Podcast Episode 27 Transcript – Stuart Oken
Ken: Hey, everybody, it’s Ken. Listen . . . has this ever happened to you? Someone comes up to you the morning after a big opening and says, “Did you read the Times review?” And you didn’t? A little awkward, right? You want to feel in the know. Well that’s why I started the website DidHeLikeIt.com. DidHeLikeIt.com will tell you in a snapshot whether Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood, or whoever reviewed the latest show liked the show, hated the show or just thought it was so-so. So check out DidHeLikeIt.com. Subscribe and you’ll be the first one to know whether he liked it or not . . . and it’s a brand new app in the iTunes store so download it today! Okay, now on with the podcast.
Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I am Ken Davenport and today I am very pleased to have as a guest on the podcast the lead producer of one of Broadway’s newest big fat hits, American in Paris. Welcome, Stuart Oken!
Stuart: Thank you. Great to be here, Ken.
Ken: Stuart is yet another example of how everyone’s road to becoming a producer on Broadway is a little different. I’ll let Stuart tell you all the details of how he got to where he is today but I will tell you and give you a little bit of a clue that he spent a chunk of his career as a high powered exec at a company no one has never heard of that has had no influence on Broadway whatsoever called . . . Disney. After Disney, he formed his own production company which went on to produce shows like The Addams Family, and now he’s leading the team on that big hit at the Palace that I think did $1.4 million last week. So, Stuart, tell me how you got from where you started to $1.4 million a week. What was the path?
Stuart: Oh my goodness. Well, I’m in my 60s and I’ve been working at it a long time. When I was a kid I would sit with my grandfather in Chicago and I would read the back of the record albums of the Broadway musicals and imagine the stories as we played the songs and I memorized the lyrics and I fell in love with Broadway, I fell in love with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and the Lerner and Loewe musicals and West Side Story and the earliest Stephen Sondheim, and I never imagined for a minute that that would be my life, but it was just caught deeply in my heart. And as I grew through the years I had an opportunity to become part of the Chicago theater community in the early ’70s, where we didn’t do anything close to those kind of musicals, but we were doing David Mamet and early Steppenwolf and the kinds of plays that kind of shaped more Off-Broadway and non-profit theater of that period, and I actually ran a non-profit in Chicago for about three years before building a commercial theater in Chicago, and that was very unusual, to open a commercial Off-Broadway-esque theater in 1978. It was the first time it had ever happened in any building. I kind of picked myself as a young commercial producer, but slowly learned that that’s a pretty tough place to be because, as any community grows more sophisticated, the costs go up and you can’t take the risks you were taking when you could produce a show for $15,000 or $20,000 because everyone just wanted to do it. So I had to figure out a path, and my path was in the commercial side of the business and so I kind of went from there. I built the Apollo Theater in Chicago where I produced for about ten years between 1978 and 1988. In 1982 or 1983 I bought the rights to David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which was a show that I had produced twice, first at the Organic Theater in Chicago, where it had its world premiere, and then, when I opened my own theater, I produced it again there and I bought the film rights and it took about three years and I did it completely outside the system, but we got TriStar to make the film. It was called About Last Night, which was the kind of weekend title from this great Sexual Perversity. I remember saying to them, “Why did we buy this title if we weren’t going to use this title?” because it was called Sexual Perversity in Chicago until the last minute before it was released. But it became a hit film, and it opened the door for me to have a film career and I sold the theater in Chicago because, boy, it was tough to make a living, and I went to California and was in the movie business for ten years. It was an interesting time. I learned a lot, I worked on a lot of projects, I had a hit film, which is very unusual, to come into town with a hit movie. And then I got this call from Tom Schumacher at Disney. At the time, Tom and Peter Schneider were running the animation division at Disney where the movies of that period . . . Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, the movies that became the Broadway hits, that was really the renaissance. The renaissance happened in feature animation in that late ‘80s period where Menken and Ashman were really the ones that were kind of teaching them all how to make a cartoon into a musical, and it was a very successful marriage. Anyway, Beauty and the Beast had just opened on Broadway and it came out of the theme park division at Disney. It didn’t even come from the guys like Tom and Peter, who ended up running the theater division. They did not do Beauty. They inherited it, and when it was successful on Broadway they were told, “We’re in the theater business now and you guys are going to run it,” and they were not sure they even wanted to be in it but, remind yourself if you can, how many new musicals opened in 1994. Can you peg that? You’re smart, you probably know.
Ken: In 1994 . . . that was the Beauty year? It was Sondheim, Passion, and A Grand Night for Singing was that around that time?
Stuart: You’re completely right, you’re so smart.
Ken: That was the year I graduated.
