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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Curtain Comes Down on 'Nord Ost'

The theater at the Moscow Ball Bearing Factory was impressively renovated. The walls that had been pocked with bullet holes were patched and painted. The red seats, once stained with blood, were replaced by plush blue ones. Metal detectors were installed.

"Nord Ost," the musical that became popular and then, tragically, notorious, returned to its stage on Feb. 8 in what the authorities at the time declared a defiant triumph over terrorism. On Saturday night, however, it closed -- a victim, after all, of the guerrillas who seized the theater in October and held nearly 800 people hostage for two days and three nights.

The theater siege remains a lingering, indelible memory, its effects still reverberating more than six months later, despite the authorities' best efforts to move on. At least 129 of the people inside died, most of them from the debilitating gas used by commandos during the daring but deadly raid that also killed at least 41 guerrillas.

"The most horrible thing is that those who came here came not to see the show," said Andrei Subotin, one of the actors who was on the stage when the theater was stormed. "They came to see the place where it happened, the stage, the hall where the hostages spent those nights."

In the three months since its second "first night," the musical's producers, actors and stagehands did what they could to avoid turning the show into a requiem for the dead, who included 17 members of the cast and crew. They hoped to recapture some of the ebullience that had met its opening in October 2001 as Russia's first daily Broadway-style musical -- only to see ticket sales steadily drop.

There were moments Thursday night, however fleeting, when it seemed possible to imagine nothing had happened there. Backstage, the musical's 40 actors hurried in and out of their dressing rooms, exercising their vocal chords in a trilling cacophony. Child actors bustled through the corridors, one on a scooter, as the orchestra tuned their instruments.

The theater's new 1,065-seat hall was nearly full, as it has been, though increasingly because of discounted tickets given to students, veterans and others unable to afford the comparatively steep cost, from $10 to $30 a seat. For many of those involved, there was little left but a sense of frustration -- even of failure. The show, in the end, doesn't always go on.

"I'm very upset that we failed to save it," said Pyotr Markin, a tall baritone who played one of the lead roles.

"Nord Ost" was a novelty when it opened at the Dubrovka theater. It has since been credited with inspiring a flurry of musicals -- from a Russian version of "Chicago" to an American production of "42nd Street," now closed.

It is based on a popular Soviet-era novel, "Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin, a story of romance and Arctic exploration that spanned Russian history from the Revolution in 1917 through World War II. "Nord Ost" has now become part of a new century's history.

The musical's producer, Link Production Co., received more than $700,000 from federal and city officials, as well as corporate sponsors, to replace the costumes, sets and equipment destroyed during the siege. The government also paid the salaries of the 300 employees during the three-month hiatus that followed.

Even so, as a commercial project, it has ended in failure.

Georgy Vasilyev, Link's president and one of the musical's two writers, declined to discuss its finances in detail, but news accounts at its opening said the production had cost $4 million.

Vasilyev said the musical needed to run at least two years to become profitable. The guerrillas interrupted the 323rd performance. Saturday's, the last, was the 410th. Now Vasilyev is left hoping to recoup some of the losses by selling off lighting and sound equipment.

A concert version -- minus the sets, which included a life-size replica of a Soviet bomber -- will begin touring in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and the Baltics this month. Vasilyev said he hoped to revive a trimmed-down version next year, opening first perhaps in St. Petersburg.

Most of the performers and stagehands were left out of work Saturday. Markin simply shrugged when asked what he would do next. "I will work somewhere," he said.

Vasilyev, wan and grim even now, said the Chechen guerrillas, of course, were ultimately responsible for the musical's fate. But he also blamed journalists who used its revival in February to recount the hostage crisis, in some cases in sensational and lurid detail. Demand for tickets, initially promising, slackened and never recovered.

"We're very sorry about it," Vasilyev said. "It's the only thing that remains to feel, because the potential for it was great."

Subotin said the musical deserved to be remembered on its own merits, for what it meant to Russian theater and not for its uninvited notoriety.

"It will be associated with terrorists," he said, "only by people who didn't see it."