Podcast Episode 86 Transcript – Manny Azenberg
Ken: Hello, Producer’s Perspective Podcast listeners! Welcome back to the podcast. Okay, so I’ve been after today’s guest to do a podcast since I started recording this thing. Please welcome to the podcast the legendary Broadway producer, Mr. Manny Azenberg. Welcome, Manny!
Manny: Thank you.
Ken: So when I first asked Manny to do the podcast he said ‘Why would you want me?’ Well here’s why – he’s in the Theatre Hall of Fame, he’s got a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, he’s got a whole bunch of other Tony awards and Drama Desk awards and all sorts of things on the mantel. He was Neil Simon’s producer, he worked for the legendary producers David Merrick and Alex Cohen, he’s got like a hundred Broadway credits on IBDB page – check it out. He’s like the oracle of Broadway producers. Whenever anyone in the industry has a question, they go to Manny. So I’ll start with some questions now – how did you get started in this business?
Manny: I started because my uncle was an actor in the Yiddish theatre. I grew up in the Bronx and my sister and I would come down to Broadway, to Second Avenue actually, and go to the theatre, so we knew what the theatre was and I thought that “Oh, if you could work in theatre then you didn’t have to work,” because working in the theatre isn’t real work, it’s fun. Aggravation, but fun.
Ken: And what was the first gig you had?
Manny: The first job I had on Broadway was in 1959, The Legend of Lizzie. It ran two nights and I was back carrying liquor crates, actually. I worked six weeks, I was the assistant company manager and I said “I can do that.” My next job was in Summerstock, the Rye Music Circus – we smile when we say things like that. I made more money as a lieutenant in the army until I was 31 years old but I had a good time, actually. In the army I found out what work was so I knew I didn’t want to do it so I went into the theatre. It turned out alright.
Ken: You got started in company management and general management, right?
Manny: I was the company manager on The Legend of Lizzy and then I was the company manager at the Rye Music Circus and the Rye Music Circus general manager was Roy Somlyo, who became Alex Cohen’s general manager and then he hired me to do the summer programs at the OQ Center in Toronto and then David Merrick hired me to work on the Barbra Streisand musical I Can Get it For You Wholesale and Barbra and I lived in the same building so it was kind of fun. Then I went on the road with I Can Get it For You Wholesale with Larry Kert from West Side Story and one thing led to another.
Ken: So when did you decide you wanted to be a producer?
Manny: I never decided that. I still haven’t decided that. It happened somewhat by accident. I was very content having a job and a fellow I worked with at the Merrick office, Gene Wolsk, who isn’t with us anymore, good guy, he wanted to produce so we worked together at the Merrick office, we did about maybe 25 shows for David Merrick and then we left in 1966 and we were going to general manage shows and produce them. So we general managed a straight play called The Impossible Years with Alan King, which was terrible but it ran for a year – shows ran in those days, it wasn’t three months or four months – and we produced The Lion in Winter. I was the general manager but Gene had difficulty raising the money so I helped him raise the money and that was my first full production.
Ken: So you talk about working for Alex Cohen and David Merrick – we’ve heard crazy stories about both of those guys. What was the best thing you learned from them?
Manny: Well, the thing I learned the most was from the Merrick office. The Merrick office was extremely efficient and they were all business. There was a time when Merrick had nine shows on Broadway and God knows what on the road. In a three-and-a-half to four year period I did twenty shows with legendary people and you can’t help but learn something and the legendary people would be Chris Plumber and Tony Richardson and Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams and Albert Finney and musicals like Oliver! and Stop the World. Alex was a great showman but Merrick, for all his lunacy, had real taste. He also knew that, despite all the publicity he got, it was really about Tony Richardson doing plays and Gower Champion doing musicals. Whatever they wanted to do he would do it.
Ken: What do you think David Merrick would think about Broadway today?
Manny: He’d be jealous. There’s a schadenfreude in this business that everyone falls for but Merrick is quoted as saying “Not only do I have to have all the hits but everybody else has to fail.” He was somewhat a lunatic; on the other hand, he did a lot of shows and they were classy, well cast.
Ken: Do you think our industry today has room for a Merrick again? That style of producer?