Stuart: The truth is, that was it. A Grand Night for Singing was not considered a new musical, so there were two new musicals nominated for Tonys. Two opened, that was it. It was the last new Sondheim musical and the first Disney musical and, say what you will, it was a turning point for the industry. You could get a theater at that time by knocking on the door. There were empty buildings all over the place. And really that was the turn. And Michael Eisner recognized it and he said he wanted the company to be a presence. So Tom Schumacher called me up, I knew Peter Schneider from Chicago . . . we both ran theaters in Chicago in those early Chicago days . . . and I said, “Oh, I’m not going back to the theater, the theater broke my heart. I’m in the movie business now,” and he said, “Come on, let’s just talk.” And we went to lunch and we sang show tunes and I went, “Oh, damn, I think I’m going to have to take this on.” Broadway was all I ever wanted to do ever. Didn’t really want to do the off-loop theater in Chicago . . . it was a reaction to not being able to do Broadway musicals. And the movies was a reaction to not making much of a living doing off-loop theater in Chicago. And there it happened and we went on from there and we built the division and we did The Lion King and Aida and I stayed ten years. And it was a wonderful gift for me, to turn me back to the path I originally wanted to take.
Ken: I have so many questions about you popping all over the country like this, but let’s go back to Chicago a little bit and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. First of all, do you remember how much you paid for the rights?
Stuart: Yes. I paid $7,500 for the rights and another $50,000 for a screenplay.
Ken: Did David write the screenplay?
Stuart: He did write the first draft of the screenplay. He wrote it for another producer. Another producer had bought the rights before I did and I bought it from him. And he had written a screenplay for that guy and they had had a falling out.
Ken: I’m just wondering what his reaction was when the title was changed from Sexual Perversity in Chicago to About Last Night.
Stuart: I think his reaction was put in place when he didn’t end up becoming the person to write the script for the film. I was a friend of his . . . he actually wrote a curtain raiser, a new piece to go with Sexual Perversity when we did it in Chicago . . . but he was not happy with me when I wouldn’t produce his screenplay as written. He thought it was done and, so be it, we hired some other writers that we went with. So we haven’t really been sharing more stories since then.
Ken: I won’t ask you to quote what he said exactly because I try to keep the podcast clean. So you’re at Disney now, in a position that you’re surprised to be in, working on theater again, and it’s different to most theater positions in that before that, especially Broadway producing, developing and producing shows, producers were individual guys, like you are now, like I am. And here you are in this corporate environment, having been in this very small town, Chicago, “I know a bunch of people, let’s put on a show” mentality. What was the corporate structure like? Obviously a lot of things become very easy to do when you have the money and resources, but it must be challenging.
Stuart: Tom and Peter were coming out of a period where feature animation . . . which I guess Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner in those earlier days, that Peter then became president and Tom became executive vice president and Tom eventually became president . . . but that was the brain trust of Disney. It was the most creative central place where they were making stories and making characters and feeding the theme parks and feeding all aspects of the company. I say that because it’s a way of explaining that it operated like a small business, the theater division. We certainly had financial reporting, there was HR, there were a lot of corporate aspects that we paid deference to. But the actual way we worked was very similar to what a small business would be, and the only reason I think it operates differently today is because the volume has grown so big. But it’s still just a small group of people at Disney Theatrical that are the people that are making shows. So actually it was pretty much heaven. I had a lot to learn about working inside a corporate community, where you build consensus rather than drive your point home, but it was good for me to learn that.
Ken: Broadway is booming now, better than it ever has been, and if you ask me to point to the one reason why it is, I might tell you that I think Disney was a big turning point with Beauty and the Beast and obviously the big shows that followed after, including the one that’s still playing, The Lion King. One, would you agree with that? And two, did you have any idea, while these shows were developing, that you were going to turn a bit of a tide here? “We’re going to have a theater in Times Square. We’re going to have global productions all over the world.” Did you see that coming?
Stuart: Well, first, I wasn’t there when Beauty was developed and opened and, if you recall, Beauty was pretty reviled and not welcomed to town and, despite that cold shoulder, it went on to be a very successful show. And when we took the production over, we realized that there was a global rollout. But if you really want to credit the person or people that credited this model you’d probably have to go back to Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber, because they had, with the “mega musicals” of the ’80s . . . Phantom, Cats, Les Mis, Saigon . . . they did that. They globalized the theater business. They created event musicals that had the capacity to not just be successful in one venue, but to have replica productions all over the world and, with that, they created the business model that American producers had not really yet taken advantage of. So when Disney did follow that path with Beauty and The Lion King, that was our model, no question about it. But I think to properly say who created that model, you’d probably have to go back to the Cameron and Andrew world and say they created the modern theater business. I can tell you this . . . that if theater was really about mounting a show on Broadway and having a national tour, Disney would not be in that business. It doesn’t move the needle. So as much as Michael loved Broadway, the business of Disney and Disney Theatrical is a global business and that was created, as I said, I think, by Cameron and Andrew.
