Episode 9 Transcript – Jordan Roth
Ken: Hello, Producer’s Perspective Podcast listeners. Welcome back to the show. The curtain’s going back up. Things are getting real now. If there were a ranking of the most powerful people on Broadway . . . and there is, I actually published one myself several years ago . . . the guy sitting across from me would rank right up there towards the top of that list. He is one of the few, the proud, the theater owners on Broadway. His name is Jordan Roth, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters. Welcome, Jordan!
Jordan: Hi. That was quite an introduction. Thank you.
Ken: Very, very true. What I love about Jordan is that, despite that power ranking, if you will, he remains one of the nicest and most approachable players on the Broadway scene. Jujamcyn may be, in numbers, the smallest of the three theater chains, but it has some of the biggest hits on Broadway. Current tenants include Tony Award winners The Book of Mormon, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Kinky Boots and of course Jersey Boys, that little show, and the upcoming Something Rotten! which is going to take residency right below where we’re sitting right now.
Jordan: Quite literally below us.
Ken: Jordan’s office is literally right above the St. James Theatre.
Jordan: Isn’t that great?
Ken: I love that about theater owners, having their offices right there.
Jordan: Right above the store.
Ken: That’s right. All of that, running these buildings and taking care of all of those customers, would be plenty for a theater owner to do but Jordan has also done a whole bunch of other stuff, including founding the charity website Givenik, which, if you don’t know, allows patrons to buy tickets to their shows at a discount, and then a donation is made on their behalf to their favorite charity. He’s the host of Broadway Talks at the 92nd Street Y, he’s a regular commentator on Morning Joe on MSNBC, and most recently he founded this terrifically fun website called Culturalist.com which allows you to create the coolest lists on any subject. I created one about my top ten favorite musical theater moments on Broadway, it was so fun.
Jordan: What was your number one?
Ken: My number one? Now I can’t remember.
Jordan: Well we’ll all have to go to Culturalist and search.
Ken: One of them was the moment from Falsettos at the end of the show, which of course Jordan just announced he was producing. Before he was a theater owner, Jordan was a producer, giving us such hits as, going way back, The Donkey Show and the coolest production of Rocky Horror I think there has ever been at Circle in the Square. Let’s start with some questions. We’ll go to the really hard stuff. Where did you first get the theater bug? Where did you fall in love with this crazy art form?
Jordan: I’ve always loved the theater. I used to go to the theater with my parents and my family. My story is not that much different than anybody who makes a life in the theater. At some point we sat in the theater and the lights went down and we were changed. And that was true for me, it was always true for me, really. My earliest memories are in the theater.
Ken: Was there a show that did it? For me, I was raised on the theater. As a kid I was an actor and the whole bit, but I considered myself part of the Les Mis generation and in 1987 when I saw the national touring company I was changed, exactly like you said. Was there a show for you that did it?
Jordan: I remember the original production of La Cage. I was like seven, eight, and I was totally dazzled and I had a chance to visit backstage and I have a very vivid memory of shyly hanging around the doorway to the Cagelles dressing room and peering around all the walls at all of the wigs and costumes that were stacked and racked, and very specifically focusing on the whip. Remember the whip?
Ken: Of course.
Jordan: The famous whip. It was coiled up and hung on a hook on the wall. It was the first time that I remember consciously connecting the onstage life of a thing that I had seen to its offstage existence. And that connection, I think, looking back, I don’t know what was conscious for me at that moment, but looking back I see that as an early seminal moment of starting to think about a production as a million little pieces, and the way in which all of these things that are real, physical, human, offstage, turn into magic when they are put together in just the right way at just the right moment with just the right group of people onstage.
Ken: And you were seven? Having these deep thoughts. I thought that last week!
Jordan: In fairness, I did say I don’t know how much of that was conscious but I do remember that as a moment that I think I can trace back. You have these moments of connection, these moments where something makes sense to you and you don’t even know yet, perhaps, what it is or why, but you know that there is a path and you begin.
Ken: What was the beginning later on? Five, ten, fifteen years or so later you go to college. When do you decide, “I want to do this as a career,” and what was the first step you took towards that career?
Jordan: The way that I participated in the theater growing up was as a performer, which I think, again, is how most people do, because there’s not a third grade owner. Had there been, I would have been right there. But you’re excited about the theater as a young person and you go on stage. And you either continue to do that or you figure out that the theater is the space that you want to be in, but performing is not the role you want to be doing, or you figure out, “This is not where my life is and I will be a very happy audience member, hopefully.” So for me, I was performing all through grade school and high school and college, and in college I figured out that I really didn’t want to be an actor and, for me, I connect that realization over time with coming out. I came out sophomore year of college. And I think for me, and I don’t connect this with anybody else’s reason for performing, but what I think it filled for me, as I became more and more comfortable with my own voice, with my own body, with my own self, I became less and less interested in being somebody else, in taking on another role. Those were very hard fought places of comfort and my fascination, my escape, my exploration became more about my real, offstage physical being, vocal being, mental being, than it was onstage.
