Episode 7 Transcript – Todd Haimes
Ken: Hello, everybody. This is Ken Davenport and welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast, episode number seven. We’ve talked to a lot of folks already in the first few episodes that have had a major impact on the Broadway landscape over the last few decades. But today we’re going to talk to someone who has had perhaps the biggest impact on the Broadway landscape, both literally and figuratively. My guest today is Todd Haimes, the artistic director of arguably the most powerful and most significant non-profit theater company in the country, if not the universe. I’m talking, of course, about the Roundabout Theatre Company which – and this is direct from their website and I really couldn’t believe it when I read it myself – over the years has been recognized with 29 Tonys, 41 Drama Desks, 50 Outer Critics Circle Awards, nine Obies and five Oliviers on top of that for its production of classic plays and musicals. In addition, under Todd’s leadership, Roundabout has acquired and now operates three Broadway theaters. These were three Broadway theaters that actually didn’t exist before their current incarnation. So you know how we talk about how Broadway has boomed over the last couple of decades – increased attendance, gross? Well, the guy sitting in front of me right now has had a lot to do with those increases in numbers. Welcome, Todd.
Todd: Thank you.
Ken: I always think about Roundabout starting with you. If someone said ,”When did Roundabout start?” I would say, “Oh, when Todd Haimes started and founded Roundabout.” But that’s actually not the case.
Ken: Can you tell me a little bit about the history?
Todd: We started in 1965 on June 5th – we’re coming up on our 50th anniversary this year – and it was a theater that was meant to do the classics. It was always a subscription theater. The first subscription I think was $5 a play for three plays. The first play was The Father – we started with a light play – and they were down in the basement of a supermarket in Chelsea and Gene taught part time – no, I guess full time, before I knew him, at a high school in Yonkers, I think – and founded this theater and subsequently took on a much younger partner named Michael Fried – so it was Gene Feist and Michael Fried. To make a long story short, from 1965 until 1983 marked a period of decent artistic success. Ironically they were one of the first not-for-profit theaters to bring in stars – people like Malcolm McDowell and Tammy Grimes and people like that. Malcom McDowell did a highly acclaimed production of Look Back in Anger. They acquired another theater on 23rd Street, which is now a movie theater, but when they acquired it, it was a 300 seat theater Off-Broadway, and built up a subscription audience of about 15,000 people. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the theater was terribly mismanaged. Without being mean to people – Michael Fried I don’t know and Gene has passed away and in a certain way I loved Gene, but they didn’t know how to run a theater. They had ideas but they didn’t know how to run the actual theater. So in 1977 the theater went into bankruptcy, and this was one of the first not-for-profits in history to go into Chapter 11. Now, bankruptcy is a business tool – every company goes into bankruptcy and starts again, every airline has been in bankruptcy and they’re all doing great. But in those days bankruptcy was like the scarlet letter. If you were in Chapter 11, first of all you were in big trouble with the court, and second of all you had to disclose it and nobody would contribute money because they knew it was an unstable organization. So Michael Fried, who was more in charge of the business affairs of the theater, was let go by the board of directors when they discovered, in horror, that by the time 1983 rolled around the debt had actually gotten bigger, not smaller, and the bankruptcy court was getting very, very anxious and they could have liquidated the company. The only reason they didn’t liquidate the company was there were no assets to liquidate, so Michael was let go. I was not party to that because that was before me, obviously. I had sent my resume in to Roundabout for a job and I had been warned not to work there by everybody. They said that Feist and Fried were really Heist and Greed. But I was looking for a job. For personal reasons I had to stay in New York City, so I sent my resume in and one day I got a call from Gene Feist who said, “Would you like to come work for us?” and I said, “I don’t really want to be the number three person there,” meaning working for Michael Fried, and he said, “Well, things have changed. Why don’t you come in and see me?” and I came in and he said, “It’s for the managing director job. Michael is no longer with us.” So I said, “I would consider that,” and I met with the chairman of the board, who I still am friendly with, a man named Chris Yegen, who had given a lot of money to the theater and he told me as much of the problems as he knew. He told me, certainly, that they had been in Chapter 11 for six years, there were tax issues, to put it mildly, there were catastrophic cash flow issues because the deficit was bigger than the annual budget. I was 26 years old and I figured, “Look, I have to stay in New York City,” because my wife was in an internship program in New York, and I remember thinking at the time, which is funny, looking back 31 years, I remember looking at the different theaters and thinking, “I don’t think Barry Grove is going to go anywhere,” and I was right, he didn’t go anywhere, he’s still there, doing