Episode 8 Transcript – Hal Luftig
Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I’m sitting on the main stage of my theater, and today we have a very special guest. Over the past eight or so episodes we’ve talked to gossip columnists, we’ve talked to press agents, artistic directors. But this week, finally, we’re actually talking to a producer, which makes sense because this is the Producer’s Perspective. And what a producer I have sitting in front of me. Today, I’m happy to say we’re talking to Olivier and Tony Award winning producer, Hal Luftig. Welcome, Hal.
Hal: Hi, Ken. Thank you, thank you.
Ken: Hal has been the lead producer on a host of shows, like Kinky Boots, which is just a couple doors down from us right now, Evita with Ricky Martin, Catch Me If You Can, Legally Blonde, Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is where I first met him, and a whole host of others. If you dig deeper in that list of credits you’ll find that Hal is one of the few producers out there to have produced more than one Best Musical Tony Award winner with Millie and Kinky Boots, and we’ll get into the specifics of that in a bit. But I’ll tell you, it is not easy to win one of those suckers and Hal has done it twice. We’re going to start now with the big, tough questions for Hal . . .
Hal: Can I just say, Ken, when you stay stuff like that, I look over my shoulder and I go, “Who is he talking about?” Like when you said, “We have a producer here,” I was like, “We do? Where?”
Ken: It’s the truth, Hal. Welcome to your career, it’s a good one! It’s a career that I look up to and I know all of my readers do. Also what I love about you and to all the readers and listeners out there, you just heard what I think the business loves about Hal. He’s just a very humble and gracious guy, which is why I wanted him as the first producer on the podcast. So tell us how you got started in this crazy business.
Hal: I know this is going to sound weird. My husband is a psychiatrist and he always tells me that as a psychiatrist, this is the weirdest thing. But I knew when I was nine years old exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t know it was called producing, but I can’t act and I can’t direct and, trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing. We went to the theater when I was a kid a lot and I just knew, around nine years old, that shows, especially musicals, had a lot of moving parts. There were actors and there was scenery and there were lights, and if you looked in the pit there was another dozen people doing stuff down there. And I just knew, looking at the playbill, because my heroes at the time were Manny Azenberg and David Merrick and Hal Prince and so I would see their names, and I figured out that they must have something to do with putting all of that together. And I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. So, to make a long story short, when it came time to go to college, my parents basically said, “We love that you love the theater. Now go get a real degree.” So I did and I got a degree in journalism and psychology. I don’t know how those two things met but they were the two things that interested me the most. I got out of school and I worked for Newsday, which is the Long Island newspaper, for a couple of years, and I was miserable. I hated it. I just didn’t want to do it. I knew that I wanted to somehow gravitate to theater and just around that time they were re-upping the Columbia program for Masters of Fine Arts in Theater Administration, and Gerry Schoenfeld and Bernie Jacobs, may they rest in peace, were two of the founders and supporters and Schuyler Chapin, who’s Ted Chapin’s dad, was the dean. I applied and I will never forget this story. I tell this to Ted Chapin, so I can tell it here. I had no theater experience, zero, none. And I applied and, at the time, those were the days where they would call you in for an interview. So I went in for the interview and Schuyler was looking at my transcript . . . remember those, your college transcript? Schuyler Chapin was even taller than Ted Chapin. He was this enormous man, tall, thin, regal looking . . . and he was looking at my transcript and he asked me a few basic questions like how did I hear about the program, where did I live? Then he looked at my transcript thoroughly, picked his head up and said, “Young man, there is not one thing on this transcript that says ‘theater.’ Why do you think we should admit you to Columbia University?” And the way he said it, the thing that came out of my mouth was, “Because no one will work harder or wants this program more.” As it came out of my mouth, he stood up and he just shook my hand and said, “Well thank you very much for coming in,” and I will never forget this. I went home, I kicked myself the whole way home – I lived out in Long Island because I was working for Newsday. I basically cried the whole train ride home, thinking, “What a stupid, stupid, stupid idiot,” like a scene out of a cartoon. And about six days later I got a letter of acceptance. I couldn’t believe it. I always said, until the day she passed away, that Isabelle Stevenson had something to do with it and she totally denied it. Did you ever go to those Working in the Theatre seminars?
