Podcast Episode 95 Transcript – Randy Weiner

Ken: Hello, everybody. You’re listening to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I’m Ken Davenport. I’m very excited for my guest today and that’s because you know how I like to say that the theatre is ten years behind every other industry out there? Well, I think our guest today thinks ten years ahead of every industry out there. He is also what I call the leader of the immersive theatre revolution. His name is Randy Weiner. Welcome, Randy.

Randy: Ken, it’s great to be here

Ken: Randy is one of the creators of The Donkey Show, which actually helped inspire me to create my first show, The Awesome ’80s Prom. He also produced the Drama Desk award-winning premiere of Sleep No More here in the city. He created Queen of the Night at the Paramount Hotel, he is the co-owner of the super exclusive nightclub theatre secret society known as The Box and his creative fingerprints have been all over a host of projects for everyone from Radio City, big casinos in Las Vegas, major corporations and a whole host of others. Randy, you have a very interesting theatrical career – how did it begin?

Randy: How did it begin? Where do I even begin? I’m going to tell you the whole story just because you know all the people. So I grew up in New York City and my father loved theatre, like he would take us to see four shows a week, so you would see a matinee on Saturday, you’d see a night show on Saturday, you’d see a matinee on Sunday, every little thing he could squeeze in, it was crazy, it was really crazy, and to this day that’s the way my father wants to interact with us, he’s like ‘Let’s go see a show together,’ so he likes to sit in the dark in silence and watch the show. As a young person I think we all try to revolt against my parents, it just wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my time, but what I learned or what I realize now is that I know so much about musical theatre, I know so much about downtown theatre. To his credit, he would take me to anything that was on TDF, he would take me to this place called Equity Library Theatre when it was around, I saw everything, crazy revivals in some loft in SoHo before SoHo was a fancy place you go, when SoHo was actually a dangerous place, and we’d be two guys sitting on tree stumps in an audience of fifty which was completely empty except for the two of us and some guys running, screaming around us. Every ridiculous theatre, we would go there. I was some little kid seeing these gay Fantasia and I’d be like eight years old, so I really saw everything so somewhere deeply encoded in me is where all that experience ended up. But I didn’t like it. I couldn’t say that I liked it, I was just a goody two-shoes kind of kid so I’d go along with my father, whatever he said we would do. But when I was in high school I was really into sports and I got injured. I went to an all-boys school where it was all about grades and sports, it was kind of heaven for me because all I had to do was study and do sports, I had no social life, I wasn’t interested, I was the ultimate nerd, but I got injured and I didn’t know what to do with myself and a guy on my team said ‘Why don’t you go to this girl’s school and you can always get cast because they’re so desperate for boys.’ I am truly the worst actor, I mean truly, like people are probably thinking ‘Oh, Randy’s exaggerating,’ but no, if you saw me act I’m horrible. I’m so in my head, wondering what I’m doing, and also I have a terrible memory – every aspect of acting – if you gave me five lines to remember and I had a week I couldn’t remember them. So, anyway, I go out, audition for the show and I get cast, of course, they’re doing Wonderful Town’ and there are four policemen roles but I’m policeman number five doing a conga and my current wife was at that girl’s school in high school and she was, of course, the star of the show and for some reason it was like shooting fish in a barrel because I’m one guy with all these girls so I get my pick of the girls and of course I chose my wife, and if you saw what I looked like you’d be like ‘Wow, Randy, that was really fish in a barrel because you really outclassed yourself,’ but that’s circumstance, opportunity, you take advantage of the cards you’re dealt. So I got together with Diane and Diane loved theatre so suddenly I had this dark secret in my life, that I knew all about theatre, had tremendous value and I knew all these things about theatre, I knew how to go to TKTS, I knew everything, so we’d go to see shows and I could speak very knowledgably about everything, it was very impressive to Diane, and it was stuff that I wasn’t even aware that I knew, it’s kind of like if you’re Jewish – I say this to my kids, because they’re like ‘You don’t learn anything at synagogue,’ so I’m like ‘Kid, it just seeps in. You can’t help but learn all those tunes, it’s a very interesting kind of knowledge, it’s a, I think, more valuable kind of knowledge.’ So she’s my girlfriend and we go to college together and we’d go and see shows and talk about it afterwards and that was sort of the way we interacted too. Then when we graduated, I was really into hip hop music also, growing up – I’m old, I’m 51 years old now, so this is like high school, listening to Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang and literally my first date with my wife was at a Run DMC concert – literally Run DMC’s first concert, it was like ‘We’ve got these two kids from Queens coming to Manhattan. Introducing Run DMC!’ So when I was at college there was this little group of white Jewish kids who were into hip hop and I was like ‘I want to be in hip hop but I’m not talented as a rapper but maybe I can do a show,’ I don’t know why I thought this, ‘I’m going to do a play and we’re going to use hip hop music in it,’ and, wow, look at Hamilton, I don’t want to talk about it. I will talk about it afterwards. So we did a hip hop musical, my college roommate and I, so I went to Harvard so it was a huge success and the way you define a huge success at Harvard is it was so big we toured it to Yale. So we took the thing down to New Haven and we did this hip hop musical – again, we’re so far ahead of our time. This is like 1988 and MC Hammer doesn’t exist yet. So we did the show, it was such a big hit, skip to two years later, my roommate and I get out of college and we’re like ‘Let’s do another hip hop musical, it was so successful,’ so we put together this hip hop musical, we cast it by going out to these clubs and if there was a kid who was a good dancer we would go up to him and give him a flyer. When I look back at what we did, those were dangerous, crack-filled times and we were just walking the streets, going up to any random person in a club who looked interesting to us and we put together this show just out of complete ignorance. ‘We have to pay people? No, we’ll convince them to do this, it will be so fun!’ So we go to all of these people and we’re getting Wyclef Jean, who I don’t know if people even know who he is, he was in this group the Fugees, and Lauryn Hill who was also in The Fugees – how did they meet and create the Fugees? My show, ‘Club 12’! So it was such a nascent time and we were just right on the cutting edge of it. We did the show, it was a humongous hit again, all these young people, like ‘Holy crap! This is crazy!’ and all these Hollywood people came, like Quincy Jones and Irving Azoff and my roommate and I were just like ‘This is crazy!’ We would come home and we’d have answering machine messages like ‘Hi, this is Disney,’ and all this craziness. It never dawned on me that I was going to do theatre as any sort of profession but somehow we were in the business, we were getting offered all this money, getting offered to fly out to LA to work on these shows. I remember going to Quincy Jones house, ‘So what’s the movie you really want to make?’, and I’d be like ‘I have no idea. I think I’m going to med school in a year,’ the whole thing was completely random. So we were in Hollywood for like two years, we wrote all these shows, but my wife was doing theatre and I kind of missed her and I had a big agent who’s now like a partner, it’s the weirdest thing when I talk to him now because we were these guys that were into hip hop, these Harvard guys who were going to write comedy, but I didn’t have any aspiration to do that all, so when I left – I’ll never forget it, because my wife was trying to make a theatre company in Wisconsin, of all places, with this guy, Paul Sills, who started Second City, he had a summer house in Wisconsin, she’s very clever, my wife, she was like ‘I’ll go to Wisconsin and we’ll be the only game in town, we’ll get all this funding,’ so she was doing that and she was like ‘Randy, we’ll never see each other,’ this is my childhood, high school girlfriend, so I was like ‘Okay, I quit,’ like cold turkey on Hollywood, and my agent will never forget it, he was like ‘What? You’re going to Minnesota?’ and I was like ‘No, no, Wisconsin, James.’ He’s like ‘Whatever! You’re crazy!’ So I went and we started this. Going from being a little Jewish guy playing basketball all winter long with the Baldwin brothers and all these other little Jewish guys so I felt like I was actually talented – and I’m looking at you, Ken, so I know you can relate to this – I’d play there, make all this money, I would send the checks out, I didn’t even get a place, I would just send the checks home to my mom and my mom would deposit them, like ‘What is this for?’, I was like ‘I don’t know!’ because everything was in development and nothing happened. I think that was frustrating too, like everything was in development, nothing’s happening, this is boring, because I didn’t care about the money at that point, even though I care about it now but that’s another story. So we started this theatre in Wisconsin, my wife and I, just doing crazy shows. Whatever place was open, we would do a show there. We did a bar play with a local bar cover band, we did shows in Green Bay, part of Lake Michigan, this awesome crazy Beethoven experimental piece where half the people are  a hundred yards out in the water and a bunch of kids are running on the sand, blasting Beethoven, it was just doing all these random fun things, I just had a blast. I think that was the happiest I ever was because it wasn’t financial, we were just doing things, it was always interacting with the audience, and then my wife decided she wanted to go back to Columbia to get her MFA so I kind of tagged along, landed in New York, I’m like ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do now?’ because I had done this with her for three years. Then I got onto the internet and I don’t know how I did it, I just think people had gumption, you know, looking at you, Ken, you’ve got gumption, I was just like ‘I’m going to make an internet company,’ so I made this internet company and we would make websites and I didn’t know how to do that, I just felt the internet was exciting. I’m always interested in what’s exciting. Again, I wouldn’t say I was ten years ahead of my time, but I was ten years ahead of my time with that one because it’s like 1995 and we’re going to Time Warner and telling them about websites and I kind of enjoyed it, actually, because it was kind of being messianic, because I would be like Jesus, trying to convert people, do you know what I mean? To this thing, the web, that’s so incredible and you’d go to Time Magazine, they’d be like ‘What is it? Like a magazine?’ and I’d be like ‘Yes!’ and you’d go to meet New Line, ‘What is it? A place we can show films on?’, I’d go ‘Yes!’, the music places, ‘Jukebox?’, ‘Yes!’ So I actually really did enjoy that and we made this very successful company because there was no competition – again, I like to be in places where there’s absolutely no competition. Then I’m trying to think what happened. Okay, so I’m doing the internet company, a ton of employees, it was crazy, then I was still dabbling with my wife because she was at Columbia doing shows and I had this idea and I go ‘I want to do this show,’ because I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I thought A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the most clever plot, I was like ‘I want to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I want to set it in a nightclub in the ’70s because it’s about drugs and love and youthful energy and passion,’ so one morning, literally, my wife woke up, I was like ‘Diane, I really want to do this thing, we’re going to do this show,’ so she was like ‘Okay, okay,’ so we put together this show and, first off, I was going to write the lyrics, I remember, ‘I’m going to write disco songs!’ and then I started studying disco songs, like ‘Well, this song is perfect. I can’t possibly do better than that, so let’s just put the songs together.’ I had never really seen a jukebox musical, I think, they weren’t as big back in the old days. Maybe I saw them but I didn’t appreciate them, maybe it was an old Irving Berlin thing where it was songs that just got cobbled together but I didn’t understand, so I thought I’d really created something entirely new, what a brilliant idea to take old songs and sort of reposition them and create stories around them or characters around them! So I did that at a nightclub for a long time and I just sort of got kind of dragged back into the theatrical world and I sold my part of the internet company – stupidly, because I think two years later it was worth literally ten times as much, it was whatever that was, like 1999, it was even closer, I’m trying to make myself feel better by saying it was two years, it was probably a month before the internet goes nuts and all my other partners made all this money and, you know, whatever – then I just started doing this show at a nightclub and I think my whole life’s been randomly opportunistic because we decided to do The Donkey Show in a nightclub because that just seemed cooler, to actually set a show in a nightclub, rather than make a theatre a nightclub, make it happen in a nightclub, so we had to be very close with the owner of the nightclub, like super close, and his family was like this incredible family that had run the Copacabana, it was a long line of these nightclub people, so he just taught me everything about nightclubs and it was the funniest thing, I was like a biochemistry major at Harvard and I’m best friends now with this guy who owns nightclubs and we would talk at night about the Bible, about Roman armies, this guy, John Steel was his name, and I just loved that guy and he would just teach me things about how the bar work but he adored us because we took his club where he would have hip hop nights where we would have to have bulletproof vests and suddenly we’re doing The Donkey Show, which is all bachelorettes, as you know only too well, and it’s constantly driving traffic, it’s not like promoters where you’re hit and miss, it just got this footprint so every night it was very predictable what his income would be and that’s all a club owner wants so literally he gave me the keys to his place, he was like ‘Randy, you’re in charge of this club,’ and he actually said an interesting thing to me, he was like ‘The way clubs have turned out to be is it’s a club with four speakers and a DJ and some famous people. That’s not a club to me,’ so he kind of loved shows and also, what was funny to us, he would always talk about ‘I was Hal Prince’s bodyguard,’ so that was one of his great claims to fame, he would always be like ‘Yeah, I was Hal Prince’s bodyguard,’ so that made him seem like he understood what we were going through. So I just got to know the club business because he really put me in charge of everything – I was suddenly in charge of the bar, I don’t even drink, it’s the funniest thing because I didn’t know how all this worked, I literally don’t drink, so people talking about whiskey, I don’t know what that is, I don’t know what bourbon is, I literally don’t know what they are. People always treat me, because they don’t know it’s someone else’s bar, so I’m just like ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but I ended up getting sponsorships for a while from all these different groups and I had the key so I’d just go ‘Hey, little group, do you want to do your show?’ and soon people were reaching out to me, they’d be like ‘Randy, we have ae show we think would be good in a club,’ and I’d always say ‘Listen, if you think your show will be good in a club, don’t be under a delusion, it has to be a show that doesn’t try to turn the club into a theatre, it has to be a show that works as a club,’ so you can’t tell me ‘Oh, my guy is running around with a thing of ice to set up the bar, but shh for this part,’ it’s got to work in a club, which is interesting, who can really understand that, who can deal with those circumstances? It’s kind of amazing, all the people we’ve worked with – we worked with Rachel Chavkin, she was our intern – we worked with the Civilians, all these different groups would come in, it was like we had a sort of fringe festival going on there all the time. Then, from doing that, though, the owner was getting all the bar, I was like ‘Wow, I’m bringing all the people in here, I’m dealing with