Manny: No. For whatever the reasons, there are three thousand producers now, billed above the title. Most musicals, when they win the Tony hundreds of people go on the stage, some people who you’ve never seen before. I had that experience in 1988, we won the Tony and there were a few people on the stage I’d never seen before in my life and they went up on the stage.
Ken: What show was it?
Manny: It was Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. In fact, if you look at the film of that you’ll see me doing a double take and I go “Who are those people?”
Ken: We’ll have to dig that up on YouTube and put it in this blog so people can watch that.
Manny: Those were the people who put up money. They put up money on the Shubert side – the Shuberts were our co-producer.
Ken: And what do you think of the number of producers that it takes? Do you think it’s helping us, in terms of putting more money in, does it hurt?
Manny: It helps in terms of investment but they used to be called investors, now they call themselves producers and it kind of diminishes the function of the producer because there is a function called “producing” and they’re both aesthetic and managerial and many, if not most, if not all, of those people don’t have any function other than putting in money and we do that to get the money and we share the Tony with them. In fact, if you’re not eligible for the Tony you won’t raise money and then you have an argument – “Can I go up and talk?” So it’s distortive.
Ken: Do you think we can ever put this issue back in the box? I’ve heard a lot of people talking about it and I’m just curious if you think there’s a solution to this problem.
Manny: It’s not a mortal wound, it’s just representative of the distortions in the theatre industry.
Ken: So we’ve heard what Merrick would think right now – how do you think we’re doing, having been through that age to today?
Manny: We didn’t take care of the industry. We didn’t take care of the aesthetics. It wasn’t so long ago – and you were around – when plays ran a year and a half and then went on the road and then had a bus and truck company. Do you know how many jobs were at stake? If you list Neil Simon trilogy – ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound’– you’ll see Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Jason Alexander, Jonny Cryer, Robert Sean Leonard, one after another. Dempsey – the kid Dempsey, the big star – he was on the bus and truck of Brighton Beach Memoirs or Broadway Bound, one or the other. So the theatre provided jobs and we don’t have tours anymore, we don’t have shows go on the road, we don’t have shows go bus and truck, and they only run three months or four months, so that’s a real diminishment and now we’re dependent on stars coming in. If the stars get paid then he gets $100,000 and the rest of the cast gets minimum, or if Al Pacino says “Listen, I understand there’s a problem, I’ll take minimum,” that means all the other actors get minimum. You don’t build a community on a four month run so good actors go out to California.
Ken: So what did we do that caused this to happen?
Manny: We didn’t take care of it. The plays needed nurturing – you have to nurture playwrights, you have to have a place for them to go, like the National. A place where you can make a living and has aesthetic cache. Tom Stoppard wants his plays done at the National because it’s classy. Well, we used to be classy. We’re not classy anymore. I looked at the resume of some actors that came in for some audition for something and they had listed their films first, television second, theatre upon request.
Ken: Upon request? Like a voiceover conflict?
Manny: So it’s not that important anymore, and it used to be the queen of the arts. The era of Jason Robards, Eugene O’Neill and Williams and Miller. It’s, I think, sad and we’re much more of a theme park, as far as musicals are concerned, than art. There are exceptions – Hamilton is a giant exception. Somebody will come along and do something. Hopefully it will be the artists; management won’t, theatres won’t, the unions won’t, but if Meryl Streep decided that there should be a national theatre and there should be three of them built on Eleventh Avenue and Eighteenth Street and the vested interests that are uptown are not participating downtown then perhaps we would have theatre as part of the culture again.
Ken: What do you think the most important characteristic is of a producer?
Manny: Sensibility. Let’s assume he has a certain taste and then the recognition of who is it that you’re dealing with – Neil Simon is one personality, Tom Stoppard is another personality and Sondheim is another personality and you have to cater to the strengths of those personalities. For example – this is your lesson, Davenport.
Ken: I’ll take it, please.