Ken: You took off two costumes, in a way.
Jordan: That’s very interesting. Yes, I think I would say that, or I think I might say I became less interested in costume as a concept. I don’t know if I want to say less interested, because God knows I love a costume.
Ken: It was La Cage that was that seminal moment.
Jordan: And continues to be, let’s just say it! But it served a different purpose for me and I think one of the things in our lives that I try for is being deliberate and thoughtful about what we are doing when and why, what purpose it serves for us, and being aware that, as we change, the things we do change because they fill us in different ways and sometimes there are moments to let them go and that’s what happened with me. I, of course, still love the theater, but I started to think about where else I might explore it and very soon after college I produced my first show, which became The Donkey Show. I didn’t say, “I want to be a producer,” I didn’t say, “I am a producer.” I just was interested in this show and I wanted to make it happen, and I did. I talk about that a lot when I talk to people who are either beginning their process of a career in the theater or transitioning, which I think a lot of us do. What’s wonderful about a life in the theater is that there are so many ways you can come at it, and they don’t all have to be the same way throughout your whole career. Or at least I think that is something we should offer each other, that ability. But, for me, what was significant and what I think can be helpful for people as they think about it, is that calling your shot can be hard. This is a business of a lot of pressure and so much of the pressure is from ourselves. If we can think, “Are there any elements of that pressure that we can remove?” and just do the work. For me, I felt like saying, “I’m a producer and now I’m going to go and find a show to produce,” was calling your shot in a way that, I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted to do. I wasn’t saying, “I’m a producer,” I was saying, “I’m doing a show called The Donkey Show.” That was it, that was as far as I had gotten and I don’t think any of us expected it to run for as long as it did, so that part of my story is not prescriptive. But the trying it, the figuring out, “This is a show that I want to do, I want to have this role in it, let’s do it,” that’s as far as you need to get. Now, what do we learn from that experience? Do we want to do it again? And, if so, how should it be different? And that was the beginning.
Ken: Tell me what attracted you to The Donkey Show because, watching the things that you do now, I see a lot of Donkey Show DNA in some of the decisions that you make now in a much bigger position. Tell me what it was that attracted you then that still excites you now and how you infuse Donkey Show energy into Broadway.
Jordan: I love that notion of Donkey Show energy. I’ll take that with me. I love that The Donkey Show was powered by the audience’s energy. It literally felt like a generator. If you could imagine a group of people turning all of the wheels to make literal power and that power sparking as it goes through the tubes and literally is what is fueling these actors and this story and this experience. That’s what it felt like and that’s what I wanted to feel like as an audience member. I wanted to feel necessary, I wanted to feel like my presence here was required, that we all have to be here or this thing doesn’t happen and that feeling is very much the DNA that I think about as we create shows and welcome shows into our theaters. I think, very excitingly, there were a lot of us on that show very early in our careers and each of us, in different ways, have continued to draw on that DNA. Certainly you see it in Diane’s work, Diane Paulus, who was our director. And Randy Weiner who wrote it and has continued to create these amazing night club experiences, theatrical nightlife explorations. And certainly in Kevin Adam’s lighting and Scot Pask’s set design. I think it was a really seminal moment for a lot of us in our thinking about what the theater is and how we want to feel as audience members and as collaborators.
Ken: I remember sitting in the audience of Hair and looking at the program. I was seeing Hair at the Hirschfeld, produced by you, directed by Diane, and going, “Look, the Donkey Show crew has grown up and look at what they’re doing on Broadway now.” It was a very exciting moment. Let’s flash forward a little bit. We’re going to go back to your past in a second but let’s talk a little bit about now, your day-to-day job now. It’s very easy, I think, for the world to sit back and go, “Oh, those theater owners, sitting up there in their offices on top of their theaters, controlling Broadway with their puppet strings.” But tell me, literally, what is a day as a theater owner like? What do you spend all of your day, part of your day doing? What goes into a day in the life of a theater owner?
