Podcast Episode 77 Transcript – Stephen Byrd

Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the podcast. My name is Ken Davenport – thrilled to have a fellow Broadway producer on the podcast today. A big Producer’s Perspective Podcast welcome to Mr. Stephen Byrd. Welcome, Stephen!

Stephen: Good to be here, Ken.

Ken: Stephen is a producer of this year’s Tony-nominated Eclipsed, which is fantastic by the way. Previous Broadway productions include The Trip to Bountiful, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and many more. So, Stephen, let’s just start – when did you get bit by the theatre bug? How did this all begin for you?

Stephen: About fifteen years ago. It was actually a result of going to Hollywood. I was looking at doing non-traditional material with actors in Hollywood, because I saw that there was an opening between Tyler Perry and August Wilson, using traditional material that resonates within a broad community across a broad spectrum, such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Streetcar, and Hollywood basically said “We don’t need you to do this, we can pretty much do it on our own.” So then, when I went to make an offer for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Maria St. Just was the executor of Tennessee Williams’ estate. The character Maggie, the cat, was based on her and she said “Well, the definitive versions have been done,” and I said “I beg your pardon, they haven’t,” so we went back and forth, did a little arm wrestling, and she said “You know, if you can get Jimmy Jones I’d be interested.” I didn’t know who the heck Jimmy Jones was. I said “Of course I can, he’s a friend of mine.” She meant James Earl Jones. So she said “Well make me an offer,” and I didn’t know how to make an offer so I hightailed it over to, at the time, Colosseum Books on 57th and Broadway and bought every book I could find on producing and I found that they were all written by one guy, basically, the majority of them – Donald Farber.

Ken: His book is on my wall right behind us.

Stephen: Yeah, so I gave Don a call, he said “Come on over,” and we hit it off right away. Don just turned 93 and he still has tentacles in our legal affairs, although he’s other people as well. That being said, we made an offer to her, I said “I want both properties – Cat and Streetcar,” she said “Okay.” We made an offer and she accepted the offer and three days later she passed away. I went out and Don put me in touch with Lloyd Richards, at the time he was dean of Yale Drama School and did all of August Wilson’s plays, as it happens. We cast James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, and Laurence Fishburne, and Angie Bassett and so Lloyd was multitasking, he was teaching up at Yale as well as doing Seven Guitars for August Wilson and Cat as well. James had to leave to go do Verizon commercials and my mandate was I didn’t want to do the play unless it was an event so I said “I’ll just wait.” I got a call out of the blue from Debbie Allen who said “I understand you have the rights to Streetcar.” I said “I do.” She said “If I brought Denzel to the project could I direct it?” and I said “Of course you can!” So we met with Denzel and we hung out for a while and Denzel said “Make a deal. Contact my agent, Ed Limato, see what you can do, make a deal, I want in, I want to do it.” So I was in touch with Ed Limato and we had pretty much gone back and forth and we were thinking a term sheet, a letter of intent if you will, and then I get a call out of the blue from him and he says “You know, I don’t want Denzel to do this.” I said “Well, why?” He said “Have you read the trades?” I said “No, cut to the chase.” He said “Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lang are reprising the roles for Hallmark Hall of Fame, the TV show.” I said “What does that have to do with the diverse cast?” He said “I just don’t want him to do it.” So after that episode I kept the rights alive and then I went back to my origins on Wall Street. After that Hollywood debacle I decided to re-up again, financially, so I became a partner in a major private equity fund and then I happened to be dating an actress who knew just about everyone in the business and we went to an event and there was this actress by the name of Halle Berry there and so I asked Halle, I said “Would you come to Broadway?” and she said “I would love to,” and I ran right back and got the properties again and Halle went off and got pregnant, so I was all dressed and nowhere to go. After that, I decided full steam ahead and that’s when I put together the production that went to Broadway, which became the biggest grossing play at the time on Broadway with James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Terrance Howard. That’s basically the short version.

Ken: Your approach of casting all African Americans in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Stephen: We didn’t; we cast Daphne Rubin-Vega in Streetcar and we cast, what’s his name, Matthew Saldivar.

Ken: So your approach about casting a diverse cast in plays that are traditionally all white, or the majority of it, can that be done with any play or are these plays that you sought out very specifically because you thought this treatment of it would be more powerful than others?

