Jordan Roth Makes Legit Moves in Digital Space

Jujamcyn Theaters president expands stage to include Culturalist site

Jordan Roth
Andrew H Walker/Getty Images

Let’s face it: The Broadway industry’s reputation for being hidebound isn’t entirely undeserved. So you wouldn’t expect a theater exec to be the one to create a digital social network aimed at bringing the cultural conversation into the new-media age.

But that’s what Jordan Roth, Jujamcyn Theaters prez, did with Culturalist, a recently launched site where users delve into cultural topics by generating and debating Top 10 lists.

That’s the micro view. The macro? “Ultimately I believe it can be what everyone thinks about everything,” Roth says.

That’s a pretty big picture, and it’s not without a sense of humor that he delivers the line. Still, no one would ever accuse him of thinking small.

In 2009 he stepped into the role of president of Jujamcyn Theaters, becoming by far the youngest topper among the leaders of the three primary owner-operators of Broadway venues. Earlier this year he acquired a controlling interest in the company, into whose five theaters Roth has booked last season’s Tony champ “Kinky Boots” and the B.O. juggernaut “The Book of Mormon,” among others. Along the way, he accepted a 2012 Tony for the Main Stem staging of Pulitzer winner “Clybourne Park” and has become one of the more prominent media figures in the legit industry, with a recurring spot on MSNBC skein “Morning Joe” and cameos on the now-cancelled “Smash.”

Culturalist — where the Top 10 lists range from “Best Movies of the 1930s” to “Best Gummy Candy” to “Best Reactions to the Shocking Ending of Last Night’s ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Episode” — may seem like a tangent in relation to his day job at Jujamcyn, but as he sees it, the new social network meshes tightly with his broader mission.

That’s to “broaden and deepen the cultural conversation” — broadening by pulling in more participants and deepening by making the exchanges more substantive. It’s the driving idea behind the high-low, mass-niche reach of Culturalist.

“The underlying theory is that culture and the way we experience it isn’t siloed,” he says. “We experience it as an intersecting collection of passions and interests and explorations. You’re not just a theater person. You’re not just a literature person. You’re not just a reality TV person.”

For him, the links to Broadway are plain. “This informs the theater piece in that if you take your theater audience to be blindered, if you think you’re engaging with them only as ‘theater people,’ you’ve missed them. You’ve missed their cultural vocabulary and their range of influences. It’s why shows that know that in their DNA are the most successful.”

Now 38, Roth only recently arrived at “broadening and deepening” as a mission statement, after looking back at the common threads that united his past work. A couple of years after the native New Yorker graduated from Princeton U. in 1997, he found himself taking on the role of producer of Shakespeare-at-the-disco title “The Donkey Show,” the breakout early work from director Diane Paulus (“Pippin,” “Hair,” “Porgy and Bess”). He went on to produce the 2000 Rialto revival of “The Rocky Horror Show” and in 2005 joined Jujamcyn (first as resident producer), where he helped shepherd to the Main Stem a string of productions that has included “Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot” and “Fela!”

All those shows set out, like the dance-along “Donkey Show” staged in a nightclub, to expand the boundaries of the theater experience and of who shows up for it.

The focus on experience was a big part of crafting Culturalist, too. “The culture is the experience of it,” he says. “It’s not just the painting. It’s not just the song. It’s the seeing it, the hearing it, the playing it. And then, the sharing it, the debating it, the storytelling about it.”

Given his youth and his ambitions, Roth turned heads early in a career arc that now sees him at the head of one of the three main Broadway landlords — generally acknowledged as among the most powerful entities in the industry.

At least he came honestly by his interest in both real estate and theater. He’s the son of Manhattan real estate mogul Steven Roth and Broadway producer and Off Broadway theater owner Daryl Roth, whose track record includes “Kinky Boots,” “The Normal Heart,” and “Wit.”

That his current post at Jujamcyn sits at the intersection of his parents’ worlds is a realization that came only in retrospect, just as he arrived belatedly at his personal, overarching mission statement. He’s got one of those for his work with Jujamcyn too, and characteristically, he’s lofty with it.

“I’m very aware that we are the stewards of these buildings, and ours is to honor the legacy and deliver it forward,” he says. “That’s a mission in physical space — the buildings — and it’s also a mission of the theatrical form. We influence the first by how we care for and love these buildings, and we influence the second by how we care for and love our artists and their work.”

But then, keeping one foot firmly on the ground, in the present tense, and the other reaching for the road ahead is part of being a Broadway theater owner, and he loves it.

“We’ve got one eye on tonight and one on tomorrow, next season, next year, next 10 years.”