Jordan: One of the things that I love about what I do is that I don’t have a normal day. They are all very different, filled with really interesting and talented and wonderful people. I think a large part of what I do is operational. We are very focused on delivering a very unique experience, a unique feeling, for our theatergoers and our theater makers, and that feeling starts with the feeling we create for our team members. Everybody up here in the office, everybody at each of our theaters. So creating that feeling is a combination of a million different little pieces, decisions, priorities, that all of us, not just me, that all of us make, and that requires a lot of deliberate focus every day. So that’s a big part of what I do. And happily, a big part of what I do is also connected to each of our shows, whether it be a long running show, a new show that’s coming in, or perhaps a future show that’s a year or two or three years down the road, and being connected to and a part of that process in different ways. My relationship to each show is very different, depending on what the show is and where it is in its lifecycle and who’s involved but, for me, it’s a special relationship with each one of them and that’s a big part of my day as well.
Ken: I sometimes refer to the theater owners as the “St. Peters of Broadway . . .”
Jordan: I don’t think you’ve ever said that to my face.
Ken: No, but here it goes.
Jordan: Here it goes!
Ken: . . . in that they decide what gets in and what doesn’t. Now, it’s obviously very easy, again, for me to say that on a blog and not to your face.
Jordan: Yeah, come on in.
Ken: Here we go. That’s the thing. When I say something like that I know that you’re in a very difficult position, and you know this. You curate the art form in a way, because what’s done on Broadway is then literally done all over the world, so something like Falsettos is done and needs to be done again to remind people because now there will be thousands of productions of Falsettos all over the world because it’s done here. So you’re responsible for curating the art and the message of artists, which is, I think, the reason why we all got into this business. At the same time, you have five big buildings that you have to keep running, keep people employed and there’s a business of Broadway, so the question is, how do you manage that balance? Talk about art and commerce! There’s no one who has that weight on their shoulders more than a theater owner. So when you have to choose what show to put in or what not, what goes through your mind when you make those choices? There are all of those Broadway producers clamoring for a theater today. There’s a line down the block, I passed it on the way in.
Jordan: To your podcast listeners – that was hyperbole.
Ken: Yes it was, I admit it. But there could be! If I said he was giving out a theater, they’d be here in five minutes. So what goes into your decision making process?
Jordan: I hear a couple of things in what you are asking. The first is that I love living on the nexus of art and commerce and it’s not just theater owners, I think a lot of people, most people working in commercial theater, live on that nexus in some way and figuring out where that balance is, is part of what keeps us coming back every day. These are very tough questions and when you hit it just right and feel like you are connecting with audiences and saying something that matters, it’s exhilarating. So what goes into the decisions? I think about three buckets, three areas of ideas, when I’m thinking about a show. The first is, is it uniquely theatrical? Does it make sense of the fact that it is live? Back to our Donkey Show DNA. Do we, the audience, have to be there to experience this? That, I think, is really about the project of theater. Does this show use what is unique and therefore valuable about the theatrical form? Because that’s where we need to be. If everything about what you’re putting on stage can be filmed, do it on film. That’s cool, we love film. But if we’re coming to one room at one time of day, which is a highly inefficient mode of storytelling distribution, there has to be a really great reason, and that reason should be not despite the fact that we are there but because we are there. We are there as a community. We are there as a group of strangers that, at some point, are transformed into a community called “the audience.” The fact that you are up on that stage in the same breathing space that we are in, that is why this thing is special and I have to be there. And I think there are lots of ways in which creative teams answer that question, lots of different ways, but we need an answer and we hope it’s compelling. The second thing, does it matter? Does this have to exist in the world? Do we need this? That is not to sound heavy. Joy has to exist in the world, laughter has to exist in the world, we need that, but if we’re doing laughter I really hope we are doing gut-bustingly funny, not mildly amusing. And that, for me, speaks to the responsibility and the understanding that our stages are scarce resources and, as you say, if we are putting a show on the stage there are several other shows that we are not putting on that stage and so the show that is getting put on that stage should matter in some way. At least that is the goal. The third is, is it going to sell tickets? Is it commercial? We are, as you point out, a commercial theater. That’s part of the project. As an aside, I would argue that all theater is commercial, whether you are exchanging just your time or exchanging your time and your money, that is an exchange. Both are commercial exchanges. And, again, you have to be there. The theater, that project, that piece, is not complete without your presence. I need you to complete this show. Give me your time, give me your money or give me both, it doesn’t matter. I think not for profit or for profit, that’s just who keeps the money at the end, that’s not a fundamental distinction. So, to me, theater in general is a project of commerce. That’s an aside, we’ll get back to selling tickets. So those are the three buckets. Two out of three, we’re doing great. Three out of three? Home run.