Stephen: In reading about them, and I had seen them on many occasions, Tennessee Williams lived above, when he was in New Orleans, in the house he lived in, which was owned by a black woman, so he lived basically with a black family and he always said that he would love to write for black people but he didn’t know how to write for them, whatever that meant. His stories resonate – here’s a guy, Stanley, minding his own business, likes to hang out with the guys, go bowling, have a few beers, his wife is pregnant, he’s a happy-go-lucky guy and along comes this crazy woman called Blanche to disrupt his life. I mean that can be anyone’s life – someone who overstays their welcome. With Cat you have a guy who’s an alcoholic, dysfunctional, is he gay or isn’t he? That’s the mystery – is he, is he not? In New Orleans you have that flavor of creole and you have every mixture of everyone that you could think of, whereas the movie had one black guy selling hot dogs and that’s not the New Orleans I know.

Ken: I read somewhere that you were the only African American lead producer on Broadway and when I read that I was like “Really?” and then I was like “Oh yeah, that’s really the case.” What do you think about having that moniker?

Stephen: It doesn’t bother me, or it doesn’t affect me one way or another. I know it’s a rough business – you’re a producer, you know what we go through – and every time we do a new production it’s like starting a brand new business, I mean you’re starting everything from scratch, you’re raising money, getting a theatre, so everyone is welcome to do it if they want the challenge and it doesn’t just have to be ourselves. I think it’s a rough business if you don’t have a demonstrated track record. I was fortunate enough to have some of my ex guys from Wall Street come on board initially and they had to write it off if they didn’t make and they struck gold so they thought I was a genius. It’s a wide open field for anyone who can raise the money, get a theatre, put together the talent, get a great story that they’re passionate about.

Ken: What are some of the other things you learned from your private equity world that serve you well now that maybe those of us like me, by the way, who grew up in the theatre – this is all I’ve done – may not know? What are some of those things you’ve learned?

Stephen: Give headaches and not get them. I think there are basic business practices in the theatre business that’s been done that way over the years and it tends to perpetrate itself and so we try to come in with new ideas, not unlike yourself, and look at new analytics and another approach to the market. We’re fortunate because going after the African American market – not primarily, we go after the traditional theatre goer first and everything else is low hanging fruit – but we get two bites at the apple, because if I did an all-white production and we got a bad review, I’d be done. Here, I get a second bite at the apple because they want to go see the Lapita play or they want to see Terence Howard. They don’t care what the critics write, they just know what they want to see. It’s a huge market that’s been neglected for Broadway.

Ken: And about that market – what do you think we can do to get more diverse audiences?

Stephen: Outreach. I think that you have to, beyond the typical musicals, do outreach in the community. For example, I took the cast of ‘Eclipsed’ over to a church in Brooklyn which has a 45,000-member congregation. You get 10% of those people to come to theatre you’re doing pretty well and we’ve sold a number of tickets to a number of groups just from that particular church which is streamed every Sunday and Wednesday and they are in four other campuses, internet campuses. So there’s some broad outreach – we go to Harlem – and I think people, when they can touch and see and feel an actor, they feel close to them and you’ve reached out to them, it’s not just build a field and they will come. So those are some of the things that we’ve done that have been successful.

Ken: I love that the church is livestreaming – they’re more technologically advanced than Broadway.

Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. This is huge, I mean it’s 5,000 members that can be seated at every service, there’s three services plus the streaming and they have a campus out on Long Island as well. So, yeah, it’s a broad outreach but you have to do those little things for that particular audience to bring it in, as well as advertising and non-traditional media. A producer mentioned to me once about Motown, he said “We’re not getting enough of a black audience,” and I said “Well you’ve got to reach out to them.” There’s a gap in that area and doing projects you don’t get, for example with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, our parents and grandparents reference the movie with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, whereas the younger generation knows nothing about it at all but Terence Howard brought them to the theatre so they learned about a classic. So, demographically, you’re casting a thing where James Earl Jones is the anchor – you know, Darth Vader beating up on Miss Huxtable – you have, on the other hand, Terence Howard. So we try to look at it from a demographic standpoint in casting as well.

Ken: Tell me about Eclipsed. Obviously, very exciting, nominated this year.

Stephen: We had six nominations, I’ve been pinching myself six times. As I look at your wall, that’s what I want – some gold, some medals up here as well. Get some metal up there at the awards. Eclipsed is the story of five women who, during the time of the Charles Taylor war in Liberia, are captured and become sex slaves. It’s a story of empowerment, it’s a story that has a lot of humor, how they endure and exist, starring Lupita Nyongo, who was in 12 Years a Slave, and it’s the first play on Broadway directed by, written by and acted by all females and each member of the cast is from a different African country so it’s pretty unique in that sense. Speaking of marketing initiatives – the president of Liberia is coming in two weeks to see it, so we have a Liberian night, we have a Nigerian night, we have a Haitian night, so there’s outreach to all of those groups as well.

Ken: This is your first new play.

