Podcast Episode 84 Transcript – Barry Weissler
Ken: Hello, Producer’s Perspective Podcasters out there. I am Ken Davenport. We have an esteemed guest with us today. Please welcome to the podcast multiple Tony award winning Broadway producer Mr. Barry Weissler. Welcome, Barry!
Barry: My middle name is Esteemed. Did you know that?
Ken: I did not know that.
Barry: Yes, Barry Esteemed Weissler.
Ken: Mr. Barry E. Weissler here. Barry, along with his wife, has produced so many shows that we can’t list them here so go to his IBDB page if you want to be there for a few hours, but just a few – Falsettos, The Scottsboro Boys, this season’s hit Waitress, along with the revivals of La Cage aux Folles – Tony award – Sweet Charity, Annie Get Your Gun, Grease, My Fair Lady, Pippin – Tony award – and, get this, the second longest running Broadway show in history, ‘Chicago’. He also gave me my very first job as a production assistant on his revival of My Fair Lady in 1993.
Barry: Do you remember that, Ken?
Ken: I will never forget it.
Barry: And that huge head which we couldn’t get into a truck and had to redo it.
Ken: I remember so many things. I remember you, actually – I remember looking at you, thinking ‘I want to do what this guy does someday,’ from your first day of rehearsal speech to the speech you gave at Fort Myers when you had to tell the audience that the stagehands were on strike and there might be a few bumps in the road.
Barry: That is true. I forgot that.
Ken: I’ve always been a fan; I’m very thankful that you’re here. Why don’t you start by telling us how you got the theatre bug? Where did this all begin for you?
Barry: I was doing very, very poorly in college, and indeed was flunking out of the only school in the United States that did not demand SAT exams to get in. The only school – Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, and I was in a deep depression, it was the end of my freshman year, I was not doing well, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and it was just serendipitous that I fell upon the little college community theatre we had set up in an old barn in the back of the parking lot and I heard murmuring coming through there – it was a rehearsal of Measure For Measure, which I found out later, I certainly didn’t know what it was at the time. I wandered in there not knowing where else to go and I guess that’s all she wrote. I felt like I was home, I watched rehearsals, I joined the company, I worked backstage then became an actor in the company, hit the library 7/24 and made the dean’s list in the first half of my sophomore year. My whole life changed. It just called me and here I am.
Ken: So you went on this intensive theatre study curriculum?
Barry: Well, literature in any of my subjects. I was failing everything; I was lucky to have something that opened me up and gave me a goal, so it wasn’t just theatre subjects it was all political science, Russian history, English literature and, of course, theatre.
Ken: And when did you start doing stuff on your own? What made you make the jump from backstage, onstage to the producing or the business side?
Barry: It was still a big worry for me because it was a strange world, it wasn’t a world I had ever thought it, it truly, truly came out of the blue. I was traveling the United States trying to find myself, wound up in San Diego, took a train into Tijuana, saw my first bullfight and decided that’s what I wanted to be, a bullfighter, so I studied bullfighting in Mexico. By the way – failed. Did not make it.
Ken: This is amazing. I did not know this about you. You were a bullfighter in training?
Barry: A very bad one.
Ken: It’s good producer training, I would imagine.
Barry: A cowardly bullfighter, you know. The bull didn’t have to worry – I ran. That didn’t last very long, that was six months, but it was fun, it was poetic. I thought I’d go into bars at night after the matches and all the women would throw flowers at me – instead they’d throw glasses, so I got the hell out of there and on the way over the Great Salt Lake Desert I decided to become a professional actor, met with a marvelous, marvelous teacher, she changed my life – her name was Stella Adler – met with her in New York, joined her school and studied acting for about two and a half year and became an actor. That led to directing and eventually those two legs in the theatre world gave me my education in theatre to allow me to produce.
Ken: And what was the first thing you produced?
Barry: The first thing I produced was Aladdin and His Magic Lamp for elementary schools.
Ken: Children’s theatre?
Barry: Children’s theatre. The second thing was Everyman: The Medieval Allegory which was for Catholic high schools, and I directed those – I produced them, I directed them – and just luckily kept going.
Ken: So from producing shows in elementary schools you jump to Broadway.
Barry: Oh my God, we didn’t jump, we dragged – it took years and years. You’re talking about the ’60s when we were doing children’s theatre, then high schools, then colleges. One person shows – we had Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst, James Earl Jones and Paul Robeson, Leslie Nielsen and Clarence Darrow. We were still doing children’s theatre, we had a mime company. Oh my goodness – Shakespeare for high schools, Neil Simons and Arthur Millers. It went on and on.
Ken: What was the first Broadway show you produced?