Ken: It’s the Jordan Roth three bucket challenge, if you will, to choosing a show. Just for the record, again, in your theaters, Something Rotten! is about to open but the other four have Best Musical winners in them, all of which, except for one which preceded you . . . Jersey Boys was before you . . . but the other three were under your watch which is really incredible, so there’s something to this for sure. You took the reins here in 2009, correct? Is that about right? So it’s only been about five years. At the time I wrote in the blog that I wrote when it was announced that you were, and I’m sure you still are, the only theater owner with a Facebook page.
Jordan: I remember that. And you linked to my Facebook page!
Ken: I did, it probably spiked some likes.
Jordan: I love it.
Ken: Obviously you are the youngest of the men . . . and I say that very deliberately . . . who are the heads of the other theater chains here. How has your age changed the way or been more interesting, challenging or exciting for you as you entered the world back then?
Jordan: It’s just part of who I am. It is one of the things about me that informs how I see the world, which is not better or worse than anybody else’s, it’s just one of the parts of me. We’re all the result of the times we grow up in, the times we come of age in, the times we raise our families in. you called yourself part of the Les Mis generation. That was what was happening for you in your world and it became seminal. And so I think identifying and honoring those things that form each of our thinking is really important.
Ken: You continue, following that Facebook analogy, if you will, to get yourself out there in a whole bunch of different ways. You have a fantastic Instagram which everyone should follow.
Jordan: For your sunset and backstage needs.
Ken: You do Morning Joe, you do all these other things, including Culturalist which I want to talk about next, but you don’t have to do any of this stuff. Let’s face it, you could just sit here and run theaters and do all of this stuff, but you continue to invent and innovate. My first question is why? Culturalist came to you how? And why did you do it and what’s it about? Tell us.
Jordan: Culturalist was something I really wanted to use and it didn’t exist. So we made it. I don’t mean to say that flippantly. It’s been really hard work and we have a wonderful team who are building it every day. It is a living, breathing thing, just like a show. But I think it’s the same impulse of creating theater. You want something to exist that doesn’t exist and so you start taking steps to make that exist. So what Culturalist is, is a way of talking about the things that you are passionate about through top ten lists. The list as a form, the top ten in particular, is so ubiquitous, so sticky, so fun, such a mode of conversation now, and only getting more and more so, but at that time and still, I felt that it hadn’t been democratized. Twitter democratized the short form. Before that, all the blogging technology democratized long form. Instagram democratized image making and distribution but the list was, in many ways, still the purview of just a few. And for me it was a very personal moment of seeing a list, a published list, and thinking, “I don’t think that’s the list. That wouldn’t be my list,” which, PS, is the number one reaction to a list. “No, that’s not right. Let me tell you what’s right.” And that’s why we built Culturalist. I wanted to have a place for all of us to publish our lists equally. Then, as we started to dig into it, I actually thought, just as interesting as my list or your list or his list or her list, is our list, the collected list, the aggregated list. And so what the system does, is you can come on and make a list of, as you said, your Top Ten Best Broadway Musical Moments of All Time. That’s a very personal list for you. I would make my list, she would make her list, he would make his list, and in real time the system is aggregating the results. So in addition to being able to look at your list and my list individually, we can look at the collective list, at our list, which is a really fascinating way of getting the pulse of looking at, “What do we all think? One of my favorite lists is Top Ten Worst Things That I Don’t Like That Everyone Else Seems to Love. Let that sink in for a second. This list was started very early and, again, all of lists are user generated, the titles included, so anyone can come in and say, “I want to dig into the top ten whatever. I want to start the conversation, if it doesn’t already exist.” At this point, lots of conversations exists so you can just add to it, but if it doesn’t, you begin it. So this list started very early on in our life and I thought, “This is a genius list. I don’t know how many people are going to add onto it but I love that this one person started it and I have such a sense of who she is.” Well, it became quite popular and what I love about it, when you look at the aggregate, is what is this title saying? Something that I don’t like that everyone else seems to love. What does that mean? “I’m alone, I must be alone, because everybody seems to go crazy over these things and I don’t and I’m alone.” Until you look at the aggregate of hundreds of people’s lists who all say, “Selfies.” Number one Worst Thing I Don’t Like That Everyone Else Seems to Love. You’ll have to go on the site to see the rest of the list. So for me it’s been a fascinating and really exciting project, to have so many people come and fill this vessel, this platform, with their passions, their opinions, exploring together, learning together, debating together. And it is, for me, the same impulse. All of the things that you mentioned that I’m passionate about are part of, in their own ways, the culture conversation. I think that’s what we do in the theater. We put something on a stage that catalyzes a conversation. It is first a conversation between artists and audience, it is then a conversation among audience. Morning Joe, again, is another way of having the conversation. Twitter, Instagram, another way of having the conversation. A visual way, a short form way, these are all ways in which we explore what we think, individually and collectively and that’s what Culturalist is too.