Ken: Oh, sure. This podcast is inspired by them.
Hal: I did too. I went to every one. They would have it at City College and she was always there. One day she came up to me as everyone was filing out and said, “I don’t know you but I see you here all the time,” and I introduced myself and I said, “I don’t really work in theater but I want to,” and she said, “That’s really great,” and I told her that I had applied to Columbia. I don’t know, Ken. I look back on it and I think, “There isn’t one reason they should have admitted me to that program.” Schuyler Chapin basically stood up and shook my hand and said so. Isabelle and I became great friends later in life and I would always say this to her – “Isabelle, I know you had something to do with it,” and she would look at me and say, “Dear, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She was never going to convince me otherwise. So that’s how I got started in the business. I graduated from the program, I got a job working for an off-Broadway theater company that, at the time, ran a couple of off-Broadway theaters, the Orpheum and Minetta Lane. They unfortunately went out of business . . . that’s all I can say of that . . . and one of the co-owners or the investors, called me and said, “Listen, I live in California and now I own a theater. How would you like to run it for me?” and I was like, “I’m in!” So that’s just how it started. It started slowly, I met different people, we did a lot of shows off-Broadway in the Orpheum Theatre. We did Charles Busch’s Lady in Question, and we did The Night Hank Williams Died, and Oleanna was in the Orpheum Theatre when I was there. It was a great, fertile time and I just met a lot of people . . . Margo Lion, Rocco Landesman . . . and slowly but surely I started co-producing. I was just learning, listening. Then I met you on Millie.
Ken: So the learning, listening part . . . who were you learning from and listening to at the time? Any mentors?
Hal: Anyone I could. Margo Lion was a great mentor. I met her when she was producing The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is a Martha Clarke dance piece. It turns out that Martha and Margo were cousins. Who knew? So that was one person who I gravitated to. She was great. She would talk to me and teach me and I would ask questions. Manny Azenberg was another one. If he’s listening he’s going to die that I’m saying this. But we got to do Movin’ Out together, he and I, the Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp piece, and I would always say to him, “Manny, I can’t believe you’re here,” and he would just smack me and go, “Shut up!” and things like that. Gerry Schoenfeld, like I said, Bernie Jacobs. Every week, as part of that management program, he would go to the Shubert office and they would alternate. One week it would be Bernie, one week it would be Gerry. And they would either just talk about the business or sometimes Bernie would take a phone call. There’s a great story that anyone in that class will tell you . . . Dreamgirls was going to LA, it was the first stop of its national tour, and it was a huge hit but Michael Bennett had decided that he wanted to put all of these “improvements” in it, and Bernie was having none of it. The class sat in his office, while he took a call from Michael Bennett and you could hear Michael screaming – you know when someone’s talking too loud through the handset – at Bernie, and Bernie’s screaming. He’s turning red, his veins are bulging, screaming back at Michael. This goes on for like 15 minutes and I’m taking notes, thinking, “This is going to be on the test.” Bernie, God love him, puts down the phone and says, “He loves me. I’m like his father. He only does that because he loves me.” And I’m thinking, “Oh my God. I’m remembering this.”
Ken: This is the business you’re getting into – a dysfunctional family where everybody loves each other.
Hal: Everybody loves each other. That’s the kind of learning and listening I did. I was an associate producer on shows like Jelly’s Last Jam, The Secret Garden with Michael David and the Dodgers – they were just great to listen and figure out how things happen, who does what and how and when, learning how to deal with different artistic personalities and things like that.
Ken: What was the first show that you stepped out on your own as a lead producer?
Ken: It was Millie? For those of you who don’t know, I was the company manager of Thoroughly Modern Millie and I was lucky enough – you talk about learning and listening – man, did I listen and learn from you on that show. But that was the first one?
Hal: That was the first one, and boy was that trial by error. Do you remember when the deluge curtain came down?
Ken: I do remember.