Barry: The first Broadway show I produced came out of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut and it was just faithful. Chris Plummer was up there doing Henry IV: Part I and II, James Earl Jones owed me a play and I read that Chris was up there, called them and said “If I brought Jimmy would you cancel one of the Henrys and let’s do Othello together – James Earl Jones as Othello, Chris Plummer as Iago.” It took them five minutes to agree, they paid for the production, it was the biggest hit they had ever had, including when Katherine Hepburn was in the company up there. It was their biggest hit, so Fran and I took it from Stratford and toured the country. It was doing $1 million a week which was a miracle to us, we had never seen anything like that, Fran and I. We went from St Aloysius Academy to the Kennedy Center and were doing $1 million a week on Shakespeare – gross, I don’t mean we made $1 million but the show was doing that – and we realized “Why not? Sounds like a good show for Broadway,” and that opened the door.
Ken: You mentioned your wife – had she been working with you this whole time?
Barry: The whole time.
Ken: And where did she get the bug?
Barry: I think it was our relationship that got her there – she did it for. She wasn’t doing it for herself, God bless her.
Ken: How do you choose the shows you want to work on at this point in your career – and, from the beginning to now, how has that changed? What do you look for?
Barry: I think in the beginning it was what was available to us, what was magically coming down the pathway. For instance, Othello was just a happenstance – Chris was there, I had Jimmy, we put it together, it was brilliant. It was a brilliant production. Bringing it to Broadway started our training as Broadway producers. That was at the Winter Garden Theatre – we were the last show in there before Cats. 1982, in February, in a snow storm, we had lines around the block. So that started and then it just so happened Zoe Caldwell had helped doctor the show for us and she was at Kennedy Center doing Medea with Dame Judith Anderson. They wanted to bring it to Broadway, so in the same season as we were doing Othello, Bob Whitehead – famous producer – didn’t want to produce the show he directed so we took Medea in the same season and brought it to the Court Theatre right around the corner – and, lo and behold, because we were touring anyway, we brought Your Arms Too Short to Box with God into the theatre that’s now a church in the ’50s. I forget, the Hellinger, was it? We had three shows running in the same season, it was crazy, and two of them were up for Tony’s and one of them got a Tony and the other one got a Tony for Best Actress. So it was happenstance, it was just the flow of things. Then we started picking and choosing – My One and Only, Tommy Tune, Twiggy then Sandy Dumpkin, huge success. Zorba with Anthony Quinn. We reached out to Anthony, we had him, we knew that show belonged to him, especially as he did the film. So it was a choice we made. Cabaret with Joel Grey, directed by Hal Prince. They just seemed right at the time. Now we choose what we have our hearts and minds involved in, like Waitress, and then we put a good creative team together and surround it.
Ken: What you call happenstance actually is I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit. I think great business people recognize incredible opportunities, which you did, and one of the most incredible opportunities, of course, that you recognized is this conservation of this musical that did okay when it first came around called ‘Chicago’. Tell everybody about it – because I’ve heard you tell the story before, about how that happened.
Barry: It was at Encores! And we went to see it on a Saturday afternoon and it was just thrilling. It thrilled us, it thrilled the audience, it was absolutely brilliant, marvelous theatre, and it would have been a dream if we could move it but obviously others would want it, it was so good. Turns out nobody wanted it, nobody wanted to put money up, not one theatre owner in New York wanted to give us a theatre. We had four theatres to get the piece going at the beginning: the Martin Beck – Rocco Landesman was our partner, he had a chance to bring Whistle Down the Wind in, he was a 50% partner and he still rues the day he did this – he said “You know, Andrew Lloyd Webber against some old revival? Barry…” and he tore up the lease and I tore up the partnership so it was now Fran’s and mine. We got the Richard Rogers but they had A Steel Pier coming in so we could only get 8-12 weeks there.
Ken: Another Kander and Ebb show, ironically.
Barry: Yeah, and the Shubert was sort of “Yeah, no, yeah, no,” and they had Big at the time and they said “If it closes, you can have it.” God help us if it wasn’t available and of course the rest is history. We put most of the money up because the financiers felt nobody would pay $75 a seat for a concert. The theatre owners used us as fill-in and it’s 20 years later.
Ken: Incredible. Since you started producing, since the days of Medea, what do you think the biggest change is that you’ve seen for a Broadway producer producing on Broadway?
