Podcast Episode 24 Transcript – John Breglio

Ken: Hey, everybody, it’s Ken Davenport here. Listen, the Tony Awards were Sunday and odds are you didn’t win one . . . yet. But don’t worry, there’s still a chance for you to win one if you play my board game, Be a Broadway Star. You didn’t know I had a board game? Well I do! It’s kind of like Life and Charades but all about Broadway. Check out BeABroadwayStar.com and learn all about it, it’s a ton of fun. Again, BeABroadwayStar.com, and now, on to the podcast!

Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I am Ken Davenport. This is the 24th episode of the podcast, believe it or not, already 24 down, and today I have quite a guest with me. First of all, I’m sitting in his apartment which has a glorious view of the park. I would have you all over but I don’t think John would look so kindly on me crowding his living room here. This man is responsible for helping to literally write the legal framework for the modern Broadway era. He has been called one of the most influential and powerful and, I’ve also heard, one of the nicest attorneys in the biz. Welcome, John Breglio.

John: Hi, Ken. Nice to be here.

Ken: In addition to working with producers and theater owners both on and off Broadway, John has also repped hundreds of individual artists in the business, included a few bold faced names like, oh, I don’t know, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, August Wilson, Michael Bennett, Marvin Hamlisch, and so on and so forth. I mean, just think about it, can you imagine what a day in his office might be like? “Er, John, I have Andrew Lloyd Webber on one and Stephen Sondheim on two.” One of my questions for him a little later . . . which call would you take? We’ll get to that. In addition to his legal work, John is also quite a producer in his own right, stepping over to the dark side for the first time as the producer of the very successful first revival of A Chorus Line in 2006. Along the way, he has been the chair of TDF, the Theatre Development Fund, and also advised all sorts of important non-profits like New York Shakespeare Festival, the Actors Fund, Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout, and so on and so forth. John, how did your mega career in theater law get started? Where did this all begin for you?

John: Well, not to bore you with too much biography, but I always loved the arts. I studied piano for about ten years, thought I was going to go to Juilliard, did not, went to Yale, got involved in theater and that’s what I thought I would always do, would be doing theater in some form, musical theater or straight plays. But I had no choice because it was Vietnam and the Vietnam War intervened. Most of my friends were either leaving the country or burning draft cards. It was a terrible period. By some stroke of luck I got what was called a 1Y, which meant you would not get called up unless there was a national emergency. It was a new classification. So I found myself suddenly not drafted and able to pursue something else so, not knowing what else to do, which was what a lot of people did in the late ’60s, I went to law school. I went to law school and, to my surprise, I really loved it and in the second year of my law school career I saw in the New York Times, second section, a huge piece on entertainment lawyers. And the lawyer they profiled was John Wharton, who was the dean of entertainment lawyers, particularly in theater and film, and he was one of the founding partners of my law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. This was a revelation to me. I had no idea this existed, entertainment lawyers, and it was very different. Keep in mind, this would have been 1970. It’s not like today, where entertainment lawyers are known generally. There weren’t very many of them. So I pursued that, I went to Paul, Weiss as a summer associate and that was it. I decided it was perfect. I could combine what would be my advocational interest, personally, in the theater and the arts with a career where I could make some money. So that’s what I did. I went to Paul, Weiss, an extraordinary place where they had the dean of entertainment lawyers, John Wharton, and others . . . Bob Montgomery, who was one of the most well-known film lawyers. And I learned the theater business, the film business, the book publishing business, the music business. We represented ASCAP, we represented Frank Loesser and Cole Porter. I got an education that was staggering for me, especially someone who loved the arts, and that’s how I got my education. And so I stayed. As you probably know, I stayed there until 2006 or 2007, more or less, and that’s when I decided to go into producing full time. I no longer practice law and I’ve been producing now for the past, whatever, seven or eight years. But without those 36 years of education I could never do what I’m doing today. And all those years that I practiced, that’s what I did. I represented producers, it’s no secret, I’m sure your listeners and other people you’ve had on have said that there are many, many people in this business who are producers who are total neophytes, they have never produced before. They have made a ton of money in other parts of the world, in whatever they’ve done, and with a lot of extra money they want to come in and produce on Broadway, and they often hire entertainment lawyers to help them do it. So I was really doing producing, at least from the ground up, so much of the time, and then learning, also, working with people like Michael Bennett and Hal Prince and these great writers like Stephen Sondheim, Joe Papp, an entrepreneur. I had a firsthand glimpse of what it was really like to be in the trenches, and they would come to me with their problems, which were business legal but then I had an inside view of what it was like to be what they were and so I was always itching to do it myself and I finally did do it. That’s a long winded answer, I don’t know if I talked too much, but that’s my background sort of in a nutshell.