Manny: When we did The Real Thing, the Tom Stoppard play, which is a first class play, we were all terrified that he’d ask our opinion, because then you actually have to have one. None of this ‘The second act needs work’ and all those banalities. So I’m sitting in the back of the theatre in Boston and there was a tap on my shoulder and there he was – “What do you think?” – and I sort of blurted out, ten minutes into the second act, “I wasn’t paying attention,” and he nodded his head and said “Maybe you’re right,” and five days later he came back and said “Is it better?” So perhaps what a producer really should do is tell the author that he’s not engaged. “This is where you don’t engage me. I’m not paying attention.” Don’t tell him how to write it because you can’t intrude on the lunacy of that process, but producers do go around telling them “Fix this,” and “Do that,” and that’s a mistake. Most authors are intuitive, they don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, and they’ll be defensive, they’re going to waste 30% of their energy defending against your criticism and you don’t really know that what you’re suggesting works. In my experience, Neil Simon was different to Stoppard, Stoppard was different to Fugard, so you have to develop a confidence of that artist, that he trusts your objectivity and your visceral responses enough to ask your opinion, and if he doesn’t trust you he’s just going to be defensive, even if you’re right, and we don’t know that we’re right, we’re guessing. We also don’t know what the process is for that author and you have to be able to recognize, most of them begin intuitive. Even Stoppard is an intuitive writer. Neil Simon, for example, could write 33 pages and give me the play to read and if I said “I don’t know, I’m not sure,” he put it aside, take it out a year later and it’s as if “Who wrote this?” That’s how intuitive he would be. He would say “Wow, look at this!” He forgot what it was – the day he wrote it or the week he wrote it or the month he wrote it was a different experience. I’m exaggerating to a certain extent but I know that the three of them don’t lay it out, they just write.
Ken: You had a very long relationship with Neil Simon – how many years, how many shows?
Manny: About 22, something like that. Maybe 19, maybe 24, I don’t know.
Ken: Who counts?
Manny: Someday I will.
Ken: And what do you credit the strength of that relationship to and how important do you think it is that a producer have a relationship with a writer like that, that they stick with over time? Well, you were making lots of money but it was almost like you a non-profit, committed to one artist and doing everything that he did.
Manny: Part of the condition of doing his plays was that I do other things. He did not want me to be dependent on him, so he said “Do whatever you want,” and I did, obviously. I met Neil by accident – I played baseball with Robert Redford. Redford played first base, I play shortstop, and when Redford came to New York with Barefoot in the Park he called up and said “Would you play on our team?” Neil played second base, I played shortstop and that’s how I met Neil Simon. So you can attribute all the artsy crafty stuff but it had to do with the fact I can pick up a ball and throw to first.
Ken: You, Redford and Simon on the same baseball team?
Manny: Redford played first base, Neil second, I was shortstop, Carmine Caridi played third base, Bobby Morse played left field. It’s what happened.
Ken: That’s a Neil Simon play right there.
Manny: Seven years later. He would invite us to the openings. In those days opening night was opening night – you put on a tuxedo and the critics came that night and the reviews were in that night – and about five or six or seven years later he called up and asked would I produce the plays. I, being a clown, said “I don’t know, let me think about it,” but his wife had just been diagnosed with metastasized cancer and she died and they were unhappy with the previous management so they were clearing the decks for the last year of her life, it was very sad, and the first play was The Sunshine Boys.
Ken: When you say “I don’t know, I’ll think about it,” about doing any play, musical, project, what do you think about? What’s your process for picking a show to do?
Manny: Well one of the things you don’t want to say – you’re intimidated by the artist so if it’s real playwright you’d better pay attention. So if Stoppard sends a play or Fugard sends a play or Sondheim writes a musical, you pay attention to it. But my fundamental criteria would be “Make me laugh or make me cry.” Those are my visceral responses and if you can make me laugh and cry I’ll do your play. We’ll deal with what the play’s about and the intellectual objectivity and all the other crap we talk about and pretend we know but the visceral response, it’s a fundamental emotion. You read a Neil Simon play and it’s funny – it’s funny. Some of them are sad and funny. Broadway Bound, which I think is probably his best play, he said “I’m going to make them laugh and cry within a met, purposefully,” and he did.
Ken: Do you think it’s easier for a producer to get started today than yesterday?