great. So I thought, “What the fuck? I have nothing to lose, I have no kids yet, whatever.” So I took the job for $25,000 a year and immediately the next week we couldn’t meet the payroll and I realized that things were worse than even Chris Yegen had described, not because he kept it from me but because he didn’t realize it. I used to go, every week for the first month, to Chris Yegen’s office in New Jersey and pick up the cash to pay the actors – it was that bad. Finally, this would be in late February of 1983 – I had been there about a month – the board of directors met and voted to close the theater. It was obviously a very sad meeting. The board was very upset because they had potential legal liability and financial liability because there were tax issues involved. And several of the board members went off to write a press release about closing the theater and I went home totally depressed. To be quite honest with you, I wasn’t suicidal because I had been there a month, I was just depressed. The next morning, Chris Yegen called me and said, “We’ve decided to give it one more shot.” I have no idea why he made that decision. I never asked him – I should have, I still can. Maybe it was because he felt sorry for me because they had just hired me or whatever but he said, “We’ll give it one more shot,” and the next day a check arrived from Chris’s mother. I’ll never forget, it was one of those old fashioned checks with a swan flying on it, and it was for $100,000. I had never seen a check for $100,000 before in my life. And there was a little post-it saying, “Hope this helps,” and Chris made a contribution himself of about $25,000, and that check allowed us to get to our next show, which allowed us to do the renewal for the next season, which allowed us to keep going. That year was already half or two thirds over so we lost money but after that year, for the next 20 years, we never lost money again. It turned out – again, to make a long story short – that the theater was a theater that actually had an artistic purpose, a valid mission, it was just terribly mismanaged. It was a going concern that was mismanaged as opposed to a theater that had no business being in business. Luckily for me, I had gone to business school and it turned out that my background in business really helped a lot. I didn’t know I’d need it that much but the minute I started managing the theater properly – which involved doing a whole variety of things that I can go into or not go into – it turned around and started making money. Not huge amounts of money, but making money. It took us about three or four years to dig out of Chapter 11. It was one of the longest Chapter 11s in history, but we came out of Chapter 11 and the theater continued with its 15,000 subscribers doing work that I would say was of mixed quality – sometimes good and sometimes not so good. In 1989, Gene Feist decided to retire. I had been there six years and it was never a part of my master plan to be an artistic director, because in those days every artistic director was a director and I’m not a director, and I have no interest in being a director and I have no talent. But as Gene was retiring I thought, “You know, I could do that job as a producer.” For 200 years there have been producers. This whole concept of director, artistic directors and managing directors all reporting to the board of directors was a phenomenon that started in the ‘60s – it didn’t exist before then; before then there were producers. So I said to the board, “Would you give me the opportunity to be the artistic head of the theater as well?” I think, and I’m not being self-deprecating, I wasn’t really quite qualified for it. Had they done a national search, they would have probably hired somebody good like Mark Lamos or somebody like that, thinking of the names around in those days. But I think they felt an obligation to give me a shot because I had gotten them out of a hole, out of Chapter 11 and out of financial risk and all of that stuff. And so they let me be head of the theater. I toyed with the idea of calling myself a producer because that’s what I think of myself as, but I called myself artistic director because the theater didn’t have the best artistic reputation and I just wanted to make it clear that I was making the artistic decisions. So that’s how I became the artistic director of the theater in around 1989, ‘90. In retrospect, I sort of didn’t know what I was doing because the theater had not really developed a lot of good relationships with directors. In fact, in the six or seven years that I was managing director, we never had one director back, I don’t think, and here was this kid that nobody had ever heard of suddenly being artistic director and in those days it was considered a little bit of heresy to move from management to artistic. Now, of course, if you look in New York, the majority of the theaters are run by non-directors, but in those days that wasn’t the case. My first season was put together a little slipshod but we got through it and it was a learning curve for me. The subscribers were shockingly low. I forgot to mention, in the course of this timeline, that when I got to the theater in 1983, the landlord was threatening to throw Roundabout out because they hadn’t paid rent, shockingly. I was very good about paying rent and sucking up to the landlord, which was the ILGWU, but they evicted us on Christmas of 1984 and so we had to find another theater quickly and we found this union hall – also, ironically, controlled by somebody at the ILGWU who liked us – at Union Square that we converted from a