Ken: Alright, let’s get off the Disney stuff and let’s get more into you. So you leave Disney and then you go back to being an independent.
Stuart: Well I didn’t immediately make that turn. After ten years at Disney my first thing was, “I don’t want to work in commercial theater for a while.” So I went back to my roots, which were something to do with non-profit, and I started a program that I was lucky enough to find a home for at North Western University called the American Music Theatre project, and the conceit was that we were going to build an institute that brought a really great student body and great facilities . . . and the faculty there ranges from Tony winners all across the faculty to the professional writer and director that would come in and collaborate on a new piece that we could do with some professional actors and with some students. I founded that in, I guess, maybe 2004 and I moved my family back to Chicago from L.A., where we were living when I worked at Disney, even though we were in the air most of the week. And I did that for three years and we did six new musicals, and I really enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed mentoring. The work was almost the same work as I was doing at Disney, it was just on a completely smaller scale where we really did the readings and workshops and development and took the time, which is what I love. But after about three years the answer is yes, I think I said, “Boy, if I’m ever going to do this again I’d better not be gone too long because I’ll get very cold very fast.” And so, yes, I thought, “How can I be in the business and do more or less what I did at Disney even at a much more scaled back version?” And to do that I needed capital, and I was going to take on the model of only new musicals because I think they are the only business of theater. I suppose you can do two or three new plays a year, or a revival every six months, something like that, but with the way our producing units are put together and the way money is generated and how tight and difficult it is to make money I actually, personally, don’t see that anything but new musicals are viable for producers that need to get a hit. If you need a hit to support your business, I think that’s what you have to do.
Ken: I have to comment and just say how insightful a business comment that is about what producers are doing today. What I love about that is we all want to do great theater . . . that’s what got you in the business, what got me in the business . . . but for those people looking to be a career producer, to be as smart as you were, to be able to say, “Look, if I want to do this, my time is limited, my resources are limited. I’m going to focus on the new musical because that could give me the hit.”
Stuart: I can also say it’s the only real argument I could make to a speculative investor, that it’s a good place to put your money. Maybe it’s different if you were to say, “We’ve got Tom Hanks in a play and you’re going to get a 15% return.” I mean, you’re lucky if you’re invited into that kind of project as a producer and an investor, but if you’re a speculator, new musicals are the only place where, when it works, it works. I had a modest success with The Addams Family. We had five productions and it’s generating revenue. It will be 600 productions this year in the United States in stock and amateur that at least continues to feed some money into the mother company. You don’t get that if you’re doing a revival. So that became my motto, and I thought I would try to pick a small number of high quality projects. And I define that as one, things I can get my hands on, because certain things I just can’t get my hands on, two, things that have a chance to surprise if they’re done right, and three, I would say things that feel a little bit against the grain. It goes to the same notion of surprise, I think, and the unexpected but I feel like, these days on Broadway, unless you can kind of catch the world by surprise, it’s hard to make noise. Of course if you make Hamilton, which does both . . . catches you by surprise and it’s extraordinary theater . . . then you kind of really win the lottery. The Lion King is a good example. It certainly was a fabulous property, but in the hands of Julie Taymor it became a surprise invention that everyone had to see. I don’t think that was necessarily true for Beauty although, in its moment, there had never been anything like that, so I think that gave it a lot of legs. So to do that, I felt like I needed capital. So I formed a company with a couple of partners and I did something quite unusual, but I didn’t do it because I thought it was so smart. One of my partners thought it was very smart, a guy named David Fay who runs the Bushnell Center in Hartford. And he and a guy named Mick Leavitt and I formed a company, and we partnered with five non-profit performing arts centers, big ones . . . the Bushnell, at the time it was the Wang, but the Citi Center in Boston, the Pittsburgh CLO and Cultural Trust, the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and the Ordway Center in St. Paul. And they wrote substantial checks, and then ten more non-profit performing arts centers wrote less substantial checks, and then we raised an equal amount from the private sector and created a fund, and I sold myself, more or less, as the general partner. Instead of producing a play I produced a development company, and the development company’s job was then to take different projects and start from scratch and let the gestation take as long as it has to take and somehow come up with a winner. And obviously that’s easier said than done, but I’m about eight years into it and I’ve produced four shows, two of which I started Off-Broadway and neither one made the move to Broadway, and one was The Addams Family, which is a story of its own, and the other is American in Paris. So it’s taken eight years to have what I would call a sustaining financial success. It’s too soon to write the story on American in Paris, but it has the potential at this moment to be that. It isn’t that yet, but you can see it could be that.