Manny: How do you want to define producer? If you want to be a producer and you don’t have any money it’s very difficult. These days you have to have a lot of money or you have to have access to a lot of money. Look at who automatically becomes a producer – people with a lot of money. The qualifications for producer – those managerial ones which are marginally respected – and the aesthetics, which most people are afraid of, you don’t want to turn to most producers and say “You don’t know what you’re doing but you think that your participation in this project is going to make you more fulfilled or something,” I don’t know, I don’t quite get the motivation of many people who are billed above the title because their participation is a delusion and yet they do it. So I think it’s more difficult. Also, there are not too many things with your name on that would go on the resume of your soul rather than just the project. There are some things that you’re very proud that you produced, that satisfied your ambitions.
Ken: Any of those shows that you read or looked that made you laugh and cry that didn’t work?
Manny: Oh, absolutely. One of the first ones I ever did.
Ken: What was it?
Manny: It was Carl Reiner’s play, Something Different. I thought that would be a big success and it failed. Groucho Marx thought it was funny – he made the audience stand up and said “This is funny. I know what funny is.” The critics didn’t think so. And I did a repeat of Brighton Beach Memoirs and I thought it was the best production of that play ever and that didn’t work. Ragtime, a couple of years ago, didn’t work. Sideshow didn’t work. All of which I thought were first class efforts and I would put those unashamedly, all of them, on my resume. There were three or four shows that I did that I would not put on my resume but I’m not going to tell you.
Ken: So when one of those shows that you’re so proud of that makes you laugh and cry doesn’t work like that, how do you get out of bed the next morning and do so many of the other shows that you’ve done?
Manny: Good question. When I did Something Different I committed to it emotionally. I was young, it was the second show we produced, and I thought that would be a winner, and your description of “How do you get out of bed in the morning?” that’s what happens to you when you have a loser – you sleep later, you can’t face the day so you get up at 11 instead of 6, and after I did that show I actually said “I am no longer ever going to emotionally commit like that,” and I never did and I’ve had winners and losers. It’s not an easy blow to like something, commit to something and we don’t blame the critics – you know when the audience isn’t going to come. Some things, like The Lion in Winter paid off, it took 18 years. Susan Stroman did The Scottsboro Boys which I thought was one of the best things I’d seen in ten years and that didn’t work. I don’t know what that answer is but you deal with it. As my wife said, when we produced Ragtime and it failed, she looked at me and said “Nobody died. It’s only a play,” and that reality doesn’t affect my children, it’s not a disease, it’s only a play. We do seem to recover, though, don’t we?
Ken: So you literally have figured out a way to box up the emotion or check it whenever you sign on to something so that it won’t affect you either way?
Manny: You put it into a perspective so you don’t go crazy if it’s a winner and it’s a blow when it doesn’t work but you put it into perspective – it’s not a war, it’s not death, it’s not sickness, it’s not illness, it’s a play that didn’t work. Two years later you think about it and you put it into that perspective so do it a little earlier.
Ken: It’s like a relationship.
Manny: Also no finger pointing – you blame the critics, you blame the theatre, you name the stagehands, you blame the actor, you blame something. You don’t want to blame your taste or your judgement. You expect every show you do to work.
Ken: Sure. This is a business that was built, it seems, on the independent producers – the Merricks, the Cohens, the Azenbergs – developing these relationships. Lately we’ve seen some big corporations come into the game – the movie studios, television studies – what do you think about these big corporate giants jumping into our pool?
Manny: I think in the long run it’s no good. Not all of them are bad guys by any means, they’re good guys, but they have their own corporate interests. The corporations that are coming in have films that they want to make into musicals because The Lion King worked and Wicked worked so everybody’s trying to emulate it. There’s a lot of talent around but not a lot of artistry so all those corporations are asking you to take their library of films and make them into musicals so you get talented people but the creations are hardly legendary. There’s no West Side Story, there’s no Fiddler, there’s no Rodgers and Hammerstein. Some of it is talented but the art of the theatre is not being nurtured – differentiating from talent. They’re hired guns. The movie company calls you up and says “Listen, I have this movie, it’s Shane, it’s a western and we’ll give you $200,000 to write the book.” It’s not the way collaborations for the theatre happen. The old musicals – those great musicals – were done because the artists got together and did it and then presented it to somebody. It’s now the producer gets it and then says “Why don’t we make a musical out of it?” where all the others were created by the artist and then presented to the producers.