union hall – literally a union hall, I went there and there was a plumbers’ union meeting. We spent $1 million – still in Chapter 11, we got the board to put up loans of $1 million and we converted it into what’s now called the Union Square Theatre but was then the Roundabout Theatre. So we were on 17th Street in Union Square just at the moment when it was starting to become a decent neighborhood. The same month that we started performances there, Danny Meyer opened his first restaurant, called Union Square Cafe, and the whole neighborhood started to change. Anyway, we were reasonably successful there. I was still managing director in those days, we were reasonably successful there. Years passed and our initial lease, which I think was five, six or seven years, was set to expire and the union liked us but didn’t want to commit to a long term lease because they thought they might sell the building. They wanted us to be on a year by year lease, which we were, and I thought this was no way to run a business, that you can’t have an institution that doesn’t know if it’s going to have a building the following year. And Roundabout was always dedicated to the subscription concept, of the subscribers having a home, and so a lot of things happened. I became, as I said, artistic director, we were faced with this space issue, of where the theater was going to have a permanent home, and I started looking around the city for a place where we could get at least a five, seven, ten year lease. It was in that environment that I discovered something called the Criterion Center, which was a theater that a man named Charlie Moss had built, a 500 seat Broadway theater and a cabaret space next to it. He hadn’t had much success there, artistically, and I approached him about us renting it, and to make a very long story short, he agreed to rent it to us for, I think, seven years at a very reasonable price – a price that would be shocking today. I had to convince the board that people would actually come to Times Square, but the theater was nice and had a nice, big lobby. I also had to get stage hands’ unions and the actors’ unions to all agree to give us concessions because if were on a full Broadway contract we would have gone out of business in two weeks. But the stage hands were terrific and they gave us a really good deal, as did the other unions – Actors’ Equity and the others – and so we moved to Broadway. It was not my master plan to move to Broadway, it was my master plan to find a theater. It just so happened that the theater was on Broadway. So suddenly we were a Broadway theater and that really marked a turning point in the theater’s history because being on Broadway, as most people know, gives you a lot more attention, visibility and makes you eligible for Tony Awards. So that’s how I ended up as artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre in 1990 or 1991 on Broadway for the first time.
Ken: I actually want to go back for a second. So you were 25 when you sent your resume off. I’m fascinated with the fact that you think of yourself as a producer because I think a lot of people do think of you as a producer, and you could have gone either way. With your business mind, with your artistic sensibilities, with your experience in the theater, you could have said, “I want to be a commercial producer,” but you started looking at non-profit institutions. Why?
Todd: I can’t explain why, Ken, but I never had any interest in being a commercial producer. I knew in college – if you read my application to Yale for business school it says, “I want to be a managing director of a major not-for-profit theater institution.” It actually says that.
Ken: What about it . . . ?
Todd: I don’t know. I knew I loved theater but I don’t know why I didn’t want to be a commercial producer. I didn’t know anything about the commercial world. Remember, commercial theater was doing very poorly at that time.
Ken: That’s a good point.
Todd: Fundraising in that sense, of trying to get people to invest in shows, was something that scared me – it still does today – and I knew I wanted to work in that collegial not-for-profit environment. I just knew it, I cannot explain why.
Ken: That’s a great point that you made, because a lot of people, a lot of my readers and listeners, their biggest fear is raising money, but I’m sure a large part of what you do here, especially in those early days, was trying to get somebody’s mother to write you another $100,000 with a swan on it, so is fundraising still a large part of what you do now?
Todd: It is, and becoming larger and larger, but I have a staff of 12 people who do nothing but fundraising and Julia Levy, our executive director, is fantastic at it and Lynne Gregory, our development director, is fantastic at it, so I really only come in when I’m needed. It occupies no more than 20% of my time. Frankly, I still find it difficult to ask for money, even though I believe in the cause. I remember the first time I asked somebody for $1 million I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. I was like, “Mmm.” I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth.
Ken: Did they give it to you?
Ken: Did you get $1 million from somebody else?
Todd: We got something from this person and this person has since done wonderful things for us. But, no, we didn’t get the million then. But I just knew I wanted to be in not-for-profit theater. I was lucky. A lot of people don’t know what they want to do. I knew this was what I wanted to do. I had no thought of being an artistic director, it just never entered my mind. They were always directors.