Ken: Not at all. So do you remember, when you started as a summer associate, what your first project was?

John: Oh yeah, are you kidding? It’s a great one. I sat down at my desk as a summer associate and I got a call from one of the partners who said, “Come down, we’re going to work on a new show. Have you ever heard of Gone with the Wind?” and I burst out laughing and said, “Yes, what are you talking about?” He said, “We’re going to do a musical based on Gone with the Wind.” For me, you’ve got to understand, this is this young kid, 20-sometihng years old, besotted with theater and everything else, having sat through law school for three years, and now, suddenly, the first thing I was going to work on was the Gone with the Wind musical. So I was absolutely beside myself. We were going to represent Stephens Mitchell, who was Margaret Mitchell’s, I think it was her cousin . . . anyway, he was quite elderly and since we represented basic rights, the first thing was, “Do we want to have a stage musical based on this incredible book?” The next thing I knew, I was on a plane with the partner, flying down to Atlanta, going down to this plantation type country club in Atlanta and there was Stephens Mitchell, all dressed in a white suit, panama hat, it was really right out of the book. And we talked about doing the musical, the pros and cons of what it would be like, what control they would have, that kind of thing. And I was there representing, I was not the partner, of course, I was just an assistant, but representing Gone with the Wind and we were off and running, and I was given an enormous amount of responsibility. I was this green, not knowing anything lawyer, but Paul, Weiss was that kind of place, they really threw you into the pit and it was a great experience.

Ken: Just flashing forward to towards the end of your career as a practicing attorney . . . do you think it’s become harder to make deals todays? Does it take longer to get deals done? I love this story about everyone, including the writers, in the room, trying to figure all of this out, which doesn’t happen today. Today we have phone calls that don’t get returned for probably three or four weeks sometimes.

John: It’s a very good question because I have a span of 40 years. The one big change that has speeded things up, which is huge, is word processing. When I started practicing law, the only technological thing you had was a Xerox machine, a photocopier. There was nothing, there were no computers. Secretaries worked on typewriters with carbon copy, so if you had a 50 page agreement, or even a 30 or 20 or 10 page agreement, every change had to be made by hand and had to be either erased with what they called Wite-Out . . . I don’t know if you even know what Wite-Out is . . . and then all of pages had to be changed. It took forever to do a contract. Today, obviously, you take your laptop. The lawyers at Paul, Weiss now don’t even need secretaries because they draft all of their contracts themselves and it’s all done by computer. Well, they draft the contract but they don’t type it themselves. So in terms of speed of just getting the paperwork out, there’s no comparison to the old days. But the other side of the coin is just pure negotiating. The process of talking to people, negotiating the deal, I think that has slowed down. What’s better now, but it hasn’t been great for several years, is the complexity of royalty pools and amortization and the ignorance on behalf of so many people . . . and I don’t use ignorance in a pejorative sense, just not knowing what these things are. And general managers and producers who are smart about it manipulating all of the numbers and making the numbers for their benefit and showing these formulae and other things to agents and others who are mystified by it. They don’t understand it, they need to use their lawyers and other people to figure it out. So that has made the negotiation on financial terms much more complicated and time consuming. Most of the negotiations tend to be over that, because things such as credit and per diem and the grant of rights, all of those things that are critical to getting the rights and doing deals with orchestrators and directors, the basic terms haven’t changed much in 40 years. They really haven’t, and those are fairly straightforward. What is mostly consuming today are the financial terms and, as I said, in the old days it was, “Are you going to give someone a $5,000 advance? Or $6,000 or $7,000? And are you going to give them 2% of the gross or 3% of the gross?” That doesn’t take a long time to negotiate. Today it can take weeks, weeks for people to not only understand it but to figure out what they’re going to settle for. So the financial rigmarole and the financial permutations today are so much more complicated than before and that has led, I think, to a lot of delay in getting deals done.