Hal: happened to me twice in that theater. You know I love the Nederlanders. I’ve had two shows in the Marquee Theater – Thoroughly Modern Millie and Evita. I don’t know if you know this, but most theaters have a fire curtain, this asbestos curtain that, if a fire were to break out, this asbestos curtain falls quickly and it stops any flames going from the stage to the audience or the audience to the stage. Well, when the Marquis Theater was built, somebody decided ‘We don’t need a real asbestos curtain. What we’ll do is we’ll have this pipe that runs along the top of the stage and, should a fire break out, 200 million gallons of water will come down quickly, like a deluge.’ Hence the name, deluge curtain. Do you remember, we were in rehearsal for Millie, they were loading in the set and the fire department has to test the water pressure systems? So they came in and someone forgot to turn the key that says, “This is only a test” and pushed the button as though there were a fire. So 200,000 or whatever or gross, disgusting water that had been sitting in this pipe for 20 years came crashing down and soaked our set. By the grace of God there was not a lot of damage. Fast forward, 20 years later, Evita, we have a preview, someone’s doing some electrical work and they hit one of the sensors and all of that water came crashing down again. This time it all went into the pit with the music, the scores, the instruments. With Millie we were just loading in. with Evita we were into performances. It looked like the Titanic. Sheet music was floating on this gross puddle – six feet of water in the orchestra. Our musical director, Kristen Blodgette, was there because it was the day after previews so we were still rehearsing. She dove in and one of the stage hands pulled her out, saying, “Get out of there, there’s live electricity!” Finally we got it all worked out and the Nederlanders came down and I looked at Nick – who I love, he’s a friend – and I said, “Nick, don’t take this personally, I don’t think I’m ever playing this theater again.” We both just howled because we both knew how bizarre it was. But, yes, that’s where I met you.
Ken: Maybe they’re changing that theater now.
Hal: I hope so. Let’s hope they put in a real asbestos curtain.
Ken: Bring back asbestos, for God’s sake!
Hal: Bring back asbestos, people!
Ken: I’ve talked to a bunch of people in my career about how everyone is a little bit different. How do you spend most of your days? A third marketing, a quarter development? How do you split it up?
Hal: That’s a really good question. One of the reasons why I love what I do is because when you wake up in the morning you have no idea. You could have a set plan and I have a schedule and I’ll have a lunch meeting or a marketing meeting but then the phone rings and in a nanosecond the whole day – sometimes the whole week, sometimes your whole world – gets turned around. There are some days, I’m not going to lie, where I put my head in my hands and go, “This is why I went to college? I’m actually dealing with this?” But then there are days where I think ,“Isn’t this cool? I’m challenged by something. I have to figure something out.” Something is working or not working – it’s an interesting problem or I’m talking to an interesting creative person and I’m like, “Wow!” I don’t know how to divvy that up. With something like Kinky Boots, which you’re a producer on too, we are now in a place where we have lots of different productions going out. we have the tour, which I have to pay attention to, we have Broadway, which obviously we’re all paying attention to, we have Toronto, which opens at the end of June so today, before I came here, a lot of the discussion was the set building and because that set is going to travel to Australia after we’re done with Toronto, so a lot of that was, “Okay, if we build it this way it has to get on a boat and be shipped. Is that the best way to do it?” As we producers make that decision, then you have to run that by the director and the set designer, “No I can’t have that built out of paper mache, I have to build that out of whatever I’m building that with,” and because we just got a theater in London that’s also taking a lot of my time these days, scheduling the auditions. I’m getting all of this marketing material now and the press releases, all of those things because it’s a new production in a new country. So these days a lot of my day is spent on all of the different companies of Kinky Boots.
Ken: If there was one aspect of being a producer that you could spend most of your time on, what’s the one part that you love the most?
Hal: The creation. I am the happiest person when you do the final run through in the rehearsal room. Maybe I shouldn’t but I always turn to the director and say, “It will never get better than this.” It is fabulous. It’s like watching this child that you conceived and you raised and it’s taking its first step and it’s a little melancholy because it’s taking a step away from you. Up to that point you are its protective parent. You are nurturing it, making sure that people love it as much as you do, hiring those people that will tend to it like you would. And suddenly, at that point, it’s the first step away from you because it’s not really yours anymore. That last day in the rehearsal room means you’re either going out of town or you’re going into tech, and there’s going to be a lot of costumes and a lot of lights and a new orchestra and all those kinds of things and it’s not yours anymore. Then the audience comes and they tell you whether they like it or not. So that’s my favorite part.