Ken: You said fundraising may be 20% of your time. Divide the other 80% for me. What’s a typical day or year for you, in terms of your responsibilities?
Todd: I would say probably 40% of my time is spent planning future productions, which is getting harder and harder. To some extent, Broadway has adopted the Roundabout model of doing revivals to classics with stars. There’s a reason I think that’s happened, which we can go into, but in any case I have to do great plays and I have to get great actors to be in them, and I pay them $1,300 a week instead of $100,000 a week, so that is an enormous challenge and harder than it was five years ago. Also, the definition of “star” on Broadway has become so heightened that people – and I say this with no disparagement – people who used to sell tickets . . . I’m trying to think of a good example. In the old days, Phil Bosco, but more currently people like Victor Garber, great actors, Cherry Jones, they don’t sell tickets on their own now because they’re competing against Bradley Cooper and Catherine Zeta Jones – you name it – star after star after star. So there’s an enormous amount of pressure for us to do quality work, stick to our mission – which has expanded greatly since I took over – but also get stars. A good example would be we did a production of The Winslow Boy last year. It got unanimously rave reviews and it didn’t sell any tickets because it starred Roger Rees, who is one of the great actors of our generation but not a big TV star or movie star. And the theater needs about 65% earned income – which is the largest budget of any not-for-profit in America, most people don’t know that – so there’s more and more pressure to get stars and, of course, being a not-for-profit theater, I feel an obligation to get stars who I really believe can deliver, not just show up and sell tickets and be mediocre, but actually show up and be brilliant and sell tickets.
Ken: You have this added pressure – I always say that a producer is only as good as his next show, so I spend probably 20-30% of my time trying to plan what’s coming but I don’t have to do something. I can say, “Okay, I’m not doing anything this spring.” You have to.
Todd: Have to.
Ken: You do how many shows a year, in your season?
Todd: Seven, plus the black box production.
Ken: Seven shows a year that you produce, and you have to fill them.
Todd: Not only do we have to fill them, but we just signed an actor – I can’t tell you his name because we haven’t announced it yet – for our first slot next season, and he had to fit into our slot. Not only did we have to convince him to do theater and make his Broadway debut, not only did we have to convince him to do this play with this director, not only did we have to convince him to work for $1,300 per week, but we had to convince him to do it on our dates. So it is really, really complicated. I’m planning 2017 now in addition to planning 2016 and doing 2015. It has gotten much harder and put more pressure on fundraising, because earned income is much more variable now. The traditional model for fundraising in America is 40% unearned income, 60% earned income – that’s typical for theater – and we’re still at about 30% unearned income and we’ve got to get it up to 40% unearned income.
Ken: Back in the day you had the Criterion Center. I remember seeing shows there. Now, flash forward, and you have a few venues. What was the impetus for you to go after them? Obviously the Criterion Center went away.
Todd: What actually happened was this. I saw the handwriting on the wall, that Times Square was improving. At the same time, the Times Square redevelopment organization, headed by Cora Kahn, was trying to figure out what to do with the theaters on 42nd Street. Disney had jumped in and Cora was building a children’s theater but there was nobody else there. This was pre-Garth Drabinsky and all of that. But there was one theater they really wanted to develop, which was the Selwyn Theater. I remember meeting with her and saying, “We’d like that theater, please,” and she basically said yes – again, desperation is the wrong word, but out of real need, she gave us a very, very fair rent price on it and a six year lease. The only problem was that we had to renovate it. I went back to the board and said, “Okay, I’ve got this great theater. We only have to raise $7-8 million,” and they said, “Are you out of your mind? We’re at the Criterion Center,” and I said, “I’m telling you, we’re going to get evicted from the Criterion Center.” We went back and forth and back and forth and I finally convinced the board to go forward with the lease on the Selwyn and about six months after we signed the lease we got the eviction notice from the Criterion Center. Of course, the $7-8 million renovation turned out to be something closer to $25 million because of all the landmark requirements and all of the amenities that we had to put into the space, but the city was incredibly generous with capital funds. I’d have to check on the number but the city and the state gave us about half the money, and the other $12 million or whatever it was we managed to raise and we opened the theater. We were, I guess, the first people to put a corporate name on the theater. There was a lot of hubbub about it. I didn’t think about it for five seconds. When American Airlines said, “We want to pay you to put our name on the theater. We want no artistic involvement, just put our name on the theater and we’ll give you plane tickets,” I thought about it for 30 seconds and said, “Yes.” There was this whole hubbub in the press about selling out, and, “The Selwyn name? How could they take it off?” The Selwyns were two crooked producers. It wasn’t like it was named after Helen Hayes. I still probably would have taken Helen Hayes name off of it, but it wasn’t on it. So there was