Ken: When I think about it, what I love about Culturalist is that the audience is the generator for the entertainment, just like The Donkey Show. You can see The Donkey Show DNA in everything that you do, which is very, very exciting, giving so much power to the audience, which I love.
Jordan: I believe in the audience, I do. I believe in all of us as a collective. We have such great potential to create, to make, to generate together.
Ken: Obviously you’ve been a producer, now you work with a lot of producers, so what perspective do you have now in terms of what you think the best characteristics a modern day producer should have to make it today to produce a successful show? How has it changed? If you could create the ideal model producer. I won’t ask you to name names of your favorite or your least favorite, unless you want to.
Jordan: I would say we have wonderful producers, passionate, smart producers, working today and I think it’s a very exciting time in the theater. A great producer holds in their hands the impossible tension of being at the same time, a person of total blind faith and clear eyed realism. These are two things that should not ever go together in one being, or perhaps even in a group of beings, and yet they must. A producer has to think that the truly impossible, and in many cases insane, is completely possible, doable, and we’re going to do it. The producer is the first person to believe and the last person to believe, despite every . . . truly every . . . reasonable reason to not. And that’s a glorious thing, that people can look at empty space and say, “In a very short amount of time there’s going to be a whole world right there.” What a crazy thing. And there is, and there will be. Because they say so, because they say it will and so it will, and you make people believe, you make people join and give you their hearts and their time and their brains and their souls to make this thing with you that has no business existing until it does. Isn’t that amazing? At the same time, at the very same time, having the clearheaded focus to look at reality, to look at the challenges, to face them clearly and consistently, to understand what the audience is telling you, what the math is telling you, what the team is telling you and make focused, smart, wise decisions based on that, and be the person who can see the reality at the same time that you are a person who can dream the fantasy. That’s an amazing dichotomy, tension, to hold in one brain, and so I think those who do it and those who want to do it, God bless you, we need you.
Ken: Okay, one last question. I want you to imagine that the theater gods come down, whether that’s David Merrick or the ancient Greeks or whoever.
Jordan: Those are my choices?
Ken: That’s it. Maybe Belasco too.
Ken: They come down and they say, “Jordan, you’ve done a fantastic job in getting a hold of this industry and starting to pull it into the modern day. We want to give you a gift.” I want you to imagine if you could change one thing about the theater, just one thing, the gods of the theater would change it in the snap of a finger or the blink of an eye. What would be the one thing that you would change?
Jordan: I feel like this should be my next TEDxBroadway. I feel like I’m being set up.
Ken: It can be specific, it can broad, just one thing. It can be bathrooms. More space in my theaters so the women can go to the bathroom, because you can’t just add on a wing to the St. James.
Jordan: True. I don’t mean to dodge your question but I’m going to, because I really don’t think in terms of, “If only this thing . . .” and of course this thing can’t happen. You bring up the bathrooms. Great example. This is a really human issue. This touches every person. Every person who comes to the theater can tell you the bathroom situation. That’s not a good thing. The reality is that in the physical spaces, as they exist, adding more bathrooms is prohibitive. That doesn’t mean that we have to live forever with the notion that getting to the bathroom at intermission is going to be a negative. We’ve thought a lot about, “What’s really the issue, what’s the anxiety?” The anxiety is you’re not going to get back in time, that’s what you’re worried about. Yes, one way would be to add more stalls so that you’ll get back quicker. Another way would be to tell you, as you’re on the line, “Don’t worry. We’re watching the clock, you’re going to get back in time. Don’t worry. Feel different?” So my point is, there are a lot of things that I think we can continue to improve, continue to iterate on, continue to think about as a way to expand, increase and innovate on the experience of coming to the theater and making theater and working in the theater. All three areas we think a lot about, but I don’t look at any of them as impossible or insurmountable, you just have to find your way in.
Ken: That’s why I personally was so thrilled to see, back in 2009, that you were heading up this organization and, as I said before, taking Broadway into the next several decades. Thank you, Jordan, for doing this for us. Thank you for being here for Broadway, for continuing to push innovation in an industry that desperately needs it and embracing it with such a positive attitude. Do check out Culturalist, it’s a ton of fun, and Something Rotten!, opening downstairs. Again, do subscribe to the podcast, it’s TheProducersPerspective.com. Thanks again, Jordan, and we will see all of you next time.
Jordan: Thank you all.
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.