Ken: What I find so fascinating about your career and who you’ve represented is you talk about representing the producers on a major Broadway musical and then, of course, you’re represented some of the greatest artists that the Broadway community has ever birthed. You’ve repped both sides of it. Do you think that has helped you gain a greater understanding of both sets of shoes and allowed you to negotiate better? Because agents who represent artists only pitch one way, but you’ve pitched both sides.

John: I think it’s been a great advantage to me because I am sympathetic to both sides. I’m almost more sympathetic to the artists, I think, because my wife is a writer. And also it’s the craft, it’s the art from the writer’s side, and so many writers are so dependent on a lawyer or an agent for knowledge. A producer, if he knows anything, should be a little more sophisticated about what it means to pay operating profits as opposed to gross but for writers, who spend most of their time worrying about what’s on the page, they don’t even want to spend a lot of time worrying about that. So I think it’s been, for me, a great benefit, but a joy to be able to look at it that way because it helps in any negotiation, so in a way you can predict what you’re going to get coming back. There’s no point, if you’re representing a producer, to go forward with a proposal which you know, before you even submit it, the other side, if they have any kind of decent representation, the writers are going to come back and say, “No, I can’t do this.” So at least start with something that you think is doable. The biggest problem for me is when you’re working on a deal where you have people on the other side . . . for example, West Coast people . . . who have no idea about the theater. Whether it’s the studios, for example . . . first it was Disney and then it was Warner and then Paramount and they started getting involved, and again, because I had that expertise and I had film background too, I had done a lot of film work, I represented most of them. And you can’t imagine how complicated that was because they had no idea of the culture of theater deals where the writer owns the copyright. In Hollywood, are you kidding? A writer owns nothing. So for them to think that they were going to do shows where the director owned the direction, the choreographer owned the choreography, the book writer owned the book . . . to this day, by the way, they still can’t believe the way we operate in the theater. So working with people who don’t have any idea of what they’re doing on the other side is a roadblock, and many deals are never made so, yes, for me to have understood both sides, and particularly when I was representing studios, which is like a third side because, as far as they knew, they were going to come in and own everything, including Disney. And Disney was stunned when I started. “This is not going to work for us, Beauty and the Beast.”

Ken: I often theorize about whether someone coming in . . . and you’re a great person to ask this . . . you represent some authors, let’s say, and they’ve written some stuff but they’ve never had massive hits in any way and you’re representing them and a producer calls you and says, “Look, I want to option this piece but we’re going to do it a little differently. We’re going to do it like the Hollywood model. I’m going to own it. I’m going to write them a big, fat check to start with so they can write it and be very comfortable, but I’m going to own it from here on out.” Would you entertain a deal like that?

John: I would always pass it on to my client because I think it’s your obligation as a lawyer to always tell your client what the other side is offering. I think it would be unethical not to do it, like a prosecutor proposing a plea deal and not telling your client who’s indicted what they can plead.

Ken: Would you recommend it?