Ken: That’s an excellent point – including the biggest hit we’ve seen in a long time. Hamilton is an artist-driven piece.
Ken: No studio could have come up with that concept or executed it in that way.
Manny: Lerner and Loewe, My Fair Lady.
Ken: I would like to imagine what writer a studio executive would have gone to, to write the book to Hamilton.
Manny: Lin-Manuel is a friend and when he said publicly that he thought when he read that book that there would be 38 people wanting to make that into musical I said “Lin, you’re the only one in America who thought that Hamilton would make a musical.” Now I’m sure we’ll see musicals called Lincoln, Buchanan…
Ken: What was the price of a Broadway ticket on that first show you worked on in 1959, do you remember?
Manny: I don’t remember that but I remember that the top ticket price in 1962 on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was $9.20 and when A Chorus Line opened in 1975 the top ticket price on Broadway was $15. So add that to the mix of what’s happened to the theatre – people aren’t going to go to the theatre for $300 to watch a play that they don’t know is good or not. God knows how much they’re paying for musicals these days. We haven’t contained that either. We’ve answered every one of our economic problems by raising the price instead of dealing with the problem.
Ken: And what’s that problem?
Manny: It’s a whole host of them. Everything is overpriced. Ken, you want to do a straight play – how much will the scenery cost to do in a one set play? $500? $500,000? Approximately, right? Never mind the cost of putting it up. For $500,000 plus another $300,000 for the labor, maybe more, you could have a home build that would last 300 years, be made out of not paper mache and it would have plumbing.
Ken: I never thought about that, comparing it to real estate.
Manny: You have the take in, the labor to put it up – let’s say it’s $400,000 – and the bid that you get from the scene shop is $500,000. For $900,000 you could have a mansion with electric wiring, plumbing, maybe even some furniture. So do you think that’s a distortion? Of course it is. Do you want to add up the rest of it? Everybody is somewhat overpaid.
Ken: Can we keep it down now? This is my big question – because, of course, as a company manager and a general manager myself, I followed your same path.
Ken: We can’t?
Manny: You have to create something new that is not beholden to vested interests. You cannot be beholden to the management, the producer and his preconceptions of what he should make and what he’s entitled to, nor the real estate, God knows, nor the stagehands, nor the unions, and you know that the details of our business, we have a thing called the net gross, that’s like a Jewish Catholic, the net gross – you ever hear of a bigger oxymoron? And we buy into it. Some people get paid on the gross gross but we get paid on the net gross. What kind of madness is that? The net gross. Go tell a mathematician and an economics major we have an expression called the net gross. It’s more a moron than an oxymoron is what we are.
Ken: Okay, so this is the first of my James Lipton-like questions. I want you to imagine that the Smithsonian Institute calls you and says “Manny, you’ve produced so many shows, we have room for one of your shows in the institute.” Which one would you choose?
Manny: Only one? I get to pick only one? The Real Thing. The Stoppard play.
Ken: How come?
Manny: One, because I think he’s the best playwright of the last 30 or 40 years in the English language. The experience of doing that play was spectacular. I got married because of the philosophy of that play and I learned how to produce when we did that play – how to maintain an equilibrium in your life – so there is that.
Ken: Sounds like what a great play should do, entertain but also educate.
Manny: It’s also I think he’s a great writer but he’s also a first class guy. That was easy, see, I gave a quick answer.
Ken: I’ve had people on this podcast that have producer three or four shows, they couldn’t pick one. You’ve produced a hundred.
Manny: There are shows I’ve had a good time on. Some of the Neil Simon shows we were on the floor laughing. The Sunshine Boys was an experience. Broadway Bound. But to watch him, he could make people laugh, he actually knew what he was doing. He pretended not to.
Ken: How was dealing with him different than dealing with Stoppard? Did you find yourself having to adjust your personality for these artists?
Ken: Whether it’s Lin-Manuel, whether it’s Neil Simon, or are you just the same guy?