drama about that, but we moved into that theater, I think, in around 2002. The first play was The Man Who Came to Dinner, Jerry Zaks directing with Nathan Lane. Within the next five years of moving into the American Airlines Theater there were three seminal moments that really had a profound, long term impact on the theater. The first was a woman named Natasha Richardson approached me. She was unknown in America but I knew who she was because I went to England and I saw her shows in England and I had met her and her father together and she wanted to do a play called Anna Christie on Broadway. She had gone to Lincoln Center and they had passed and she had gone to Circle in the Square and they had passed – Circle in the Square still operated then as a not-for-profit – so I was the only person left. She came to meet me and said, “I want to do Anna Christie on Broadway. Will you consider it?” and I said,” Yes!” I made the decision as quickly as I made the American Airlines decision because I knew she was a great actress. She said, “I met this guy who I think would be brilliant in it named Liam Neeson and I would like to get him to play the other role,” and I’m embarrassed to say, publicly on your podcast, that I didn’t know who Liam Neeson was. He had done Darkman then, he had done a couple of movies, but I didn’t know who Liam Neeson was. But I had heard that he was great. So we made the offer to Liam Neeson and one day – I’ll never forget this because it changed our lives – we got a Western Union telegram – remember telegrams? – and it said, “Liam Neeson accepts your offer,” and I said, “Great.” I was not jumping around for joy, I was like, “Good, we have the show cast,” and we cast Rip Torn as the third person, and Anne Meara, and we did it. This was, I think, our second year on Broadway and the show became a sensation. People still talk about that production. People who couldn’t have possibly seen it insist they saw it. And of course there was the drama of Natasha and Liam falling in love because Natasha was married to Robert Fox at the time and Liam was quite the ladies’ man and they fell in love during the production and it won the Tony Award for best revival. And that really, really put us on the map as a theater to be taken seriously on Broadway. The second thing that happened was part of my artistic “vision” – I say that almost sarcastically because I still don’t think of myself as an artist – from the beginning had been to expand the mission of the theater from doing just Ibsen and Shaw and Chekov to doing more contemporary classics, so we started doing Arthur Miller, Brian Friel, Harold Pinter, people like that. But then I thought, when we were in the Criterion Center, that the one indigenous American theatrical art form is the musical theater and Guys and Dolls was revived every five years and Fiddler on the Roof was revived every five years – remember, we’re going back to the early 2000s – and Man of La Mancha was revived every five years, but I thought there were musicals worthy of revival that a not-for-profit theater should do that are not going to get a commercial Broadway revival or don’t seem to be getting one. So we started what we pompously called the Great American Musical Theatre series and we decided to do, as our first musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Nobody will remember this except me, but I was dealing with Stephen Sondheim’s agent, Flora Roberts, who didn’t even know who I was, and convinced her to let us pursue it, so we announced it. Then, Jerry Zaks, who was already very, very famous, said to Flora Roberts, “I want to do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Nathan Lane,” and the rights were pulled from us so fast that you could hear the wind whistling. So I announced the Great American Musical Theatre series and I had no musical. I had met a very young man who had directed an Off-Broadway musical which was a compilation of Kander and Ebb’s work called And the World Goes Round and I thought it was brilliantly done. He was the director and a young woman named Susan Stroman was the choreographer and he had come in several months earlier and pitched me She Loves Me, and at the time I didn’t pay much attention for two reasons – one, we were doing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and, two, I didn’t really know She Loves Me well – I take no credit for it. I knew what it was, I had heard some of the songs, but it was not a musical that I knew well and I didn’t really do anything about it until I lost Forum and I called Scott up – Scott Ellis was the young man – and I said, “Do you want to talk about She Loves Me for the spring? I know it’s short notice,” and he said, “Sure.” So we decided to do She Loves Me. I didn’t know anything about producing musicals. I honestly thought that the way you produced a musical was you took a play and you added an orchestra and that was a musical and, as anybody in the theater knows, now musicals cost probably three times as much as plays, if not more, and are much more complicated than adding an orchestra. So we produced She Loves Me and spent more money than we had ever spent on anything – and I prided myself on controlling budgets, that was my background – but the budget got totally out of control, Tony Walton designed it, and had She Loves Me failed, not only would the theater have lost a lot of money that year but we never would have done another musical because the board never would have let us do another musical. But Scott did a brilliant job with it and it became a huge hit and sold out completely and transferred commercially to Broadway and that started us on the path towards doing musicals, which we’ve done probably 15 of since then. That was a seminal moment because we were close to abandonment at that moment, in terms of musical theater.