John: But what I would do, I would sit down with the other side before I even went to my client and say to him, “Look, I’ll do this, I’ll tell my client this, but I’ve represented, I don’t know, I can’t even count how many people I’ve represented in my career. It’s not going to happen. They won’t accept it.” Now, if he was making this proposal to someone who’s never written anything and had no credits and was just a first timer, I suppose they might take it, but in my career it’s never happened. Nobody has been willing to really take that kind of deal. They fight it because the peer pressure is enormous. Other writers who are older and more experienced, the Dramatists Guild, comes down on them. Their mentors say, “You can’t give away this. This is the birthright of being a dramatist. You’ve got to own your material,” and I would sit down with them and say, “Look, if the thing that is produced ultimately is no good, well, okay, you will have gotten money upfront and whatever. But if the show is really good, you’ll never make more money this way. You’ll make so much more money down the road and you will own the copyright for the rest of your life. And your kids will benefit from it. Why are you giving away this birthright?” It’s difficult to tell people this if they really need the money, but I’ve never seen anybody really give away that much upfront. They might offer $100,000 or so, $125,000. There was a studio once who offered somebody $1 million, I remember that, and it was a very established person and that was accepted, but even in that deal they held back certain rights. It almost never happens. They won’t do it. Ultimately, the studio finds out that they’re banging their head against more than one wall. They’ve got the directors to deal with, they’ve got the choreographers to deal with, they’ve got the orchestra to deal with, the scenic guys. They all own their copyrights, and when they realize that that’s the world they live in, they deal with it.

Ken: You’ve obviously negotiated some pretty big deals over your career. Do any stand out as being unique or different or something that you remember as being a watershed moment?

John: Well, I have to go back to A Chorus Line, when Michael Bennett did a workshop for the first time and decided to use actors to help create a piece. They became part of the authors of a piece, and how was the industry going to deal with that? Over a period of two years that evolved, and it changed the course of musical theater and nothing has come close to that, from the pure sense of artistic creation as well as business deals that had to reflect what was going on creatively. Being more specific, I think most people know that A Chorus Line started with a bunch of dancers getting into a room and Michael turning on a tape recorder and recording these interviews, just sitting around and just talking about their lives. And based on those interviews, Michael, after those interviews, decided that it might be a musical, and out of that came his hiring Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban for lyrics, Nicholas Dante, who was one of the dancers, to write the book, and then eventually Jimmy Kirkwood, and they slowly developed this show from nothing. It was just like a seed in the ground. Organically this thing just built and built and built over a year and a half based on two workshops. Remember, back in 1975, there was no such word as “workshop” in the theater. It was just this view of a bunch of elves sitting around, tapping on tables. What the hell was a workshop? Michael said to Joe Papp, “I need to experiment because I don’t know what I have,” so they got in this room and they just kept working and working and working and then he brought in Robin Wagner for sets and Tharon Musser for lighting and Theoni Aldredge for costumse and they started thinking about what this should be. And Michael finally figured out, “Okay, we’re in an audition room, bare stage, and they’re going to tell their lives and we’re going to create a musical out of that.” So that took money and time . . . $100,000 in 1975 is like $1.5 million today . . . that Joe Papp did not have. Joe believed in Michael and, out of that, came this workshop process and suddenly everybody . . . Because of the hit that A Chorus Line was, everyone knew that it took months and months, almost two years, to develop. So when Michael’s next show came about, which was Ballroom, we needed to come up with contracts that reflected all of this because we had no contracts before, except we had a piece of paper that Michael had all the dancers sign that said he owned everything, for $1. In retrospect, Michael then, when A Chorus Line was a big success, gave them a piece of his royalties and his subsidiaries. But now we had to codify that because Actors’ Equity said to us, “We’re not going to let you do another show like A Chorus Line using all of these actors and dancers and paying them $100 a week unless we have a deal.” So they pulled all of the actors the Thursday before we were going to start rehearsals and Donald Grody, who the executive director for Equity, called me up and said, “We’ve got to have this put in writing.” So I told Michael and he said, “Well, just figure it out.” I went over to see Bernie Jacobs who was the head of the Shuberts, the single most powerful man in the theater, and Bernie Jacobs, Donald Grody and I . . . literally for 24 hours, around the clock, never left the room . . . drafted the first workshop agreement. It gave the producer and the director the right to use actors for a reduced fee in a rehearsal room, use all of their ideas, own all of their ideas, but give them a specific piece of the gross and a specific piece of the subsidiary rights. The reason I say that was so revolutionary is that not only did that now become the template, which, by the way, is still used. The same document that we did in 1977 in Bernie Jacobs’ office, the same thing is used today for workshops. Everybody then used workshops, and it did more than just change the relationship between actors and directors and everybody in the room, it suddenly changed the way people raised financing. Because now, when you did a workshop, people were no longer doing only what Michael did, which was to just see if he had a show . . . Michael never invited investors to these things. He would never let that happen. Now suddenly a producer would say, “Well now I’ll do a presentation and workshop and I’ll invite all of my investors. They don’t just have to read a script and listen to a tape, now they can actually see the show.” That, of course, caused a lot of problems and still causes problems. That, to me, was a sea change like nothing else we’ve ever had, which today still affects artistically, creatively, marketing, everything.

