Though it has been laid low in recent years by litigation and bankruptcy, the Prince Music Theater, led by founder Marjorie Samoff, once held a handsome national reputation as a creator of art.
With an advisory council that included Stephen Sondheim and Milton Babbitt, Philip Glass and Leonard Bernstein, the Prince made an artistic splash starting in the mid-1980s with a string of sometimes-genre-bending works, from Broadway revivals to avant-garde opera.
"A leading presenter and producer of innovative musical theater," the New York Times declared.
But that was long ago. Now, after a more recent series of legal plots and subplots, the Prince has emerged from bankruptcy with new leadership - and a mission that may or may not continue its role in developing new work.
The Prince, which resides in a former movie house on Chestnut Street, exited Chapter 11 on Oct. 15 with something it did not have before: owners. A group of business investors, 1412 Chestnut Street Corp., bought the building. The Prince Music Theater will continue as a presenting (and, possibly, producing) entity, paying rent under a 25-year lease to the ownership group, assembled by Herb Lotman.
The new owners are some of the region's largest business and real estate figures: Lotman; his wife, Karen, a longtime Prince board member; real estate moguls Ron Caplan and Ira M. Lubert; venture capitalist Howard L. Morgan; and Samoff booster Ronald L. Kaiserman, instrumental in saving the Prince from becoming another Chestnut Street drugstore.
Herb Lotman recently took the board chairmanship from Kaiserman, and for a period of time, Samoff will continue only as a consultant to the organization she founded in 1984, with Kaiserman and the composer Eric Salzman, as the American Music Theater Festival.
A new managing director - an administrator, not a creative type, Lotman says - is expected to be named soon. Samoff, who helped keep the Prince afloat by working free and lending it $621,868 of her own, according to testimony, declined to say how long she would stay involved. Lotman said the new administrator would be the clear leader.
Samoff declined to say whether she was being reimbursed for underwriting the theater. "My role as artistic consultant is to do everything I can," she said, "to ensure a smooth transition and support what Lotman and the board are trying to achieve."
What that is is still far from concrete. Most immediately, the new leadership is focused on presentations and rentals, and it wants the theater's three small spaces (the largest has 446 seats) to encompass nothing less than a new performing-arts center.
The blueprint calls for the Prince, which moved into the Chestnut Street building in 1999, to present indie rock, jazz, blues, and classical music, as well as a revival of a popular cabaret series.
Lotman - whose Keystone Foods, a West Conshohocken-based multinational meat processor, was sold in 2010 to a Brazilian slaughterhouse in a deal reportedly valued at $1.26 billion - has brought in two experienced arts professionals to sort through the options with him and a board that he is assembling.
"We know what we have to earn to break even," says Lotman, "and what we need to make a profit."
His advisers, well-placed in the industry, are Lawrence J. Wilker, former head of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and president of TheatreDreams, and Edward R. Kasses, president and chief executive of Princeton Entertainment.
Wilker is careful to say that a business plan is still fluid. "To be a creator of new works as the Prince was in its musical-theater status is a very expensive proposition," he said. "There will be some new works down the road that the Prince might participate in or create itself, but the reality of it is that it will be a mini-performing arts center that will focus on small, interactive performances, support a small dance company or do readings of new musicals, act as a catalyst and supporter of the arts as a presenter as opposed to creating a work from scratch, although I would not rule that out."
The work from scratch that the Prince leaves behind forms an impressive legacy - the world premieres of Julie Taymor, Elliot Goldenthal, and Sidney Goldfarb's The Transposed Heads; Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie; Bob Telson and Lee Breuer's Gospel at Colonus; David Henry Hwang, Philip Glass, and Jerome Sirlin's 1000 Airplanes on the Roof; Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's Floyd Collins; Harry Partch's Revelation in the Courthouse Park; and Harold Prince's 3hree.
Asked to clarify the theater's essence, Samoff said: "Artists whose careers were launched here or got major boosts from this company are in the hundreds, maybe thousands, and it includes directors and actors, singers and choreographers. I believe the correct number is 176 productions - 127 of them world or U.S. premieres from 1984 to 2008. . . . Productions we did then went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, Houston Grand Opera, and theaters across the country."
She says the theater was "poised for a new phase serving the artistic community and audiences without the burden of the debt that so hampered our creativity for the past 10 years."
Its last production was in 2008, It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. On Christmas Eve 2008, TD Bank, which had foreclosed, secured a judgment that pushed it toward sheriff's sale, and, after a series of legal maneuvers, the Prince filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2010.
Kaiserman approached board member Karen Lotman to invest in the rescue group to buy the Prince's debt. But the partnership fell apart before the deal was consummated, and Lotman turned to her husband, who recruited the current owners.
Asked about his interest, Herb Lotman said: "I wasn't interested. I was given an order. One Sunday night, I was reading the paper, and my wife says, 'Put the paper down, I want you to do me a favor. I need you to save the Prince.' When you're married 55 years, you'd better do what you're told."
Lotman said Samoff "did a whale of a job" keeping the theater rented in recent years. And no one disputes that the many works created during her leadership made Philadelphia, for a time, a darling of the music-theater world. A few years in, the Washington Post called it "Philadelphia's premiere-factory."
"Whether it was a hit or a flop, every artist was here," said Samoff. "We made something out of nothing. That's what artists do."
Contact Peter Dobrin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.