Manny: No, you should be very objective and very observant of what the personality of that playwright is, how he deals with his life. So Neil and I came from the same neighborhood so we could joke about things like that, in the same rhythm, what was funny. He would write “You know what words are funny? Words with a K in them are funny. Pickle is funny. Cucumber is funny. Kiki Cuyler is a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny,” and we could laugh about that. Stoppard, you had to figure it out, but I had a big advantage on The Real Thing – Mike Nichols was the director and, whereas I had to work hard to find out what that play was about, Mike actually knew about it, he was an intellect. You have a responsibility with a playwright – he gives you the play and he says “What do you think? Do you want to produce it?” Well, a couple of plays I said no to and one was God’s Favorite. I said no for about a year and a half, two years, and he kept taking it out of the drawer and I finally said “Okay, let’s do it,” and he said “Why?” and I said “We’ll exorcise it. We’ll just get it out so you can go on to something else because it’s eating you up.” That’s recognizing it. He wrote that play and then his wife died, he was in agony. I wouldn’t presume to tell Stoppard but I worked hard at finding out what his plays were about, for example there would be the relative values of almost everything – the relative value of science, the relative value of relationships – so you could read the plays better. Unfortunately I think the problem, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, that was a film we did, but it was done as a play and that and The Real Thing were the only two commercial successes he’s had and yet he’s a great playwright.
Ken: You’ve talked a lot about the writers – Mike Nichols, that’s the first mention of a director that’s come up. How important is the director in the creation of a new play or a new musical?
Manny: Important if you’re Mike Nichols but Mike didn’t intrude. When Neil wrote The Prisoner of Second Avenue they had no ending. They sat in the lobby of the hotel in Boston and Neil said “What should I do?” and Mike said “How the hell do I know? I’m the director, you’re the writer, you figure it out.” Don’t intrude on that process.
Ken: Because I’m sure Mike must have had an idea but he checked it.
Manny: Mike was great with the actors and a great objective critic. He didn’t write it for the authors. When Mike did The Real Thing’he wouldn’t dare to intrude on it but he knew what the play was about and he could get actors to do what they couldn’t do otherwise. He was a guru – in fact he said so, he said “That’s what we directors do. We seduce the actors.” Sometimes literally in addition to figuratively but he was the best. He was the best.
Ken: You teach producing now.
Manny: No, I taught a course at Duke for 25 years which was about, really, I gave them a place to read and asked them for visceral responses – their real opinions, not the ones that they think will please everybody. That came out of an experience at Yale – I gave them Brighton Beach Memoirs to read, graduate students at Yale, and they found it odious and loathsome because it was written by Neil Simon and it wasn’t Chekhov or Ibsen, and then the play opened and it was a big success so I went back and got even with them, told them I don’t think they were the brightest kids in America because they were spitting back other people’s opinions, and from that time on, every time I gave them a play I would rip the cover off – “Now you don’t know who wrote it. Now tell me what you really think.” I knew that this was the case because a graduate student came up after the class, a girl, and told me that she really liked the play but was afraid to say something. So with that idea I taught at Duke. I gave them, over a semester, thirty plays to read and they’d have to write single spaced, one page visceral responses and the goal is that you have to have the confidence of your own opinion because the theatre is totally, totally subjective. Arts are totally subjective – you like this music, I like that music – and it’s very dangerous for the bright kids to think that they must give back an accepted opinion and if you do it when you’re young you’re going to keep doing it. You don’t wake up at age 35 and say “Chekov is boring,” or “Shakespeare is difficult,” but you also have to have that Chekov is boring and Ibsen is boring and Strindberg is boring and Shakespeare is boring and then you see it with a good case and you go “Oh!” So the classics have to be done by classically good actors, otherwise it’s boring but you’re afraid to say so. I saw King Lear three times when I was young and was bored and then I saw Peter Brook’s Lear with Scofield. Wow. Oh my. So I think those are valid experiences.
Ken: So just so I’m clear, you gave a class at Yale on Brighton Beach before it opened on Broadway, just as a test.
Manny: Right. “Here’s a play. Read it.” And they dismissed it completely.