Ken: It seems to me like a movie model. You had a production company and a slate, if you will, early on of pictures or projects and you developed them using your artistic acumen and everything you knew and it looks to me . . . you can’t write the future right now on the show . . . but certainly it looks, coming out of the box, that there’s global success . . . and we’ll talk about that a little bit . . . in your future, and one out of four, that would be pretty good for that slate, so it’s working exactly the way you planned so far, it looks like. I’ll knock on my conference room table a little bit for you. Tell me, since you were talking about raising capital a bit, how do you do it? Do you have a style on how you raise money from individual investors? It’s the question I get asked the most from people looking to produce. How do you do it?
Stuart: Well, first off, because I raised the money for development in the way that I did, I didn’t have to go to investors for front money, so that was the big leg up. I could write the check, I could do what I wanted to do without using up my limited personal resources. When it comes to doing the show, like raising money to do the show itself . . . to be honest, I show the people what we’ve got and I hope that they get excited about it. I don’t think there’s any big trick. You know the way our business works now. If I was going to go out and raise money in $50,000 chunks I could probably raise $1 million which means, since the shows cost ten times or more than that, we partner up with other people who take on the role of producers, so they’re either people who are savvy industry producers who write their own checks, or they’re people in our industry who have built their reputation as picking good shows and have a pool of investors that they go to, so it’s not uncommon now for us to see 30 names above the title. It’s not the way they did it in the David Merrick days, but it costs a lot more now, and it’s our reality. And I’ve been very fortunate to have really wonderful people around me and mostly they recognize that I’m not trying to toot my horn, but I’m a real hands-on, in the trenches, “don’t do four things at once” producer and all they want is to know that I’m open to listening and working my butt off. And I do, on both accounts, and so I’ve had great partners who have supported me. And they come back in if they feel like you’ve got something they want to do.
Ken: I think you’re 100% right on that. We did this survey with a bunch of investors a while ago and the biggest complaint was not that they lost money . . . it was that they didn’t know they were losing money because the producer or the person they were dealing with wasn’t filling them in, and it sounds like you’re the type of guy who is just open to taking calls and listening to people and hearing them out and letting them know what’s happening.
Stuart: We meet once a month with all the producers, and of course it’s their job to talk to their individual investors. I tend to not dig into that world, but all of our producing partners are part of the mix and they know what’s going on. And they’re not running the show, they know that. That’s the great thing, is you’ve got to have people who understand their role. And I’ve also brought certain of my co-producers in to play really important roles because they’re good at things. You want to take advantage of that.
Ken: I think of it as you’re the chairman of the board and you have board members around you, and some board members may have relationships that you don’t have.
Ken: Okay, let’s talk specifically about An American in Paris. Was An American in Paris one of those four shows that you opened the company with? Was it on the slate from the beginning years ago?
Ken: When did that bubble up?
Stuart: Five years ago, I was asked if I would like to consider a Gershwin property, if I would meet the people who ran the Gershwin estate, and I said “Sure.” I had a lunch, and the subject of this piece came up. And I’d say, like most people, I knew very little about it. I knew it was a classic MGM film from somewhere in the ’40s or ’50s, I couldn’t pinpoint the year. I knew Gene Kelly was the magnificent central creative force, and I knew it used Gershwin music. I did know it won an Oscar in 1950 for Best Picture, six Oscars, but ask me to tell you the story? I couldn’t do that. So I said, “It’s a compelling title, of course,” but the notion of just adapting a compelling title because it’s a title . . . more often than not if you don’t have a really good reason for doing it . . . a creative approach . . . if there’s not something that you say, “I know how to do that now in a way that hasn’t been done before,” you’re more likely going to end up with The Wedding Singer. And that’s not a criticism of that, it’s just really hard to take something that’s a successful film and put that film on stage. You have to have something else that justifies the emotional reason, the creative reason, the “now” reason. So I went and watched the film and my first reaction . . . I’m very good at this, I can watch things with no filter. I can just sit and watch the movie . . . I kind of went, “This movie is very shallow.” I mean you can love the dance sequences . . . it had this incredible 14 minute ballet that was really the defining piece of the film . . . but the story