Ken: It seems to be a running theme – it gets down to the quick.
Todd: We get down to the quick. The third seminal event was, a couple of years later, a man named Sam Mendes, who was completely unknown in America, but was known as a young, hot director – very young, a 30 year old director – in London, directed a production of Cabaret that was very different than a typical Cabaret production. It was very gritty, it starred Jane Horrocks, who could barely sing. Songs were taken from it that had been in it and songs were added that had not been in it and it was just a whole new take on Cabaret, a much darker take on the piece, and Joe Masteroff happened to write the book for She Loves Me and Cabaret and he said, “It’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen in my life. You’ve got to see it.” I couldn’t get to London to see it – it only ran for eight weeks at the Donmar Warehouse and Sam’s production has never been seen in London since, but I saw the tape of it – they made a tape of it – and I said, “I want to do this, this would really be cool.” So I called Sam Mendes up and said, “I want to do it,” and he said, “Absolutely fine, I’d love for you to do it. The only problem is you have to do it in a 500 seat cabaret space. No more than 500 seats and it has to be a cabaret space,” and I’m like, “Where the fuck am I going to find a 500 seat cabaret space?” I’m going to abridge the story because I could write a book about Cabaret.
Ken: I hope you do write that book.
Todd: The other caveat was we had to bring over Alan Cumming, who was completely unknown, to play the lead. Those were his two caveats. Alan Cumming didn’t have a green card so we had to spend two years getting Alan Cumming a green card because in those days we couldn’t use actors without a green card. And finally I found, through the offices of Douglas Durst, the real estate developer, who was on our board and has found us every theater we’ve ever had – he’s a saint – he said, “There’s this space that used to be Club Xenon and now it’s being operated as a nightclub. It’s on 43rd Street and maybe you could make a deal with them where you could do the show and they could have their nightclub afterwards.” I think back on this, Ken, and I think must have been out of my mind. We negotiated with these guys who were truly thugs – it was like dealing with scary people – and we actually came to a deal where we would be there every night, doing the show at 8 o’clock, and at 10:30 we would strike the set and it would be a club from 11 to 4 in the morning, and we did that for a number of months. Natasha Richardson joined Alan Cumming and the show opened to unbelievably rave reviews and then the building next door to – we called it the Kit Kat Klub and they called it the Kit Kat Klub too because they thought that would be cool for the name of their nightclub – it was not an amicable relationship with the nightclub owners. We didn’t mix too well, they threatened people’s lives, it was lovely, but we were there and we had a hit. And then they were building the Condé Nast building, and the scaffolding on the Condé Nast building collapsed across the street, killing people and closing the street. It was a disaster and we didn’t know if the street was going to be closed for three weeks or three months, nobody could tell us. So we had this hit show and nothing to do with it so we closed it. Douglas Durst, again, said, “You know, I think at the old Studio 54, they were going to rent it to some sort of ride, like in Disney World, where you’re on a seat and the seat moves, and I think they lost their tenant. You should speak to them.” So I went to speak to the people at Studio 54, who were very nice. There was nothing in the building, there was no stage, there was just an empty space and a mezzanine, but that was it. And they agreed to rent us Studio 54 and we went to our board and said, “We need $1.5 million,” which in those days was a lot of money, “to make Studio 54 into the new Kit Kat Klub,” the other advantage being that it had 1,000 seats instead of 500 seats so we could actually run it as a commercial production. We really debated it because $1.5 million was a lot of money and we didn’t know how long the show would run but obviously we ultimately decided to do it. One weekend we built it and the old, small Kit Kat Klub ended up opening three weeks later – it was only closed for three weeks. So we started performances there again but we were already moving to Studio 54 because it made more economic sense, so while it was playing at the Kit Kat Klub, we were building a new Kit Kat Klub at Studio 54. I’m not kidding – one weekend we just moved the show. We had built a new set that replicated the old set and one weekend we just moved in, teched and opened the next week at Studio 54. It was like Let’s Put on a Play, only the Broadway version. It won like 15 Tony Awards and ran six and a half years and with the money that we raised from the success of Cabaret we were able to buy Studio 54 and have that be our permanent home, mostly for musicals. So those were the three seminal events between 2001 and 2000-whatever that transformed the theater from a minor blip on the Broadway landscape into some sort of force on Broadway.