Ken: You should get a royalty for writing that agreement, if only.

John: You know what? I never thought of that! I would have to share it with Donald Grody and Bernie Jacobs, though.

Ken: Speaking of Michael . . . obviously the world lost Michael way too early. If he were alive today, what do you think he would think of the current state of Broadway? Because you were very close.

John: I think of that all the time, what Michael would have done today. He’s been dead 28 years. Because he’d only be, today if he were alive, he’d be 73, 74. That’s not old. I mean how old is Hal Prince? George Abbott, when he died, was 100, I think. Michael, God knows what he would have done. You asked a different question. What would he think of what’s going on today? I may be giving Michael too much credit here because I’m totally biased but I don’t think what’s going on today would be going on today the same way because Michael . . . remember, everything Michael did pushed the business farther along. A Chorus Line was Earth-shattering, and so was Dreamgirls. He was going to do The Children’s Crusade before he died. This was the way Michael thought. He thought in terms of what nobody had ever done. So I think that the theater would be different today because of some of the advances Michael would have made and some of the ideas he would have had. Because there was a real fallow period there because of AIDS, which Michael died of. We were losing people like crazy, and so in came the British invasion, right before Michael died. And that’s that whole period where there was no invention by American musicals, invention meaning the kind of invention we had with A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls or other shows. It became the British invasion, although that wasn’t really an invention, it was like operetta. In many ways, if you look at it, again, I’m not trying to say this in a negative sense, it was sort of a step back because it was almost opera. Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis, and Miss Saigon were sung through pieces. The big change out of that was that they were monumental physical productions, whereas Michael Bennett created shows that were bare. They weren’t cheap but they looked very cheap. But here these monumental shows came in. How long did it take to redo the Winter Garden Theatre for Cats? And then chandeliers coming down at the Majestic, and Miss Saigon having helicopters . . . it was a whole new focus on what appeared to be an appetite that the British created in the audience for big spectacles. That wasn’t Michael’s way of producing theater. So what he would have done in the middle of that, I don’t know. I know what he thought of it. He thought, “This is not what I would do.” I know that, I mean it wasn’t. So right before he died, of course, he dropped out of Chess and Chess was going to be, again, a bare stage with a circular turntable that titled, and a whole wall at the back with nothing but video monitors. And we’re talking about 1985, nobody ever did anything like that before. So, again, it would have been very bare. It was unbelievably expensive, what he wanted to do. That’s the way Michaels created his magic and it was very different from the Brits. Then, after that, what can I say? We’ve had a lot of musicals that sort of comment on musicals, laugh about musicals, reflect on what musicals are. But, you know, we now have, I think, a lot of very talented people, that emerged after the generation that we lost. The Casey Nicholaws, the Susan Stromans, they’re all great directors who are going to find their own ways, but I know Michael would not have changed if he was alive today. He would continue to want to do things that were not literal on stage, physically. He believed in movement, choreography, lighting and the basic material to run a show. He never believed that hard scenery added anything other than unnecessary distractions.

Ken: And now you’re producing as well. In 2006 it was A Chorus Line, obviously the Michael Bennett piece. Tell me about what that was like for you, now being on that side of the table. Obviously you had been doing lots of things with Michael over the years but now this was you. Did you find yourself enjoying it?