itself . . . all the people seemed too old for the parts. There was a kind of core dramatic story that didn’t make sense. There was no reason for a lot of the things that happened to happen, there was no emotional underlying reason. And then, when we went back and watched it a second time, my partner Van Kaplan and I, we actually saw something that really moved us, which was by simply moving the story from 1950 to 1944 and allowing the end of World War II to impact every character and every decision, everything changed. So, all of a sudden, Lise, the female character, who in the movie is not a Jewish girl, is living with Henri, a famous French Frank Sinatra type. Why she’s living with him? Why he’s in love with her and she’s not in love with him? Not explained. But all of a sudden, if Henri is a younger man who isn’t a star but aspires to a life that includes music, but lives in a family that’s been repressed by the war, and he and his family kept Lise safe, a Jewish girl during the war, all of a sudden her relationship to him and his to her make a lot of sense, and when Jerry meets Lise and falls in love with her, her obligation to Henri and the triangle it causes makes a lot of sense. So we were able to, fairly quickly, with the help of Craig Lucas, who we went to see with the idea . . . the idea was, the big idea: make it real. Set it in a real moment, on the edge of the end of the war and how that war affected everyone’s lives. So with that idea, we thought, “Now there’s a way to do it.” Then the second thing was, “What do you do about the ballet?” Because if the ballet had just been a scene, you might have said, “Let’s just go away from that. Let’s just do a show.” But the ballet was kind of the soul of the film, and we felt that there was no way to actually be responsible to the underlying material and run away from the ballet, but the ballet was kind of pasted on at the end. So our idea was that if there was going to be a musical about this we had to run headfirst into the ballet, expand the ballet, create a language for the entire show that includes ballet . . . and jazz and tap and Broadway . . . but ballet had to be the language, and if you’re going to do world-class ballet on Broadway you need a world-class choreographer. And if you want dance to be the medium that the show exists within, you probably don’t want a director that has a vision that is not dance-oriented working with a choreographer that can give you some dances. You want the dance to define the entire show if it’s going to culminate in something like a major ballet. So that shortened the list measurably. So we went to the Gershwins with our choices of what we wanted to do and they were reticent, quite naturally. “What if Chris Wheeldon directed?” “I understand him as the choreographer. Why would he be the director?” And we all went into it with an open mind and we developed the show over a period of time and Chris said, “I’m willing to go for it. Let’s see if we can make it work and convince them. And if they’re convinced, we’ll do it, and if they’re not convinced, I’ll step aside or whatever.”
Ken: So you did a workshop to get the rights?
Stuart: Well we got the rights to enable us to hire Chris and Craig and all the things we needed to do, we needed to control it. But we did not have Chris approved when we started the process. He was approved as choreographer, and we went through a reading period which took about, between rights and writing and all of that, maybe two years to get through the reading phase. And then they were supportive and they believed in his vision and then we did a full workshop because we needed, and Chris needed, to see the whole show. He had never directed on Broadway before. I can go back and tell you why I think he was the guy, but he hadn’t done this process so we did a full workshop in October/November of 2013 and that was definitive. The show wasn’t done, but you could see what the show was going to be. That’s when everyone approved everything. That’s when Chris said, “I’m willing to go forward.” Because he wasn’t sure he could do it either. It was the only time in my life I’ve ever worked on a project where I knew there was no guaranteed outcome at all. There’s no guaranteed success outcome ever, but there was no outcome that we were even going to do this show because the team wasn’t approved and the director wasn’t sure he could direct it and we didn’t know if it would work when we put it on its feet. And I went into it with a very open heart, probably because I felt the business was so hard that if we don’t just go for it, we’ll never know, and maybe it will be the last thing I ever do or maybe not. And it came together.
Ken: Let’s hope if it’s the last thing . . . I certainly hope it’s not . . . you’re working on it for a number of decades. So you developed the show, you did this workshop and then you decided to take it “out of town.” I’m a big believer in trying to find new places in this country to take it out of town and try it out. You took yours across the Atlantic and actually did your tryout in Paris. How did that come about?
Stuart: Well, on one level that’s insane, because you’re doing an English language musical in a French speaking country, overseas, and particularly in a country that has not much of a history of love of American musicals.
Ken: Or anything American.