the economics of a show which is a much tighter margin than the margin on alcohol,’ and also, if you buy a ton of it, it doesn’t spoil. If I have a show and no one shows up, you spoil it. All those actors, I just wasted all that money and I don’t get to say ‘Okay, guys, I paid you, will you please do it again when someone actually wants to consume it?’ versus the alcohol. So I got really interested in owning a club and he had taught me so much and he was very supportive and at that same time the High Line was getting big, so that club where The Donkey Show was, one day it got knocked on the door, ‘Give this letter to the owner,’ so I gave the letter to the owner and the owner opened it up and was like ‘Holy crap,’ because it was for millions of dollars, it was literally like a taxi stand, the roof leaked on a rainy day, there were buckets everywhere, and suddenly it was worth millions of dollars because the air rights increased because  the high line gave all these sort of rights to their neighbors and he was just barely in that so he got this buyout, it was literally July 24th, nothing, July 25th, ‘See ya, guys!’ So at that point I was also opening a club and I think he felt a little bad for me that he just kind of kicked us out so we created this thing called The Box which, again, was a theatrical kind of club. I’m always interested in a hybrid – is it a club, is it a show? I think you want to honor both, you want to have qualities that make a good show but also the qualities that make a good club and you can’t disappoint the audience on either side. So we started this thing, The Box, and we do all these variety shows and I’m partners in it with this guy Sam Hammerstein, who’s of the illustrious Hammerstein family, but he, me and our third partner, this guy Richard Kimmel, we’re always looking for a different relationship between audience and performer and a different way to frame what theatre could be. Why is it when you go to a club you have to go through a red box, whenever you go through a theatre you’ve got people, ‘Please come to my show!’ How do you create that kind of sex appeal and demand? So we were successful at The Box and now it’s been going on for ten years. We opened another Box in London, that’s six years old, and I got to know an audience that was upscale and interested in progressive things so I was like ‘I want to find something new for them’, and I got introduced to the guys from Punchdrunk who do Sleep No More and I was lucky because a lot of people were starting to sniff around, I was starting to get a profile in London, but they had all seen The Donkey Show so they were like ‘Oh, Randy actually gets doing something that’s really unusual but knows how to make it commercial,’ so I really think at that point that really became my niche, like how do we take something that feels very progressive, which is what The Donkey Show was, which is what The Box is, I created those shows but suddenly these people who were not me, who saw me in this light, I thought ‘Oh my God, I guess that’s I am now, I’m the guy who knows how to take these strange things and re-contextualize them, reframe them and suddenly you can change a lot,’ because at The Box you can go down the street, pay 15 cents to see this, but suddenly at The Box, the way we framed it, you can buy $10,000 bottles of champagne. So we were successful. At first, you can imagine, I’m reaching out to raise money, ‘Yeah, so we’re doing this thing, it’s six floors, all these rooms and people running around in masks chasing you,’ it was completely, completely crazy but we were able to, and I would just say ‘I’m going to charge $100 a ticket,’ and they were like ‘What?’ and it’s because what’s fun about what I do versus Broadway is I get to help define the experience by choosing a price point. I’m not locked into anything, there’s no norm, no one else is doing anything where you wear a mask and run after a character, so it was interesting because I think people thought ‘Well, that would be fine for $40,’ and I went ‘No, no, no. This is an elite aspirational thing where we’re going to charge $100 a ticket,’ and they’re going ‘No, no way, it’s impossible,’ and I was like ‘We’re not going to do any marketing for it,’ and they said ‘No, we can’t do it’, to the point where I literally had to lie on the papers I sent out because I was sending them out and having zero marketing and they’d be like ‘How can you do this thing with zero marketing?’ and I said ‘Well the key to this is it’s so extraordinary,’ which it really is, ‘people are going to talk about it,’ and the people would be like ‘Don’t you need money? Don’t you need to make some way, at least, for people to communicate with other people?’ and I was like ‘You know something? There’s this incredible thing that’s billions of dollars and it’s really good at getting the word out, it’s called Facebook, so all that has to happen is if I do something extraordinary someone can go home, put on their Facebook page ‘I love this show’ and immediately 200 people know about it. I don’t need to reinvent Facebook, I don’t need to take an ad. If the thing’s awesome, everyone is going to know about it,’ so that was a big thing that I would argue with people about and I just think, for so many reasons, that’s the key to the success of that show because it comes from people, there’s never a moment where I’m blasting out, you still have a sense of discovery with that show and that sense of discovery leads people to own it and really feel special and feel like evangelists as I think I was for the internet. I think tapping into that evangelism in people is something I really connect with, when they’re passionate about something, how do we let the audience be part of that passionate community?