Ken: And then it was a big hit.
Manny: It only ran three and a quarter years. It’s the tenth or eleventh longest running Broadway show ever and the Yale kids, well they had professors there, they had Burstein, Gilman and Kaufman, all of whom were committed to great intellectual efforts, and no bright kid at Yale is going to say “I saw Chekov and it was boring.” Don’t we know a lot of people like that?
Ken: We certainly do.
Manny: And don’t we know ourselves when we go to see it and you walk out and you’re going “Yes, that was interesting,” and your head is going from left to right to make sure nobody hears you. But there’s also the subjectivity of all of our tastes. Tom Stoppard doesn’t like classical music, I’m not going to call him an idiot.
Ken: Advice to young writers starting today?
Manny: Write for television. That’s what they do. You’re 28 years old and you write a play and it’s done at the O’Neill Center, right? And people say it’s not bad. Your agent says “Listen, I can’t your play on but I can get you $20,000 a week for 22 weeks writing some series on cable.” Goodbye, and then they go. Fifteen, twenty years later they want to write a play, they can’t do it anymore. I think playwrights also learn that the early plays of Williams and Miller aren’t as good. We don’t nurture them, we don’t take care of them.
Ken: My last question. It’s called my Genie Question. Are you ready for it?
Manny: I’m braced.
Ken: I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to visit you and says “Manny, I want to thank you so much for everything you’ve done. You’ve been through it. You were in Korea, you worked for David Merrick, you have done more shows and we want to thank you for that by granting you one wish.” I want you to ask yourself what’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that keeps you up at night, that would have you banging on this desk right now, the one thing – I know there’s a few things that may drive you crazy – but the one thing that makes you so mad that you would ask this genie to wish away in an instant?
Manny: I think we should have a national theatre in which the economics are shared and they’re totally different about it, so that the actors and the artists, they don’t have to get paid millions, so that you can have an ongoing, classy, cultural theatre. Theatre that is an important part of American culture, because it’s sad watching Broadway go down, aesthetically, and it goes down relatively slowly and nobody does anything about it. Some people talk about it, some people pretend it’s okay by quoting numbers – “More people went to the theatre last year!” I don’t know where the hell they get that stuff from. More people went to musicals, maybe, but when you have musicals that are running 25 years, that’s a theme park. “Well, sure, we had a good time last year at that Phantom, let’s go to see the damn thing again!” It’s like going on a ride at Disney World – you had a good time last time, we’ll do it again. Stoppard once – I’ll give you a conclusion – when I was at Duke, Stoppard came down to give a talk and he was asked why he went into the theatre, and Stoppard is great with language, he just comes up with stuff that is extraordinary, but he said that he went into the theatre because it was the matrix of his moral sensibility. Everybody applauded, nobody knew what it meant. The matrix of your moral sensibility. And, over the years, it just dawned on me – of course, he’s so smart – you go to the theatre instead of going to church or the cinema, and in the old days you put a suit on and if it was good it was a revelation, it was like Martin Luther King giving you a speech. You saw The Death of a Salesman you could barely talk, you’re going to change the world. That’s what the theatre is supposed to be and it’s much less now but I can point to five or six moments where I walked out of the theatre and that’s why you go into the theatre – you want to aspire to that, you want to be a part of that thing. So Hamilton did that – look at the responses that Hamilton has from kids. I can’t name anything that’s done that for a good generation, fifteen or twenty years. For me, when I went back to see the Salesman that Mike did, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, I walked out and I had to walk two or three blocks before I could talk. That’s a homerun. That’s where you got your moral sensibility, that’s where you got your aspiration, theatre did that. It doesn’t do it anymore.
Ken: Well I want to thank you for joining us today, finally, and I want to thank all of you out there for listening but, Manny, you mentioned Mike Nichols being a guru – you are a guru, you’re an inspiration to me and to so many of us in this industry so thank you so much.
Manny: Well I think that’s one of the things you’re going to have to deal with. It’s a problem. You’ll get cured.
Ken: I’ll work on it. Thanks to all of you for listening. Until next time, this is Ken Davenport with the Producer’s Perspective Podcast.