Barry: Nothing’s changed in theatre – theatre is still a live experience where one thousand people come into a venue and, if you’re lucky, they come in as individuals and they become one person because the show affects everyone in a certain way. What really has become difficult is the cost of theatre. That’s the thing that is very hard to surmount these days. You have to be able to sell tickets in the hundreds of thousands and it wasn’t like that in the old days. In the old days, a middling hit could survive. These days there’s no way – you’re either a hit and you’re selling 80-100% of your capacity or you can’t make it. That’s the biggest thing that’s changed and it’s sad.
Ken: The old statistic is that one out of five shows recoup. A quick look at the list of shows that you’ve produced and I would say you’re beating that average. What’s your secret to keeping costs down, selling more tickets, anything?
Barry: We’re experienced, our instincts are right but they’re honed by years of experience, we have a great staff, we try to do things frugally and yet with quality. I don’t know, I don’t know how else to… I guess we’re the last of a breed. There’s a new breed coming in. There are still some very, very good producers out there, like Jeffrey Sellers has a massive hit in ‘Hamilton’ and David Stone has ‘Wicked’ and he’s doing a new show in Chicago. They all came out of this office.
Ken: That’s right, I remember, David Stone had an office down the corridor here.
Barry: That is right, and Jeffrey sat behind you.
Ken: Well what’s the new breed? You mentioned the new breed of producers – who are those?
Barry: A lot of the new breed of producers, unfortunately, think they know how to produce but they’re more capital inspired than they are creatively inspired. You can’t come into the theatre to make money. You really can’t. You have to come into the theatre to do good work and if you do good work they will reward you. Some people think they can run it like a machine company or an automobile company. It’s not like that.
Ken: What do you think about the movie studios coming into town?
Barry: Well, they have product and why not? They at least know how to produce something – they hire people to do it and that’s perfectly fine.
Ken: You’ve done a bunch of new shows, including ‘Waitress’, but you’ve had incredible success with revivals. What draws you to a revival? What do you think makes a successful revival? If I was looking to produce a revival tomorrow what would you say “These are the things you should look for, Ken,”?
Barry: Well you did it, didn’t you, with Spring Awakening? That was a glorious moment on stage – you took what was a successful Broadway show and you transformed it because of your acting company but you found a way to reshape the piece and it was quite good. We tried to do revivals that, first of all, have to be quality – quality scores, quality stories – and then the ability to reform them, to transform them into something that says something meaningful for 2015 or 2016 that wasn’t being said in 1990, and if it has the ability to do that then we will do the revivals. If it’s a matter of just restating something, that doesn’t interest Fran and me.
Ken: What do you think makes Chicago the success that it is?
Barry: It’s perfect theatre, isn’t it? It’s perfect theatre. It’s about the characters, the story, the lyrics, the music and there’s no nonsense, it’s in your face, it’s down in one. We live or die by the quality of the storytelling and the actors and actresses on stage and so far we’ve been living.
Ken: Is that one of the reasons why you’ve been able to put so many stars in it?
Barry: Yeah, it has its own motor. It’s one of those few shows that a different personality in the same role can still achieve success – and they can do it if they’re Japanese, if they’re Korean, if they’re Russian – and we’ve had them all, by the way, on stage. People who can’t speak English from these foreign countries have done just as well as the Americans.
Ken: I’ve seen so many people go in and I always say “How did Barry get these people to do it? How did Usher agree to do this?” What is the process? What is your strategy with casting and what is your secret? I can’t get some of these agents to call me back, never mind get them in the show.
Barry: I don’t know, we just try. We try and we make a good reason for them to do it and we’ve been fortunate. We just work hard.
Ken: So this is a question from one of my listeners, actually, who said is there someone who you’ve been dreaming about for Chicago, for any of the roles, that you have not been able to get yet?
Barry: How about Beyoncé? Get her to do Roxie. Taylor Swift – get her to do Roxie and Beyoncé can do Velma. Lady Gaga can do Velma. How about George Clooney playing Billy Flynn?
Ken: Now that I would pay for.
Barry: James Corden doing Amos. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Ken: It’s a movie right there. You’re going to do a remake of the movie. So you once talked to me about joining one of your teams as a co-producer and I remember before I could even get it out of my mouth that I was a little afraid that it was too risky you actually interrupted me and said “Ken, this is a real risky one,” and I remember you just disarmed me and I was so taken by the fact that you were so upfront about the risks. Tell me a little bit about how you raise money for shows, from way back when you just started.
Barry: Just the way we get personnel to be on stage – it’s hard work. You put your budgets together, you try to make it sensible, you tried your show, how many weeks will it take to recoup at 66% of capacity, at 75% and 80%, nothing different than you would do, and you try to make a good monetary case for it. If there’s no monetary case for it, it belter have an aesthetic case – it better be something that you feel should be seen. We did that when we did ‘Falsettos’, we did that when we did Scottsboro Boys and we really believed in Seussical. Remember Seussical, the musical? We felt that young children would gain so much from that show. Well, the show failed but guess what? It is the most licensed production in amateur theatre, maybe in history, and the money keeps flowing in – it’s bene coming in for years and years and years, we’re literally repaying the capital.