Ken: So let me ask you a question about that, specifically, because I remember you mentioning this at your TedxBroadway the first year, your first speech. So Just so everyone is clear, Randy’s marketing budget for ‘Sleep No More’ was zero.

Randy: It continues to be.

Ken: And it continues to be. Do you think that model would ever work for a Broadway show?

Randy: Absolutely. I think people are so scared and so used to doing things – and you know this as well as I do – people are so used to doing things just the way they’ve been done and so afraid to do things differently and I think Broadway suffers because it’s like a little ecosystem, we’re used to working with these big marketing companies and everyone is that little beast in the jungle that needs the other people so it’s all related and I just think the problem with Broadway – and why I’m terrified of Broadway – is you’ve got forty shows in this very confined area which are essentially doing the same thing, because I’m so crass about shows, like I see them as more of an experimental theatre person, like what happens? We’re all sitting in a row because it’s what me and my dad did for all these different shows, and then all of a sudden the lights go out and some lights start to come up on the stage and the curtain goes up and then you laugh or you cry, you watch the people dance and get excited, and at the end you all stand up and give a standing ovation. That’s what happens in every single show and you might say ‘Randy, that’s so cynical,’ but no, that’s what we’re paying for, to laugh, cry, have our heart beat a little faster when someone dances and then stand up and applaud the show, and of course ourselves, that we watched the show and gave it a standing ovation. So if you look at it like that, all these shows are fungible, and you see it, every year there’s one show that does really well – you know the stats better than I do but you get the idea – there’s one show that’s an outlier that does really, really well, or one year maybe it only does really well, then there’s a show that does well, then there’s a show that maybe does good, and then every year those cycle through in a very predictable fashion, the really well show is now only doing good and the good shows are all gone and new shows take their place, so no one really cares about the shows. You could say ‘Well, they’re keeping up with the times, they’re refreshing themselves like the skin on our body, you slough off some skin and some new skin takes its place,’ but it’s all just skin. So I’m trying to do elbows or ears, just something completely different, but I think within the skin world someone’s got a really, really nice skin, like Hamilton, and I think Hamilton maybe has a freckle on it and some hair so that differentiates it enough, like did they really need to spend money marketing? I don’t think so. You might say ‘Well you need it,’ because everyone’s giving the same reasons, you need it for that whole whatever it is, mind space or whatever, but did they need advertising on that? I really doubt it. I’m sure Jeffrey Seller is going to shoot me now.

Ken: No, it’s interesting, actually. I would say Jeffrey is one of those people that advertises less than others because I think he buys into this concept. I think people probably fight him for more advertising dollars on a show than he wants to give.

Randy: So it’s just a question of degree. So could he have gone down to zero? Absolutely he could have gone down to zero. I don’t think there’s anyone buying it at this point – at other points you might need it because you are competing. There’s some great book about this, I can’t remember what it’s called, about fighting in a bloody pool or just being off by yourself and Broadway, like I said, that’s a tough fight and I don’t ever want to get involved in that because I’m too chicken so I’d rather just be off in my own little niche.

Ken: In your story you said something, at the very beginning, which I think is probably still happening to you – you did those first couple of shows and all of a sudden, Quincy Jones is on your answering machine and Disney’s calling. We’ve been friends for a long time so I’ve heard some of these stories from you and what’s great about you is you’re always surprised, like ‘Ken, you’ll never believe who called me!’ That seems to happen a lot – again, this is why I believe you’re ahead of the curve in terms of what people want. Why are they calling? What is it about your shows or the things you create that people are tapping into and saying ‘I want whatever’s next from him,’ What is that thing? Can you put your finger on it?