Ken: Now, of course, flash forward and you have another theater – you have the Stephen Sondheim now, where Beautiful is in residence. As you were coming up and acquiring these theaters and becoming more of a major player in the real estate game on Broadway did you get any flak from the other theater owners? What was their response? Was it, “Oh, he’s got the American Airlines, that’s fine,” but when you started to get a couple of others were they like, “What’s happening over there?”
Todd: To answer the question diplomatically, I think every time a not-for-profit – and I include Lincoln Center and Manhattan Theatre Club in this group – every time a not-for-profit theater wins a Tony Award, it’s a knife in the heart of a commercial theater producer. Even though a lot of them are my friends and friendly to me, I think they would like it if we went away. They seem to think we have some sort of wonderful advantage – we really don’t, but they seem to think we do. The reality is I get paid a salary, my salary is public. If I had produced Cabaret as a commercial producer I would have made $10 million. I made nothing – I got a $25,000 raise. So I wouldn’t say that the commercial producers were thrilled that we were becoming more and more of a force. The opportunity came up – and this is all incredibly ironic – when the new building was built, which is now the Bank of America Tower, it was built by guess who? Douglas Durst, who was on our board. As a concession for knocking down the old Club Xenon-Kit Kat Klub, he was required by the city to build a new theater and I think they gave him extra floors because of that, as a consolation prize, so it was good for him too. Douglas, being the man that he is, could have just build any dumpy theater and fit the requirements, because they weren’t that stringent, but instead he built a 1,000 seat state of the art theater – an exquisite theater. While all of this was going on I had nothing to do with it and one day Douglas called me and said, to put it nicely, “I don’t really want to deal with these commercial theater owners who are interested in the theater.” Remember, we were just a tiny blip to this giant, multi-billion dollar building. “I want somebody to run the theater who I trust, who I know will keep it open and do good work. Is it something you would be interested in?” And I said, “Absolutely,” and the board said, “You are out of your mind. You are becoming a megalomaniac.”
Ken: They still didn’t trust you after all of this time?
Todd: They thought I was crazy. Another theater? But Douglas, bless his heart, gave us a very reasonable rent and I made the case to the board – I remember going through all of these spreadsheets and everything – that we could use it to produce but also to rent to generate income that would go back to the not-for-profit purpose of the institution. I don’t think they truly believed me but they were very dedicated to me. The theater was doing well and they had always been incredibly supportive of me, even from those first days when they paid the payroll in cash, and so they agreed to sign the lease for what became the Stephen Sondheim Theatre and that was our third Broadway theater. We produced Bye Bye Birdie there, we produced Anything Goes there, which was a huge success, and then, for reasons which I can’t remember because the years blur, we were doing a musical at Studio 54 and I wanted to rent out the Stephen Sondheim Theatre for a few months because we didn’t need to use it. I saw that this Carole King musical was announced and I didn’t know anything about it except that I’m obsessed with Carole King because I’m of that generation and I figured, “If I’m obsessed with Carole King, anyone over 45, which is the target theater audience, is probably interested in Carole King too, so at least it will run for four or five months and we’ll generate some income and then we can use it for whatever we need to use it for.” So I went after Beautiful very aggressively – we gave them a good deal – and it’s been running at 100% capacity from the first day and will probably be there for three or four years, which was not part of our plan, but has helped the theater a lot financially in terms of our budget. We will produce there again when Beautiful ends, I just have no idea when Beautiful will end.
Ken: What I love about this repeated theme in your life is having to make a very quick decision, in 30 seconds or less – whether it’s Natasha, whether it’s American Airlines – and you just go with your gut and do it. You say you have no master plan, it just happens. I think great producers and leaders have great instincts and know how to adapt to the environment. I think you saw what was coming in Times Square and you made choices that obviously paid off. So think ahead now – do you have a master plan for the next 20 years for Roundabout? Is there something more you want? Do you want more theaters?