Stephen: Yes, the first time, I’ve never done a play before. It came to me because when we did Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom my partner, Alia, and I were not at the audition and Lupita had come to the audition and they offered her an understudy role to Condola Rashad and she turned it down and a week later 12 Years a Slave blew up so I reached out to her manager and I apologized profusely and said “I’d love to do something with her. I’ve got an idea,” it wasn’t Eclipsed, it was another project, and she said “Okay, I’ll take it to her.” At the time she was in London doing Star Wars. She called me back and she said “You know, you never asked me what Lupita wanted to do.” I said “What is that?” She said “There’s this project called Eclipsed.” So I said “Send it to me.” As fate would have it, my mentee told me later on that she was Lupita’s roommate at Yale and that I should be reading this play called Eclipsed that they did that she might be interested in, so that was two hits for Eclipsed. The third one came when Lupita took the play to Oskar Eustis at the Public Theatre in London. Oscar, in turn, reached out to my partner Alia and wanted to know if we would be interested in partnering with him, so it came in different ways to us and we ended up doing the project. Without Lupita we would have never done it because it’s a risky project under any circumstances and, given the economics of Broadway, people want to come out the theatre feeling better than when they went in, but this is a very, very funny and uplifting story about a very serious subject.

Ken: You’ve dealt with a lot of names that have come into Broadway, some for the very first time. What’s it like? How do you deal with the big Hollywood star that comes in? Do you find they enjoy it? What’s the biggest thing they have to learn when they get here?

Stephen: Discipline. When you’re shooting a movie you can do one to ten takes and go back to your Winnebago. Here, the discipline comes when the reality sets in that “Oh my God, I’ve got to do this eight times a week, the same role, before a live audience,” and a lot of them don’t have that discipline, so I surround them, to the best of my ability, with people who are theatre veterans and have a lot of experience that can give them that guidance and mentor them, if you will.

Ken: Who’s the one big star you would love to get here that you haven’t been able to get yet?

Stephen: Of course Denzel. Will Smith. Denzel will come back every five years. Sam Jackson is another great actor. Viola Davis. I think that, for me, I will be more focused, going out the next time, on seasoned actors who happen to do television and film, not unlike the British. The British, they do TV and film, then they’re able to do the West End, because there is talent there and Judi Dench or whoever, they keep coming back to the theatre. It’s a challenge with people who are not seasoned vets in theatre. They can be theatrically trained but to have that discipline is something else, it’s a challenge.

Ken: Now that you’ve worked on a new play as well as revivals do you have a preference? Do you want to do new plays? Or let me ask you this – if you could only do one, new plays or revivals, for the rest of your career, which one would you do?

Stephen: Musicals!

Ken: Answered like a true producer, I love it!

Stephen: Musicals – our next two projects, we’re going to be doing The Wiz and Black Orpheus. I just got a great script from Lynn Nottage on Black Orpheus, which is a great Brazilian classic, and George Wolfe is going to direct it, so it’s sort of like with musicals, not unlike your experience, I guess, with Spring Awakening, the musical is the star – you don’t know who any one particular Jersey boy is, you don’t know, The Phantom of the Opera they can cast every now and then a star but, beyond that, it still sells out every night. So musicals are the way to go for me, I think, after this challenge.

Ken: Let’s talk a little bit about the Tony awards – you’re in the midst of this crazy period that I call the Broadway cage match, which is when all these shows are vying for now votes and awards. Is there anything you can do? Do you believe in campaigning for an award?

Stephen: There’s a lot of competition and you’re throwing a lot of dollars out there and I just think you can do the best that you possibly can and let the play stand on its own. The Tony voters that come to see it will voice their opinion at some given point, I don’t know if the ballets go out this week, I would presume this week or next week, but there’s others producers that can afford to buy four or five pages at $80,000, $100,000 a pop in the New York Times – we really can’t continue to chase that, it’s economically not feasible, just roll the dice that you may get that award.

Ken: Let me ask you a question – I was talking to a writer friend of mine who wrote a play – a white writer friend of mine, I should say – about an African American family in Detroit, and I bring this up because you mentioned Tennessee Williams living below a black family. She did a ton of research, it’s about a family in Detroit in the ’60s, a ton of research, and before she started sending it out to people she got really nervous because, she said, ‘Should I be writing about an African American family in Detroit?’ What do you think about that? Can anyone write about anything?

Stephen: Sure. We read every day stories in newspapers written by white reporters so I don’t find that to be problematic.

Ken: And directors, same thing – does it make a difference if there’s a white director or an African American director?

Stephen: I mean other than George Wolfe, if you look at the landscape there’s not a lot of black directors on Broadway. Ruben Santiago-Hudson. There’s a very thin landscape out there in that respect so I would presume that it’s okay.