Stuart: Yes, correct. The answer is that I knew that this title, which felt like a revival, probably couldn’t command the amount of money in capitalization that the show was going to require if I did it entirely commercially. So in my business plan, I didn’t want to capitalize at $15 million or $16 million. I actually didn’t think I could raise it. I might have, after the workshop, but I still think it wouldn’t have been a good investment at that number. So in order to keep the number closer to the $10-11 million area I knew we needed to partner with somebody. Obviously the natural partners are the best non-profit theaters in America. ART was interested, the Goodman was very interested, ACT wanted to do it. So I had a lot of people who were kind of interested, but I was introduced to a fellow named Jean-Luc Choplin by the Gershwins because Jean-Luc was also trying to get the rights to do the show in Paris. Now, backing up, Jean-Luc Choplin was a special advisor to Michael Eisner during the years that I worked at Disney so, when I was “introduced” to him, we knew each other. And Jean-Luc had become the artistic director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. And at the Théâtre du Châtelet, over the last ten years, he began introducing the canon of American musicals. Predominantly, just the top . . . they’ve never had them, so Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, West Side Story . . . and he would do one or two a year for 10-14 performances in English. He produces everything in the original language. Most of the cast would come from England, pretty much. The design teams and the directors would be from England, because they don’t really have that culture in Paris to do this. And little by little it caught on, and the French audience started to grow and the runs got a little longer and he felt that he was ready to try something that had never been done, which was a world premiere. I don’t think he would have done a world premiere that no one had ever heard of, and it didn’t hurt that this was called An American in Paris. It was just kind of a natural thing. It was hard, culturally. There were challenges. A big one was we almost didn’t do it because they couldn’t get their arms around the concept of previews. Literally, they wanted the first performance to be the press performance, and we just had to walk away. And we separated for about three months until we found a way to bridge the gap and they figured it out. There were certain things you could live, with but certain things you couldn’t. It’s one thing to have a text that’s not in the local language, which meant we weren’t going to learn everything we needed to learn until we got back to previews in New York, but it was another thing to be reviewed by the world media on your first run through, so to speak. I don’t know how many times you’ve done musicals, but usually the first preview is the first run through. So that was important but, other than that, it became a completely magical experience. We rehearsed in America, so a Broadway company. We brought 75 people to Paris. They funded just as they would have funded their own show in that period, just like the non-profits work. His budget for doing a three week run for a new musical, or any musical, a revival, in that period would have been X dollars, and he was willing to put that into the show as an enhancement, so to speak. Not as an investment, but as a non-profit does, and the difference of that money helped us to be able to fund the entire show. We built the show in Paris, that was their contribution. We built the costumes and the set. We built it for the Palace. We knew we were going to the Palace before we started building in Paris. And imagine the experience of the 75 people who get on the plane together and go over to Paris for three months to make a musical. It was magical, and hugely successful. To Chris Wheeldon’s credit, he didn’t buy the laudatory reviews as the work being finished. I suppose hearing from some friends and from us that we weren’t finished was also influential, but the reality is that we did get out of it what we wanted to get out of it, and we made enormous changes between Paris and New York, even coming off of very good reviews there, and then came and began previews and still had a lot of work to do but, again, knock on wood, during previews we did the work. And those were harrowing moments because you work on something for a really long time, and you’re two weeks from having the critics come in and certain scenes are still not working.
Ken: It’s funny, you talked about that preview period, because that was my next question for you. I remember the moment . . . and this happens, I find, every season when shows are happening . . . there’s a moment . . . you can feel it . . . when you know a show is working. You just feel and hear it from so many people, and obviously you start to see it in the box office. I remember there was a moment where, all of a sudden, bam! Tickets started to move like crazy. I saw it in the grosses but I would hear people saying “American in Paris!” Every ad meeting I went to. “What’s selling?” “No one’s selling tickets to anything! Except American in Paris is moving a ton of tickets.” Did it feel like that to you? Did, all of a sudden, things start to snap into place?
Stuart: Yes, it did. We had about a $5 million advance, which was pretty good when we started previews. By the time the Tony nominations came out we had gone up to about $12 million. That’s a pretty big jump. It was only six weeks between that period. So, yes, I think what happened is you did feel it. You felt it in the theater . . . although I will tell you that, the first two week of previews, we were in previews. Every night there was uncertainty and there were many changes every day. To the credit of our actors, some of whom had not been through this process before, it took them. But when it tipped you could feel it. You could feel the audience lifting off and, yes, it’s very special when that happens.
Ken: So you go from this show that tries out way out of town, you come in still uncertain, and all of a sudden things blow up. In addition to grosses going a little bit crazy you get a glowing set of notices on top of that and then, all of a sudden, you find yourself in this position. You turn around and you’re the big hit of the season. Then what happens . . . and, yes, I’m going to bring up what I’m sure is probably a very sensitive subject for you . . . you become the favorite to win the Best Musical Tony Award, where people like Ben Brantley is predicting that you’re going to win, I’m predicting you’re going to win . . . I told you that you were going to win, frankly, when I saw you at the show . . . and everyone else thinks it’s a lock. How did that make you feel when, all of a sudden, you were the favorite?