Randy: Well I think I really do try to be progressive and I think so much of the community either gets stuck in doing what’s traditional and I try to break every rule, if that makes sense, and I think that’s so refreshing for audiences. I was just talking about this – we did this in Queen of the Night, we had a $200 ticket so you’d have dinner, you’d watch a show, it was a novel idea called dinner theatre. So you’d watch a show, get dinner, $200, get a certain type of food, $500 gets some cooler food, $1,000 it was a mystery what we were going to give you, so there’s people buying $1,000 tickets.

Ken: And people bought them?

Randy: Absolutely

Ken: Not know what they were going to get.

Randy: No, and that was part of the fun of it. $1,000 to buy a ticket, you’re looking for something that’s unpredictable. All these people, they’re used to, if they’ve paid $1,000 their assistants would call, ‘Are you sending over the limo to pick them up?’ and we’re like ‘No, we’re not,’ and we’d say ‘But we do have a special entrance for them,’ so the special entrance for them would be the way the busboys came in, so they would go through this slimy entrance, there would be steam from the washing machine room going, and then they’d go down and they’d end up in the kitchen and when they get there we put an apron on them and we’d give them a tray of hor d’oeuvres and say ‘Welcome. You will now take this tray and you will go outside and feed all the other guests and when you’re done come back and we will give you a special gift but do not come back, do not try to come back, until your whole tray is completely empty,’ and these people were so excited and that speaks to my whole MO. I think every negative is a positive; everything that people say is impossible is an opportunity to do something different. The fact that people feel the need to advertise, if I say ‘I don’t advertise,’ that alone makes you think ‘Well he’s really confident or he must have something really great,’ everything starts to shift. So my whole thing is just zigzag through life. I do this thing and then I try to do something else and I really learned that from The Donkey Show because this is the greatest gift I give myself every day, is to remind myself to remember the rule of The Donkey Show. So The Donkey Show was set in a nightclub with disco music so everyone was like ‘Oh my God, you’ve broken a whole new format here. We’re going to do The Donkey Show now with rock music and it’s going to appeal to the rockers,’ so we tried The Donkey Show with rock music and, you know something? It was fine. It was totally fine but the audience didn’t love it because it wasn’t new and that’s when I learned the power of new and progress. I learned, thank God, at a very young age and after that it was always like ‘Well, what’s the next thing?’ so I was like ‘I am not doing the next thing, I’m doing the next, next thing,’ so I think that appeals to people and I think maybe there probably is a smart way to make money by doing the next thing, you can imagine a Broadway of Sleep No More-esque things, but it’s a different thing from what I’m doing, I’m trying to do always the next thing and I just know it has a lot of appeal, but truthfully I bet on immersive theatre, because you talk about my life and the calls I get, and the calls I get now are such a shocking level, Ken, you can’t imagine the calls. I mean you can probably imagine, but I have private equity firms calling me saying ‘We believe immersive theatre is the next…’ and they’ll often say Cirque de Soleil because they just need something to talk about. They’re like ‘You have this opportunity now to grow into something that could be worth billions of dollars.’ Now, when I think about how I started doing this, on the street, literally doing street shows, I never thought this would at all be an outcome, although looking back on it, it all seems predictable, and I think maybe Sleep No More was a point of inflection because it had such scale and it had such a profile, footprint, in the media, it just made everyone take notice of this thing, that immersive theatre, whatever you want to call it, experiential theatre, and what’s interesting to me, just being older, doing it, just looking back, I’m like ‘This has existed forever. People would say ‘Wanna get high?’ Come on. Since The Awesome ’80s Prom.’ People love this thing, they just love it, and it’s funny that no one gets involved in it at scale the way I do and I don’t know what that is. Maybe it’s because my mind and heart are just so in it. Maybe people are now – I’m constantly hearing people, like ‘Oh, this guy could be a studio head and now he’s creating an immersive theatrical space,’ but I think there’s a lot of room for more immersive theatre and I believe the whole market raises all the boats, it’s like a tide that’s raising everyone. I don’t know, it’s an extraordinary thing where it’s like a new medium, so I think that’s very appealing now to these people, these investment people, they’re like ‘This is a new medium and you’re the leader in the medium so maybe you can take over more of the mindscape.’

Ken: Just like the owner of the club gave you the keys to the theatre years ago and said ‘Do whatever you want,’ what would you do if one of the Shubert’s said to you ‘Here’s the keys to one of our Broadway theatres, do what you want with it.’? What would you do with it?

