Vets eschew nets

CEOs of the musical theater take risks that are as much about art as commerce

What drives this year’s Tony-nominated tuners? Audiences might cite the slick, tuneful professionalism of “Catch Me if You Can” and “Sister Act,” the devilish humor and sweet heart of “The Book of Mormon,” the significant themes and theatricality of “The Scottsboro Boys.”

But according to Margo Lion, heading the “Catch Me” team with Hal Luftig, “What most people don’t know is that most successful shows have a strong producer.”

“Producing means everything,” claims Anne Garefino of “Mormon,” and Luftig elaborates: “It’s all these moving parts, and the producer is responsible for every one. … It’s really like being a CEO.”

Today’s impresarios are neither flamboyant high rollers nor buttoned-down bean counters. They prize their rep as serious pros with practiced people skills and creative instincts, dedicated to a first-rate product. “Nothing compares to building something that’s fresh,” says Scott Rudin of “Mormon.” “It’s the riskiest thing, which is why it’s the most exciting thing. There’s no net.”

Of course, job one is the capitalization, which ranged from “incredibly easy” (Lion on “Catch Me”) to “a bitch” (Barry Weissler re “Scottsboro”). And each had an array of above-the-title investors and associates to energize. Luftig says, “You figure out who’s good at which task. Some are great marketers, some are totally into the social networking — and you let them run with it.”

But their influence on the process is ubiquitous. Weissler calls it “quietly driving the creatives to the goals we’ve all established for ourselves.” To Garefino it’s “getting everybody on the same page for it to move forward successfully.” Lion mentions efforts to “consistently make the storytelling more effective,” saying, “we’re the mediating force which represents the audience.”

Producer Whoopi Goldberg, recruited by Joop Van Den Ende to grease the “Sister Act” wheels from London, played mediator.

“I said, ‘Well, we aren’t bringing this to New York, I’m just telling you that now, not with my name on it,’ ” she recalls. Her preferred director Jerry Zaks brought in librettist Douglas Carter Beane, and over five weeks they “beat the hell out of the script, and moved it and massaged it, and I’m so proud of it.”

When clouds darken, the producer guides the ship through the storm. Most painful was the Seattle murder of “Catch Me” star Norbert Leo Butz’s sister. Luftig soberly recalls, “It was three days before previews were to begin. … He not only came back but finished the show and gave that stunning performance. It was one of those things where you’re so glad to be in this business, because we all rally around and do it.”

Weissler’s team endured a different kind of sorrow after “Scottsboro” wowed Minneapolis’ Guthrie. “Then we started playing here and artistically we just flew, and the audience wasn’t there. We just couldn’t get traction.” He believe the show’s 12 noms — a record for a shuttered attraction — “validate the hard work, the belief, the quality of the craft and the beautiful actors on stage.”

Says “South Park” doyenne Garefino, “People told us ‘you’re not going to be accepted, it’s such a difficult community,’ and we haven’t experienced one drop of that.

“Theater was always the place that tried new things,” she adds, “things that were kind of ballsy and that nobody else would do. I look back at ‘Angels in America’ and ‘Hair’ and ‘Rent’ and ‘La Cage,’ those were pretty damn shocking when they first premiered.

“So Broadway for me was never safe or complacent, but I think sometimes people forget that’s part of its tradition. More people should do fresh, exciting things on Broadway again. That’s the place to take some risks. People should be braver about their choices, because I think the audiences want something that’s new and fresh.”

Vets eschew nets | Tony honors Phil J. Smith | How to give the performance of a lifetime | Tony unites scribes | Fugard, Ensler receive honors