Stuart: I’ll tell you this . . . we were under the radar for a very long time. When we were in Paris and they were writing articles about the spring season, we didn’t get mentioned. And we thought, “How great. How great.” So, little by little, we were starting to be more and more on the radar, and I thought, “Oh, this is just perfect.” And it’s kind of true that when we opened we were still kind of the unexpected success of the season. But then our grosses were really high, and it was a very strong season. There were four nominees that were uniquely different than each other. And all of a sudden we were the front runner, and I think that was not a comfortable place to be. It was like you’re the horse and you’re on the rail and you’re leading, but someone else is coming up on your tail. We never know these things when we’re in them. My Monday morning quarterbacking is that people kept staying that it was Fun Home and An American in Paris that were going up against each other, and I think, in retrospect, it was Fun Home and the rest of the field that were going against each other, because I think there was something . . . besides Fun Home being a very beautiful musical, there was something incredibly compelling and brave about the subject matter, about the journey Fun Home had taken, about what was going on in our culture. And it had original music, of course, which we did not have, which, I think as a criteria to be Best Musical, I think you’re going to win some votes if you’ve got an original score. So I think what happened, ultimately, is that that was a show to believe in, and I think they had enough believers and I think the rest of us probably split up the other votes and you’ll never know if you win by ten votes or a hundred votes. I think in retrospect . . . I don’t know if you would say this, would you say this? In retrospect, now can you see that that was going to happen?
Ken: I can. I actually felt the beginning of a shift that last week. I always say during the Tony campaign in the last seven days you can feel something happening on the street, and I certainly felt that there was a Fun Home movement at that point, at the last second. I feel like when people are filling out their ballots they’re more willing to talk about it with people, about what they’re voting for, and you can hear that. So I do think that was probably it. I had a contender in the race too, I had The Visit, so I do think it was part of that field that was pulling away, but I still didn’t think it would happen. I still didn’t think there was enough. What I witnessed myself personally in that theater, and looking around and seeing what everyone else witnessed . . . your production is breathtakingly beautiful and leaves you with your mouth open so many times in the show that I thought it was going to happen.
Stuart: It’s where competition isn’t really fair, because I would also say that The Visit was very successful at being what it wanted to be, as Something Rotten! is very successful being what it wants to be. I mean if we were facing off An American in Paris against The King and I against Billy Elliot, then you’ve got big musicals. “Who do you like better?” But this was such uniquely different shows. I heard your podcast with Ben . . . he said he was optimistic about the season, that he felt like this season turned out pretty good, and I think that’s true too. I don’t think anybody knew this season was going to be very good four months ago, and now, all of a sudden. Look at it this way too . . . sorry for The Visit and sorry for It Shoulda Been You, but I think there are five musicals, including The King and I, that have come out of the season running doing grosses over $1 million . . . although Fun Home is less, but it can’t gross $1 million. So that’s a very successful season, and I think that says a lot about the diversity of the community and the openness, and I think we needed a season like this.
Ken: I think you’re 100% right. And Finding Neverland didn’t get any nominations, but it’s doing $1 million. A lot of big hits were put on the board this season. In looking at that Tony period, do you think these Tony campaigns that producers wage now have an effect? Every ad agency you sit down with says, “Okay, let’s talk about that Tony campaign.” Do you think that actually works? Did you have a campaign?
Stuart: Every team has diverse opinions itself about what it is. I would say yes. We try not to use the “C-word.” It’s not a campaign. Truthfully, the most important thing, actually, is to view it as a way to make your show popular because what you really want to do is you want to sell tickets. You want the audience to learn who you are and why they should care about you. How many of our biggest hits were not Tony winners? Kevin took an ad to explain that. But you could even look right now at Wicked, look at Aladdin, Beautiful. These are shows that didn’t win and there are plenty of them that become successful shows out of the season, so winning the Tony isn’t the only key to success although, for us, had we won, I think we might have taken off like a rocket. I think it would have made a difference. A year from now, I will hopefully be able to tell you we came out the same place anyway. But back to your question. I think there is an expectation that you’re telling a story, and I think the story you can tell is the story that’s authentic. And I can’t tell Fun Home‘s story, I can’t tell Something Rotten!’s story, so I have to tell our story. And the thing about our show was that it was a real labor of love and it was done in a very beautiful, classy way. And critics liked the show, audiences liked the show and I just needed to communicate that to the voters as best I could. the one unique thing we chose to do was an art book. We had this artist that we asked to join our team, more or less. Her name is Andrea Selby, and she came in we just gave her cart blanche to draw. And she drew hundreds of pictures from rehearsals all the way into production, and we made a beautiful book of that and we sent the book out to everybody. Is that hype-y? I don’t think so. I think we made the choice that we were the front runner. We were having good grosses. The best thing to do was to be elegant and tasteful. And whatever it was, our story . . . I can’t say if it worked or not worked, but we worked for us. I don’t think you can be absent in that campaign. The craziest things that we do is spend a quarter of a million dollars to perform on the Tony Awards. Let’s figure out a way, when you get that great success and you get nominated for a Tony, you don’t have to pay your own way to go to the party. We spent a lot of money just to have Tony night happen. That’s a big thing we all have to do.