Randy: I’m not going to answer that directly. I’m going to say this – business would really suffer because no Shubert is going to that because those guys are crushing it on Broadway, so that’s a hypothetical that I’m going to address by saying all malls are just dying, they are just dead, and I am the worst perpetrator of death for these people because I used to pretend I’m looking and I might actually buy something but now I don’t even pretend, I’m like ‘Let me try on a size 11 shoe, 11.5 and a 12. Okay, the 11.5 fits, great, good bye!’, versus ‘I want to show it to my wife.’ I used to make up some reason, now I’m just like ‘I’m out of here,’ and I will literally sit there brazenly looking it up on Amazon at the same time to have it sent to my house, I don’t have to carry it, everything about buying on Amazon is better, it’s cheaper, so they’re all suffering. A lot of them came to me, they’re like ‘Randy, we need to be more entertaining. Can you figure out a way to take our malls and turn them into entertainment experiences so that people come to the mall and they want to be there for entertainment?’ and they’re fantasizing that’s going to work out to retail sales. I’m going to talk about retail sales, I’m just going to talk about the fantasy of delivering entertainment to a mall, I’m like ‘Guys, your malls are not made for an experience. Your malls are the anti-Randy Weiner show setting. Boxes that are all laid out.’ So when you talk about a Broadway theatre, why would I do that? Again, Randy Weiner, great historical theatre person, there was a show, Crowbar that Matt Weldon did, it’s funny, because people look at me in theatre, they’re like ‘This guy, he’s just some weirdo doing stuff on streets and in clubs,’ but I’ve got crazy knowledge of theatre, so he did a show and it was about a haunted experience of a theatre where there are ghosts and things like that. I definitely wouldn’t do that but it was fun, just being in that theatre and looking around behind you. people are doing a lot of immersive stuff, ridiculous, like stuff’s happening all around you, but I just think a theatre, it’s not for me, so I would say ‘Thank you, Shubert’s, I really appreciate that, but if I was going to do a show in a Shubert house I would do a show for a Broadway audience,’ because also neighborhoods matter too and I think to come to Broadway if you’re an immersive fan, it’s a beast of an experience.

Ken: I’ve always thought that the younger, the next generation of theatre goers, seems to be the current generation of immersive theatre, although it’s getting older, for sure, now – but what happens in twenty years? Do you think Broadway will still be the same or will the audience that you’re really cultivating and developing right now, that loves and craves this style of entertainment, will they want that from Broadway? Do you think they will reject the Shubert’s rigidness?

Randy: Yes – this is a Randy Weiner futurist moment, which I love doing.

Ken: That’s why I asked this question. I want the future – tell me the future!

Randy: Sure, here’s the future. Here’s exactly what’s going to happen – write it down, put it in a lockbox, it will be exactly like this. So, in twenty years, here’s exactly what’s going to happen, people, so listen carefully – Broadway will be crushing. Broadway is the absolute greatest business in the world, because the way I perceive Broadway is the greatest real estate story ever because you’re selling timeshares of seats where you sit for a certain number of hours and you have a view of this thing and then you give up your timeshare and some other schmuck comes in and pays the same. You don’t really get anything other than seats for three hours, that’s what you bought, and that’s never going to change because there’s a great thing called Broadway shows that are unbelievable with unbelievably talented people and you want to engage with them and I think people are always going to want to engage with them. I see my kids, my kids are on Snapchat, they’re on all these things that I could never imagine when I was 12 years old, but they love Broadway shows. They can’t see Finding Neverland enough times, they just love it. So that’s not going anywhere. But when I take my kids – well, I don’t take them to Sleep No More because I don’t want to ever be a bad parent – but I will walk them around there during the day and they’ll be so excited, running around the halls, and that’s just a different kind of experience, it’s just like a different need, so they’re still going to want off-Broadway, they’re going to want these kind of experiential things, but what’s different about what we do and what’s awesome is we’re never going to have all the drama of TV – if you go back to my Time Warner thing – those poor guys in TV and magazines and newspapers. I don’t buy a newspaper now, it doesn’t exist on paper, I don’t watch TV in any way remotely like the watch I watched TV when I was little, with commercials and you had to watch it at this particular time. That’s not going to happen in theatres, that’s not going to happen on Broadway, so Broadway is going to be, in fact, in twenty years the most the same thing in the history of the world. Maybe there will be more video production but it will still be essentially a theatre timeshare, I buy these three hours, everyone’s going to get to go, which is an extraordinary advantage. In a spiritual, human way I find it very touching that that’s going to just keep going on. But what I do, I think, is going to keep changing and keep developing but it will still involve human interaction. What I do is live interactions with different sorts of relationships between audience and performer.