Todd: I don’t want more theaters. First of all, I think your point is well taken. I think that, while I didn’t have a master plan, I did have the ability to seize on opportunities that other people might not have seized on. If I feel in my gut – and I still feel this way about productions – 100% sure that something is going to be successful, I’m usually right. The problem is sometimes I only feel 50% sure and then it’s a disaster. I was 100% sure that buying Studio 54 was the right decision and that going to the Sondheim was the right decision. In terms of the future, what I’d like to be able to do is stabilize the theater. Not that the theater is unstable, financially, but build up a large endowment and have it be truly stable so that we can get unearned income up to 40%, have a large reserve fund and be able to take risks, and be able to do Machinal. I knew Machinal would be really cool and I knew it wouldn’t sell tickets. You could argue whether, for the institution, it was the right decision or not, because if you run out of money it doesn’t matter how good your art is, so I would like to be in a position five years from now, ten years from now, where we have a $100 million endowment and we can do whatever we want to do and if it fails, it fails, but it was a good try, rather than spending my life chasing celebrities and begging them to do plays, because it’s tough. A perfect example is On the Twentieth Century – this is a musical that I think is a very good musical. Is it great, as great as Gypsy? No, it’s not as great as Gypsy but it’s a very good musical, it’s never been revived, we’re spending a lot of money on it, we have a fantastic cast and production, I have no doubt it’s going to be a great production. Ben Brantley may say, “I just don’t like the musical,” who knows? That’s a big risk for us. That’s a lot of money – millions and millions of dollars – less than a commercial production, but still millions and millions of dollars. David Rockwell’s set is unbelievable. It keeps me up at night, and I’d like to be in a position where it doesn’t keep me up at night.
Ken: You deserve some sleep, Todd! You’ve been working hard for a long time and you deserve a nap. Okay, last question, which I ask everybody. I want you to imagine that the gods of theater come down right now, they knock on the door, they come in and they say, “Todd, you’ve been a good boy and you’ve done amazing things for the theater. I’m going to grant you one wish. You can change one thing about Broadway right now, one thing. Whatever it is you want, we’ll change to the way you want it.” What’s the one thing you would change about Broadway that drives you crazy and really keeps you up at night?
Todd: It’s a great question but one I’ve never thought about until now. I think the selfish answer – meaning selfish for Roundabout – would be to make all premium ticket prices go away, because it’s the premium ticket prices that allow the producers to charge $400, that allow them to pay stars $100,000 a week and make back their money in 15 weeks and maybe even make a little profit, and it has hurt us a lot. So from the totally selfish standpoint, if ticket prices were just $150, as the top price for a musical, and $110 the top price for a play, things would be a lot better for us and a lot better for the public, frankly. But obviously that’s a pipe dream. Our difficulties certainly did start when the producers were the first people to start doing the premium ticket prices and people caught onto it and suddenly people will pay $400 to see Bradley Cooper. The other things that’s happened in Broadway – and I don’t know if it’s good or bad – is that, when I started at Roundabout, Broadway was 30% tourists. Last year it hit 70% tourists. That’s good for Broadway – although the size of the pie, the total audience, has not grown significantly. The composition of the audience has changed dramatically. So the kind of work that I’m interested in doing, a lot of it is not tourist-driven, which puts even more pressure on having stars and well known titles. No tourist is going to come to New York and see The Winslow Boy or Machinal – I’m just picking on those plays because we did them recently. A tourist comes to New York and wants to see a great big musical hit or a celebrity, so the marketplace going from 30% to 70% is a pretty dramatic change, and it’s probably increasing every year. It also makes you think about why aren’t the people from the tristate area coming to New York City anymore? Let’s face it, without being condescending, they were the slightly more sophisticated theater-goers. There are a lot of theories on it – some of them have to do with the fact that people don’t want to go to Times Square, it’s become like nightmare Disneyland.
Ken: It’s become too safe now – it’s the reverse of what it was.
Todd: You get accosted by Smurfs and you can’t walk and you can’t walk and you can’t move and whatever. There has been a dramatic change in the Broadway landscape and so far, knock on wood, we’ve been able to adapt but we’ll see what happens.
Ken: Okay, all you tristate and New Yorkers, go and see a Roundabout show so that Todd can get some sleep at night. Thank you so much for doing this and thank you all for listening. That ends yet another Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe. If you’re listening on iTunes, give me a rating and review, will you? And we will see you next time. Thanks!