Ken: Anything that we could do to get more people of color writing and directing? I’m a big believer that that’s how we get more people of color on our stages, is that we get people to write the stories for them, and I just don’t think we have enough of them yet.

Stephen: I think CTI – I see a lot of African Americans taking the courses now, a lot more involvement through the Broadway League, certain initiatives to bring them on, mentors and funded interns, so there’s been a broad outreach across the board which wasn’t there when I first got into the business so I think, in time, you’ll see a lot more of that kind of development coming along and a lot of new faces.

Ken: I’m going to ask you a questions I’ve never asked anyone before – we’ve seen a lot of Hollywood actors come here but we haven’t see a lot of Hollywood directors come to Broadway. The film directors stay there; the actors are starting to do both things. Any idea why that is? Should we see more of them? Do you think they could cut it here?

Stephen: I think stage is a totally different world, I mean it’s a totally different displacing, as opposed to directing a movie. “Shot one, shot two,” it’s a totally different landscape. Getting to know the costume designers, getting to know the theatre, what’s right for the stage, timing, the projection, so I think it’s a totally different world and I have nothing but the utmost respect for theatre directors who pretty much know where to stay in your lane.

Ken: So you started as a private equity guy so obviously you’re a master of raising money – any strategy, any tips for all the producers out there?

Stephen: Keep having hits! It’s a challenge every time. I think that there’s a certain empathy that we get because we are African American producers, people want to support us. There’s the right subject matter, there’s the right casting, all of those elements bode well for raising money. It wasn’t hard to raise money with Lupita in it and this particular story about these women, of empowerment, and lo and behold I got calls from professional theatre investments, it wasn’t necessary for me to go out and pass the hat, if you will, for want of a better term. They wanted to be involved because they felt, after reading the script alone, and then with Lupita in it, that it was somewhat of an insurance policy, that there may be hope.

Ken: The “If you build it, they will come” philosophy.

Stephen: Yeah, and I say that guardedly because a lot of times that happens and they don’t come, so you have to reach out.

Ken: You’ve had shows that worked and, just like everyone else out there, you’ve had shows that haven’t worked – how do you talk to your investors when you have to say “This one doesn’t look like it will make it,”?

Stephen: Well they get daily reports so they can see the handwriting on the wall, so it’s not a matter of giving them a big Dear John letter. They see the reps on a daily basis so they can pretty much read the financial tea leaves.

Ken: Anything you have to do differently when you go to those people who maybe have lost once or twice to try to get them the third time?

Stephen: Not necessarily. I think that when you have new investors they definitely are turned off and shy away from ever coming back again if they can help it, so new investors are very difficult to resurrect or bring back or rehabilitate, if you will. It’s just they take it very hard, so we try to stick with, now, in the community, as you well know, there’s other investors, I mean professional investors, other producers who invest in each other’s shows, and they can take a hit and they understand the economics and the pros and cons of what we’re doing and it’s not foolproof and there’s no guarantees but all we can do is our best.

Ken: Alright, my last question. It’s called my Genie Question.

Stephen: Okay.

Ken: I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin came to your door, knocked on it and said “Stephen – and Alia, who’s fantastic, by the way – I want to thank you both for the incredible work you’ve done on Broadway – for the shows you’ve brought here, for the new audiences you’ve brought here, the new stars you’ve brought here – and I want to thank you by granting you one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that gets you angry, that keeps you up at night and would have you banging on the table right now? The one thing that gets you so mad that you would ask this genie to wish away.

Stephen: Well it depends on the show.

Ken: You only get one wish.

Stephen: It changes on every show. It changes on every show.

Ken: What’s the one thing on Eclipsed?

Stephen: I would hesitate to say it because of potential litigation or offending someone.

Ken: Well think generally, just about your experience here, especially coming from the private equity world. What about it just doesn’t make sense for you and gets you mad and you wish could be different?

Stephen: Lack of discipline. Lack of respect for the craft and the discipline of appearing before a live audience every night and what you have to do and what your responsibilities are. That incenses me, when actors disrespect that, in a very big way, and then they run for cover under the cloak of a manager or an agent who runs interference for them, so it becomes somewhat problematic. That has been my biggest gripe.

Ken: I want to thank you so much for all the work that you do. I’m no genie but I’ll thank you.

Stephen: Thank you.

Ken: No wishes coming but my thanks and the thanks to everyone listening. Thanks to all of you for listening – don’t forget to subscribe and leave us a nice, juicy review if you can on iTunes and we’ll keep bringing you great people like Stephen Byrd. Thanks so much!

Stephen: Thank you, Ken.

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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.