Ken: You mentioned raising money for Sleep No More and some other projects and how it had been challenging describing what this is, so how do you do it? What’s the secret to explaining to people what something is that they can’t really envision until they’re in it? How do you raise money for something like that?

Randy: The way I raise money is you try to get some person, there’s always someone out there, and it’s a lot of work but I actually enjoy it. I feel like raising money is a kind of storytelling – I’m sure you’ve talked to people about raising money, I’m sure someone has probably said the same thing, but I feel like it’s a way to kick the tires on a new project, it actually teaches me how the marketing works and what are the ways I describe it that makes people light up with possibility, so I actually love it, it’s my greatest grass roots outreach because I’ll take people to a space and start showing them and they’ll feel like they’re on the inside, even if they don’t invest. So I look at it as the most positive experience, raising money, even if it’s actually hard to get the dollars, but I just think it’s just like some people, you’re not going to stop me, I’m going to get the money, I’m going to figure it out, I’ll become friends with the landlord, I’ll do whatever I have to do to make it work, because if you believe in something strong enough I think anyone is a producer, you’ll figure it out.

Ken: You have worked with some big corporations and some big brands out there – how do they take to this independent spirit of yours? What I love about you is you’re like the wizard behind the curtain or you’re throwing rocks at an industry, which seems to be somewhat the opposite of the way a big corporation will work, Radio City, how does that work? How is for them and how is for you when you’re brought into those situations?

Randy: I think for me it’s a constant learning to have confidence in yourself. I think the more I believe what I’m saying is true the more I can look them in the eye and be like ‘I’m not going to hew to what you normally do,’ but more often, actually, they like it and the better product you get, but the truth of the matter is, with something like Cirque de Soleil or Radio City, you’re working with so many people and there’s so much infrastructure. I actually think it’s really hard and what’s sad to me is a lot of the things that I know so much in my heart I do give in – this is me being completely honest – and, in a way, the corporate people are happier because we didn’t take a risk, no one’s going to get fired because they did what everyone else did, they’ll only get fired if they don’t do what everyone else did and it went bad, so the truth of the matter is, sadly, I tend to let myself by sort of sanded down, the edges that make me who I am, but that being said I loved working with Cirque de Soleil, I actually really loved working at Radio City also because of the scale of it, but again you’re working with so many collaborators, you’re working on something that already has such a built-in audience. You know their audience will like it if you kept pushing it, that’s the sad sort of thing about it.

Ken: Alright, my last question, which is my Genie Question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to visit you and says ‘Randy, I want to thank you for your incredible contributions to the theatre as a whole. You are pushing the boundaries and pushing us in new directions. I wat to thank you by granting you one wish.’ What drives you so crazy or gets you really, really mad about Broadway or the New York City theatre environment? Maybe it’s something you and your wife, she tells you something that’s she’s experienced in one of her shows. What makes you so mad that you would jump up and down and scream and yell and ask this genie to wish away? And only one – I know you, you could probably do about ten or twenty of these.

Randy: Yes, I’ve got to stop myself from giving the laundry list now.

Ken: The big rant.

Randy: That’s really not true at all. You know something? You’re going to hate me for saying this but I love all the problems. All those problems, they’re fantastic for me because what they are is what I said – they’re opportunities. What I do is I take those problems and I try to turn them into something positive for me. I know that’s a terrible answer because I kind of went sideways on you.

Ken: That’s what you do!

Randy: That’s what I do! I can never give a straight answer, it’s really a problem. I don’t know how my wife puts up with it, I started with my wife, I’ve gotta end with my wife, but she does somehow but it’s really impossible to deal with me because that’s what I will always do. You’ll pose a question, I’ll be like ‘Well, what if, actually, those terrible things are exactly what makes my life successful, makes my opportunities happen?’ because you have things on Broadway where you’ll deal with so many issues that I don’t deal with, like you’re dealing with a landlord who can tell you how the bathrooms operate, how the bar operates – all of these things are opportunities for me to do something different so people are like ‘Wow, that’s amazing, because I’m used to this.’ So, please, Mr. Broadway Genie, do not change anything because all of those things are what I can play against and reverse and be successful.

Ken: I love it, it’s a terrific answer. Go sideways, everybody! Thank you so much for being here. Thanks to all of you for listening and we will see you next time.

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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.