You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

More Legit

  • Audra McDonald Frankie and Johnny

    Listen: How Audra McDonald Faced Her Fear in 'Frankie and Johnny'

    When producers offered Audra McDonald a role in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” opposite Michael Shannon, she immediately said yes. Then she remembered the nude scene. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Hell, yes, there was trepidation,” the Tony-winning actress said on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. “I was [...]

  • A Strange Loop review

    Off Broadway Review: 'A Strange Loop'

    “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings the anxiety-ridden lead character in Michael R. Jackson’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating new musical, “A Strange Loop,” at Playwrights Horizons. The abundantly talented Jackson takes the otherwise tired trope of the young, poor and sensitive artist trying to discover his true self and [...]

  • Richard E Grant Everybody's Talking About

    Richard E. Grant to Play Former Drag Queen in 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'

    Oscar-nominated actor Richard E. Grant will portray a former drag queen and mentor in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” the movie adaptation of the British stage musical. “Catastrophe” co-creator and star Sharon Horgan and “Happy Valley” star Sarah Lancashire have also joined the film. Max Harwood will play the titular role of Jamie, a role inspired [...]

  • The Secret Life of Bees review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Secret Life of Bees'

    There’s a sweet sense of sisterhood that’s simply divine in “The Secret Life of Bees,” the heartwarming new musical at the Atlantic Theater Company based on Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling 2002 coming-of-age novel, set in South Carolina in 1964 amid Civil Rights struggles. (A 2008 film adaptation starred Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah.) The feeling [...]

  • 10 Comics to Watch

    Variety Announces 10 Comics to Watch for 2019

    Variety has chosen its 10 Comics to Watch for 2019. The honorees will be profiled in the July 18 issue of Variety and at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal at a cocktail party on Thursday, July 25, followed by a panel and showcase on Friday, July 26. The events are sponsored by Cohen & Gardner LLP. The [...]

  • Vanessa Hudgens So You Think You

    Vanessa Hudgens, Hailey Kilgore to Star in Reading of 'The Notebook' Musical

    Vanessa Hudgens and Tony-nominee Hailey Kilgore are joining an upcoming reading of Ingrid Michaelson’s stage adaptation of “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks. Tony nominee Michael Greif is set to direct the reading, which will open June 23 at Vassar College’s Martel Theater as part of their Powerhouse Theater season. Kilgore will star as the younger [...]

  • Moulin Rouge director Alex Timbers

    'Beetlejuice,' 'Moulin Rouge!' Director Alex Timbers on Creating Worlds on Broadway

    In the past year, Alex Timbers has directed the Tony-nominated “Beetlejuice” and the stage adaptation of “Moulin Rouge!” (which begins previews June 28 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre). Here, he reflects on his most recent projects and the challenges of bringing two iconic movie musicals to Broadway within a year.  Both your musicals live in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content