you generally need some combination of backing from a multinational entertainment conglomerate, a sideline in movie producing, a personal real-estate fortune, and a co-producer’s roster as long as the collaborator credits for a Kanye album. Not every show is the bizarro money-mill that is/was/will be Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but even at the low end, a Broadway musical now costs a few million to get off the ground. At these numbers, there shouldn’t even be room for the cynical charlatan.

Yet Rebecca may prove that maybe the Max Bialystocks haven’t been priced out by a post-­Producers, post-Disney Broadway after all. Decades since Times Square was sterilized and laminated, some part of the theater biz remains uncorporatizable, immune to ruthless Bainsian efficiencies and scientific management. L’Affaire du Rebecca is good old-fashioned, profligate, ego-­deformed, hand-job-under-the-table American bad business, with a heaping side of balderdash. The whole thing is as fulsome and entangled and organic as the ivy overgrowing Du Maurier’s novel. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” goes the book’s famous first line, as the heroine reminisces over the estate where the wild dramas of her younger years had played out. Maybe Broadway can keep its own amiably sordid past alive, as long as there are arriviste producers willing to dream big and dream badly, and shifty figures hanging around Shubert Alley looking to make a deal.

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Flimflam Forever