Ken: What do you do when a show doesn’t work on Broadway? How personally does it wound you when something doesn’t work?
Barry: In the old days it made me sick. You learn to steel yourself and you have that bump in the road, the bad moment, and you get over it because you don’t have a choice.
Ken: Do you think the industry is better off today than it was twenty years ago?
Barry: No. I think the work is good. The quality of work has never changed. I think you had more, you could take more risks years ago, you could do Death of a Salesman, you could do Long Day’s Journey Into Night – it was done then and it’s done now – so that hasn’t changed, the quality of work remains the same. The cost of work is what is stultifying and fear-driven – how the heck do you make a simple play work when you have to raise $5 million to do a play, when you costs are so high for a play? And forget about a musical. Could you imagine, ever in your life, that musicals would cost three quarters of a million dollars to run a week? A week! My God, that’s what we would look for, for the month. Who would ever think that would be the cost for a weekly run, even if you get it down. Isn’t that a tremendous amount of money? People could buy homes, you could make a business out of $600,000.
Ken: Do you remember what the operating expenses were for Falsettos?
Barry: Oh my goodness. No, but it was very low.
Ken: Is this just going to get worse or is there a way to make this better? Is this number just going to keep getting up there and up there?
Barry: Unfortunately, yes, that is true, it’s going to keep growing, and unfortunately there is going to be very little room for the medium successful shows and the ones that are going to profit are the theatre owners because they’ll move us in and they’ll move us out and they’ll always have something on stage but, when you see what tickets for Hamilton are going for, how do you compete with that? How do you compete with people that are willing to pay $2,500, $1,500 for a seat? They won’t buy another show if they get those tickets – why should they? That will be their year’s allotment. So those are the difficult things we’re facing.
Ken: You mentioned that the theatre owners will always have a show on the stage. That, of course, wasn’t always the case. There was a time when there was a dark period here on Broadway. Do you think we’ll ever see one of those again?
Barry: In our lifetime, yours and mine? I don’t think so, unless certain economic tragedies and downturns take place. It’s possible, but then theatre should do well, people should want to go to the theatre.
Ken: If you were starting your career over again is there anything that you would do differently on your way up?
Barry: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. No.
Ken: I love that question because everybody I’ve talked to is so confident that they wound’s do anything different – they just do what they do and that’s the way it is and they learn along the way.
Barry: Yeah, I mean I’m satisfied. I’m still restless but I’m satisfied with what Fran and I have done to date.
Ken: What do you still want to do if you’re restless? What’s next?
Barry: Things that speak to us. I don’t know want to throw the stuff that we’re working on out until I know it’s solid and on a positive path.
Ken: So a young kid comes to you, just like I did when I started on My Fair Lady and says “I want to be a producer.” What would you tell them? A kid today, starting out, how would they get started producing?
Barry: If that’s what’s in your heart and your mind you just do it. You persevere and you work with tenacity, you take the failures, you deal with them, you let it hurt for a moment and you move on. You just keep going.
Ken: Okay, my last question, which is my genie question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to visit you and knocks on your office door and says “Barry I want to thank you for your incredible contributions to the theatre by granting you one wish.” What is the one thing that drives you the craziest about Broadway, that gets you so angry, that can get you pounding on the desk, keeping you up at night and it gets you so mad that you’d want this genie to wish away with the snap of his fingers?
Barry: Oh, I can’t answer that, Ken, that’s too difficult. That takes an awful lot of thought and I don’t think it would just be one thing. I thought, when Fran and I were coming up and we worked in the ’60s and the ’70s, we struggled and we sometimes suffered from failures but it was a fulfilling time because it was about the creative process, it was about the product. Now, we have to worry about the product and the costs so that makes it a little more difficult. A painter can be in a studio and have his paints and his brushes and he can paint a canvas and it’s his and it is the same cost all the time and that person becomes famous or doesn’t. We don’t have that pleasure. We don’t. We’re going to paint the canvas – outside forces influence us, dictate how we go about doing business. That said, that’s something I wish we could return to the old days.
Ken: It’s a great answer – I want to thank you so much for being here and thank you for all of the work you do. Everyone out there, go see Waitress and if you haven’t seen Chicago yet, what is taking so long? Go and see that as well. Thank you so much for being with us, Barry. Thank you, all of you, for listing. Don’t forget to subscribe – we’ll see you next time!