Ken: I’m trying to get the producers of the Tony Awards on the podcast in the coming months. We’re going to ask them that specific question.
Stuart: Those guys are fantastic, but I don’t think they’re the ones who make that decision.
Ken: They’re not, unfortunately. Well obviously, despite not taking home a trophy that night, you’re doing unbelievably well over there, and I’m sure that will continue and I’m sure that tours are in the future.
Stuart: Yeah, we’ve got four. I’ll boast and say that we won the Outer Critics Circle award and the Drama League award for Best Musical. We won over 19 . . . I think 20 . . . awards this season so, you know what? The awards we got. We didn’t get the big one, but we got awards and we’re doing good business. As a producer, I’m proud of my show. I am so in love with what I get to see, standing in the back of the theater and watching audiences react. I’ve never had that experience at that level as an individual. I had it at Disney a little bit, I’ve had it with plays in Chicago. But being here in the big time, this is like the moment of my career so I’m very grateful. And you invited me on your show. What more could I ask?
Ken: What advice do you have for the kid that may be in Chicago right now, saying, “One day I want to be a big Broadway producer?” What’s the path now, years later, after you took a very unique path? What would you tell that kid to do?
Stuart: I would say that, unless you’re independently wealthy, you’d better have another thing that you do, besides produce, that gives you your economic continuity. Because the thing you need on your side is time and enough of an ability to marshal resources on a project-by-project basis to be able to bring something to fruition. If you’re working with the desperation of, “How do I pay my bills?” at the same time it’s almost impossible. How many guys started as booking agents? How many people started running a theater? You have to do something else. You just have to do something else if you’re not independently wealthy. So I would say embrace the industry, see where you can fit in, see where you can do well inside the industry. Make yourself valuable in that way, maybe even build a business, whatever it is that you can do while you’re also producing because, as the adage goes about producers, you can’t make a living but you can make a killing. So your job is to stick around long enough until you get a chance to make the killing. And then, at that point, you sometimes can transition. One successful show can keep a company going for ten years while you’re doing other projects. That’s a wonderful thing, but you need that first success to get a leg up in the business.
Ken: Okay, now the last question, which is perfect because you worked for Disney at one point . . . it’s my Aladdin genie question. Imagine right now that the genie pops into my office, knocks on my conference room door, comes in and says, “Stuart, you’ve done a wonderful job. I’ve seen An American in Paris and it’s breathtakingly beautiful and I want to reward you for that. I’m going to give you a wish.” What is the one thing, Stuart, that drives you so crazy, that keeps you up at night, that, “If only I could fix this on Broadway, if only this could be different I would sleep better?” What would be the one thing you would ask that genie to change in the snap of a finger?
Stuart: I would like each theater to have 50% more seats. And more comfortable seats and more leg room and better backstage facilities. I’d like everything about our venues to be improved for the quality of the work and the people who work in them. As much as I love the intimacy, we need more seats so that we aren’t forced to continue to raise ticket prices. and a show can live on Saturday night without having to live on Wednesday and Tuesday night, because you just can’t sell enough tickets. I think the biggest problem plaguing our business is what number we break even at each week. The landlords don’t have much patience for shows that are marginal, so you really have to make it. It’s feast or famine, and that’s not the best.
Ken: We’ve lost the middle of the market, I say all the time. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago, a show could hang on. Theater owners wouldn’t be nudging them out the door and inviting something else in if it was just doing okay.
Stuart: You have to wonder, really, how there’s so much capital that wants to be invested in the theater. Because it’s not like the successes overall, the number of hits, are greater. Still more money is lost every year than is made every year, I imagine, at least taking it on a season-by-season basis of new shows. But there’s just a big community that wants to do it, and the theater owners, generally, have their pick. Another thing would be to have more theaters. Have Manhattan add a few blocks to each end of the island so that we can add some more theaters, because it’s just a very closed community with the seating capacities and the footprint of the buildings and the number of buildings.
Ken: I’ll have to get de Blasio on the podcast and see what I can do. Well, luckily for you, you’re experiencing anything but marginal success over there at the Palace so congratulations on that. Thank you so much for spending your time with us. Thanks to all of you for listening. We’ve got some very cool people coming up. I will reach out to de Blasio and we’ll see if we can get him on. I don’t know, I doubt it. Tune in next time. Thanks so much.
Ken: Thanks again for listening, everybody. Don’t forget to check out DidHeLikeIt.com and subscribe so that you can be the first to know whether the New York Times liked the latest show or not . . . and it’s an app in the iTunes store. download it today! That’s DidHeLikeIt.com.
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.