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The Starmite Story

Play Maker

Wharton Alumni Magazine
Summer 1989

by Denise H. Portner

Broadway Cast

Broadway producer Mary Keil joined a team of actors, authors, investors and others to stage one of the season's hit musicals. It's not a job for the faint-of-heart.

"Anyone who has any other use for their money is not going to invest in the theater," say Mary Keil, which is one reason why her new career as co-producer of the critically acclaimed Broadway show Starmites presents some unique challenges.

Besides the ability to raise $1.4 million, the job calls for the insight to select a hit musical, the diplomacy to handle temperamental actors, and nerves steady enough to live through opening night reviews from New York theater critics.

Yet Keil, former lending officer for Citibank and author of a how-to book on nonprofit fundraising, wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm tremendously attracted to the theater," she muses during an interview in her Manhattan office. "I like the fact that you're involved in all aspects of putting the show together, and I like the idea of nurturing creative people and encouraging them to do their best work."

Keil, one of 16 women in her Wharton class of about 500 students, only recently found her niche in the theater. Armed with an MBA in real estate, she first spent five years as a corporate lending officer at Citibank, followed by one year in the bank's "loaned executive" program where she helped small nonprofit organizations find business people for their boards.

In 1981 she left Citibank and secured a grant from the Rockerfeller Brothers Fund to co-author a study of business ventures run by nonprofit corporations. Enterprise In The Nonprofit Sector was published in 1983 and is still widely used as a "hot-to" manual by managers of non-profit organizations.

While at Citibank, Keil's longing for a creative outlet led to her interests in theater. She became a founding board member of the nonprofit Ark Theater Company in Soho, and first saw Starmites when it was performed there in 1980. The show resurfaced in 1987 when the Musical Theater Works staged a production at New York's CSC Theater off Broadway.

In 1988, Keil "rather impulsively" took on Starmites when longtime friend Barry Keating, the show's composer, lyricist and co-author (with Stuart Ross), asked her to raise the funds necessary to present Starmites at the American Stage Festival in Milford, New Hampshire.

For the current production, which opened April 27 at the new 499-seat Criterion Center, Broadway at 45th Street, Keil joined forces with co-producers Hinks Shimberg and Steven Warnick. In May, Starmites was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

"I love this show," Keil says. "It's been variously called frivolous and lighthearted entertainment, but it's got a wonderful message. It's one of the reasons my commitment to it is so strong."

Starmites is a rock-and-roll space fantasy about a teenage comic book fanatic who yearns to be a superhero. When Eleanor is zapped from her bedroom, like Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, she encounters both goodness and evil in the colorful world of Innerspace, whose inhabitants soon look to Eleanor to save them from destruction. Eleanor returns to earth having learned one of the central lessons of adolescence - that what's inside a person is more powerful than what's outside. The Starmites, a group of good-nature punk rockers led by the wholesome Spacepunk, are her allies along the way.

The show has a cast of 14 and a rock orchestra of five. While most theatergoers won't recognize the actor's names, there is the charismatic Diva (Sharon McNight) who, according to a number of reviews, steals the show. But even this was not all good news to a producer.

"The word to us was that the other three principals were upset about not getting more press," she says. For Keil, this meant a visit to the show's publicist to push for increased promotion of the other stars.

Indeed, the life of a producer can be an emotional roller-coaster, Keil admits. She remembers feeling "panicked" on opening night while waiting for those first crucial reviews. Though she knew in general which reviewers were attending and where they would be sitting, "I couldn't look at their faces," she says.

To make matters worse, a reviewer who Keil thought worked for an influential magazine left 40 minutes into the show. "It just absolutely threw me," she recalls. Only later did she find out that the magazine reviewer had not come to that evening's performance. The seat had been occupied by someone else.

Although the reviews of Starmites were, in fact, mixed, Mel Gussow, reviewer for The New York Times, was favorably impressed, characterizing the show as "a space-age Peter Pan of particular interest to Trekkies, star warriors and sci-fi fans of all generations."

And while Starmites didn't win any Tony's this year, the fact that it received six nominations - best musical, best direction, best choreography and best actor/actress for three of its four stars - gave Keils' spirits a tremendous boost.

It was a welcome feeling, especially since Keil knows firsthand how disappointing it is to support a play that fails. In 1984 she co-produced Jon Klein's "Losing It," a comedy about two men whose marriages are breaking up and the young man who helps them come to grips with their relationships with women. The play ran off-Broadway and closed after three weeks.

Theater "is a crazy business. It doesn't follow traditional rules," Keil says, pointing to the power of critics and the trials of fundraising. "I'm spending hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars [fundraising] that are not reimbursable," she notes. (The musical's $1.4 million capitalization is based on 50 investment units of $28,000 each; half and quarter units were also offered.)

Keil says she also learned the hard way that "you never count the money until you have the check in your hand." One investor, who said he was in for $28,000 after seeing the New Hampshire production, ignored the contract Keil sent and didn't return her phone calls. "I found out later he had suffered a business reversal," Keil says, adding that she could certainly understand why he felt it necessary to back out of the commitment. "There's no way you invest money in the theater that has a high-priority other use. But it was a very emotional experience for me because he was in there for so long and then he didn't have the respect to call me."

Over the course of a week, Keil lost $56,000 in promised money. But there have been a few nice surprises as well, such as the time Keil was at a rehearsal when the cellular phone in her briefcase rang. It was a woman who called to say she had changed her mind and would contribute.

Dollars that go to the theater are "throwaway, play money," Keil says. "I've had to do a lot of ferreting to find people who fall into that category." She called selected business people and friends (including Wharton grads) and dipped into her own pocket.

Fund raising was only one of the many challenges Keil faced on the road to Broadway. It want' until days before the previews began that she learned the new theater had not passed fire inspection or obtained a certificate of occupancy. New York City building commissioners and the chief fire inspector stood by during the first six previews to make sure the theater was up to par in the interim.

One preview was canceled because of a flood caused when someone accidentally set off the sprinkler system; another was canceled because the woman who played Eleanor had thrown her hip out during "The Dance Of Spousal Arousal" and it took a day before her understudy was prepared to go on. "My general manager kept saying 'You're certainly getting a trial by fire,'" Keil says.

So if theater production is so trying, why does Keil continue? "My doing theater culminates my desire to be in a business where I can utilize a lot of different skills," Keil says, adding that she believes Starmites has the potential to spin off commercial ventures in videos, dolls and other merchandise based on the characters. She is currently arranging a deal for the cast album.

After life gets less hectic, Keil, 40 says she would like to spend more time with her family - husband Swift Barnes, a vice president at Goldman, Sachs & Co., and their son Parker, 4. But with 17-hour days (including time spent attending most of the eight weekly performances), it's a goal that will be put off.

Right now, she says, "I'm doing whatever I can to keep going on this project."

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