John: Yeah, I did A Chorus Line, I did Dreamgirls, I’ve been involved in several other shows and what I learned was remarkable because I went in thinking that I had a lot of knowledge and I had watched other people, so many people. And the thing I realized more than anything before I started was that I had learned more from the people who had not succeeded than the people who had succeeded. It’s very hard to actually duplicate success, to watch someone and say, “God, why are they so successful?” because there are so many intangibles, but when you see someone not succeed you can usually identify what their issues are and so it was helpful to see that because you want to stay away from what those people did, and that was a big education for me, knowing how you made mistakes. But I had no idea, until I started, how much I still needed to learn, because it is a big, big job, and it’s not a big job if you think all you have to do is write a check and sit back and have your general manager do it, which I suppose you could do but then your general manager is basically producing it. If you believe you have to be involved with the creative people, you have to be working with them, you have to be the one responsible for raising the money, you have to be the person who understands all of the deals, and not only do all of that and get to auditions and get to rehearsals and get to previews . . . and then afterwards the amount of work that’s involved became a surprise to me. Managing a hit, it’s daily job if you do it right. It became, for me, an all-consuming job because I really wanted to do as much as I could and learn all of the things I had never done before. So I still had a big education to go through but I loved it. I just loved it, because I do think I had such a foundation to start with that it wasn’t as if I was starting from day one, which is, “What’s a box office?”

Ken: Well it’s an incredible testament to your character, for someone with as much experience as you have to be able to go, “Oh, I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

John: It’s a tough business if you really understand how much you need to know. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book I think I told you about, which I just finished. Because I realized how complicated it is to really produce. I’m sure you’ve had this, I can’t tell you how many people at cocktail parties, friends or people you meet for the first time, say, “What does a producer do?” Everybody has a different view. Some have the view that all you do is raise money. Other people think you go to casting sessions. They think you’re Max Bialystock. And then other people don’t have any idea what a producer does. They just sort of think it all happens. The writer writes it and the director directs it, what do you do? I know there are so many people out there who will be great producers and I thought this book, which really goes into great depths between the day you have the idea . . . literally the idea, that’s all you have, yourself and the idea in the shower . . . to opening night. I wanted to show the full panoply of things, artistic, business, marketing, financial, legal, the whole thing you need to understand, at least to the extent that I can paint some kind of picture in this book. Because it’s not a simple task, as you well know.

Ken: When is this book coming out?

John: I can’t be sure yet because I still have to start all of the conversations with my editor and all that stuff that goes on. I would guess sometime in 2016.

Ken: Does it have a title yet?

John: The working title is Behind the Curtain. If you want I’ll tell you part of the reason why. The obvious thing is what goes on backstage and how a show is put together. This is a cute little story. When I was a very young boy I was fascinated with the theater. I’m talking seven or eight years old. I didn’t know that much about the theater. I was raised as a Catholic and the church, for me, was an incredible theatrical event. I didn’t realize it then but that’s what really attracted me, the bells and whistles and smoke and lights and all of this stuff. I just loved the whole scene. I didn’t realize that what I loved was the theatricality of it. So, at a very early age my mother would talk about hearing a little bell or something going on in the living room, just like these curtains, which your listeners can’t see, I would draw these curtains and stand behind the curtain, and I would act like I was in church and it wasn’t that I wanted to be a priest. For me. I was acting, and she had no idea what the heck was going on, but I realized that that was my first sense of what drama or theatricality could be like. So when I decided on the title, and I tell some of these stories at the beginning of my book, I decided Behind the Curtain made a lot of sense.

Ken: So that means that the Pope is one of the greatest producers of live entertainment on the planet.

John: Have you ever seen anything more incredible than Christmas Eve Mass?

Ken: Before I get to my final question I have one penultimate question which is . . . Dreamgirls Broadway revival. What do we think? Going to happen?

John: I did revive it in 2009. I opened it at the Apollo Theater here and I toured it all over the country. Right now we’re focusing on London. It’s going to be done in the West End, 2016. Casey Nicholaw is going to direct, a totally new production. So that’s the focus right now. Casey Nicholaw, who seems to be batting 1,000, we’ll see what he does with it. If that’s a big success over there, that’s the one we’ll bring here. If it’s not successful, we’ll see. We’re waiting now. We’re not going to do anything with Broadway until we see what we have in the West End. It’s never been done in the West End.

Ken: Never?

John: Never. Never done. No one could figure out how to do it there. It was too expensive. I’m working with Sonia Friedman. I don’t know how it’s going to get financed or how big the budget’s going to be, because, you know, it’s an incredibly expensive show.

Ken: I have a feeling a lot of my listeners are on Expedia right now, looking at flights to get over there and see what I’m sure will be a monumental production. Okay, last question, I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes up to your apartment and, first of all, says, “Great view!” and, second of all, says, “John, you’ve had an incredible career and you have stood up for these incredible artists and helped create these incredible agreements like the workshop agreement. You’ve done such great work on Broadway, I want to grant you a wish.” What is the one thing, John, that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that keeps you up at night, that you still get angry about, even after all of the success, that you would want this genie, with the snap of a finger, to change and make disappear?

John: Anything?

Ken: Anything about it. I’ve had everything from sippy cups to expensive theater tickets. What’s that one burning thing that drives you nuts?

John: The education of the audience. I would love to go back to a time . . . and I’m not looking back, saying “In the old days . . .” when we had an audience that had been trained and learned about the great works of the theater and could appreciate what great theater is. I worry all the time about the dumbing down of our audiences, the lack of education in schools about what great art is. All art, not only theater. They don’t know what the great shows were. There is no follow through. Everything from the despicable way people dress when they go to the theater . . . the idea that you can sit next to someone who has flip-flops on. Not even a t-shirt, those underwear shirts that have straps, and Bermuda shorts and is eating and drinking next to you. The idea that that’s permitted and that’s what we’re having in the theater now is an abomination. Theater is an event. It is a communal event. It is something that you can only do with a live experience. It’s not sitting at home, looking at a screen and having Cheetos. It’s sitting in a theater where you have a communal event with people where you share something wonderful on stage that’s live, that’s thrilling, where you have to have respect for the actors. Can you imagine what it’s like, and actors have told me this, when they look out into that audience and they see what is basically a baseball field, baseball bleachers? It’s degrading. That’s just appearances, I understand, but it’s more than appearances because some of these people have no sense of theater and it goes so deeply into it because when I saw Al Pacino, I’ll never forget it, in Merchant of Venice, I sat in front of a bunch of young women who went to see it and clearly they were only there because of Al Pacino. But that’s so sad, that we don’t have an educated, knowledgeable audience. When I did TDF with Wendy Wasserstein we did this program where, every year, we would bring in a lot of kids, and we had mentors, actors and directors who would take them to the theater. And these were kids who all come from the inner city. They’ve never been to the theater and I really felt that we needed to expose these kids to something more than what they’re being exposed to now. So it starts from the ground up. Our schools don’t do it. We haven’t had a president, really since Kennedy, who really cares about the theater. We have a mayor who doesn’t even know where the theaters are. It’s not on anybody’s list of what’s important. You said to me what’s my wish? My wish is that we could start now and maybe 20 years from now we’ll have people who have appreciation for how important the theater is and how much a part of their lives it could be, as opposed to just another event. It really should be something that’s much more special in people’s lives and they should know more about the history of what we did in this country. Musical theater, for example, as opposed to theater generally, that was our art form, we created it. And how many young people understand all the different kinds of musical theater that you can be exposed to? One of the great things about Hamilton is that it exposes people to a different way of looking at musical theater and more things like that would be great. But that, to me, is a great loss, and it’s been during my lifetime. The way audiences react and the way they understood and appreciated theater has been lost and now we’ve dumbed it down. And the kind of material we put on the stage hasn’t helped, to a large extent, although that’s another story. That’s my wish.

Ken: It’s a good one, a great one, and spoken by a true lover of the theater, obviously. John, thank you so much for having me here and being a guest on the podcast. Thanks, all of you, for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe . . . we’ve got some very cool guests coming up. Thanks so much, we’ll see you next time.

Ken: Hey, everybody. Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to check out my board game at BeABroadwayStar.com. It makes a fantastic Broadway gift for the theater lover in your life. Check it out, BeABroadwayStar.com. See you next week!

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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.