Ken: Obviously you’ve had some big, fat hits but what happens when that child of yours steps away from the rehearsal room and falls down?
Hal: You know what, Ken? The truth is it usually does. The thing that you forget is, as I said, wherever you’re going next, there’s a whole bunch of new elements that are coming in that you’re seeing for the first time. You haven’t seen the lights. How could you? You were in a rehearsal room. You really haven’t seen the costumes – it’s rehearsal clothes. You haven’t heard the orchestra or the orchestrations. How could you? All of those things are coming in for the very first time and usually it does stumble, in my experience anyway. The elements have to learn how to all work together. You have the sets that think, “I’m the most important!” and the costumes that think, “I’m the most important!” and the lights . . . and that’s, to me, a fun but very nerve-wracking part. You have to make those elements all work together and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. We all have had the experience of people who have said, “Oh my God, it was so great in the room. What happened?” or people who see something in a room and go, “This will never work,” and then they put it on stage and it’s the biggest hit. So it does stumble.
Ken: When a show of yours doesn’t work, how do you deal with that? Because so many people that I talk to who want to be producers are so afraid of failure.
Hal: That’s a really great question. It’s a painful thing. It depends on the depth of the failure. Sometimes you can look at something and go, “Okay, it didn’t work. I will never regret it.” Like The Times They Are a-Changin’, the Twyla Tharp piece. I mean it’s Bob Dylan, Twyla Tharp, this incredible cast of dancers, with a story that she tried to create about redemption and all these different tough topics and it just didn’t work for several reasons. I think people were just not willing to hear Dylan’s music told in that way, but to the day I die I will never regret it. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences watching it. On the other hand, when Catch Me If You Can didn’t work, it was heartbreaking. It was hard for me to get out of bed for like a week. I was grieving. My psychiatrist husband said to me, “You are grieving. Somebody died. It’s not your mom, it’s not your dad, it’s your show.” It was hard. You just have to pick yourself up. And when it failed I thought, “Are people laughing at me? Are people in the industry silently chuckling?” I know that sounds a little bit like paranoia and I’m not saying that anyone was doing it, but that’s how it feels because you’re so exposed. It’s not a small or silent failure. Everybody saw it, everybody knew it, awards came out, Tony nominations and all of that stuff, and we weren’t part of the conversation. But one of the things I love about this industry is that, after I got beyond that, I realized that no one was laughing, and in fact everybody knew what it felt like. Everyone in this business knows what that feels like and the reason they don’t come running over and hug you is because they know how bad that feels. They should, I think, now that I’m saying this. The next time I know someone who has that happen, I am going to go over and give them a big bear hug and say, “You know what? I love you anyway.”
Ken: Well if it’s me, I’ll take it. I’ll definitely take it.
Hal: Because it’s tough.
Ken: It’s very hard.
Hal: And people don’t realize.
Ken: At the conference last week I spoke and I said one of the things I do when I’m feeling down myself after something that doesn’t work is I look at the resumes of other producers, like Manny Azenberg, legends like David Merrick. You look at those legends and you realize they all failed multiple times.
Hal: Absolutely, you’re right. It’s tough, it really is.
Ken: One of the tricky things I find about being a producer, especially in today’s economic climate, is balancing the need to control costs but, of course, delivering what the artist’s vision is. How do you balance the art versus commerce equation?
Hal: At times it’s easier than not. It depends on the director, because the first thing you have to be able to do is have that conversation in any way, shape or form. It’s the question you just asked me. “How do you balance that?” Jerry Mitchell is one of the best people to have that conversation with because he gets it and you can say to him, and I have said to him, “Jerry, we can have dancing waiters on stage, if you want, or six elephants if you want, but then you have to know that something else is going to have to go or the show is going to become so expensive to run on a weekly basis that it’s just never going to work and, more importantly, a savvy investor is going to look at that and say, ‘I’m not putting an investment in because the show is financially untenable.’” So it’s that conversation that I love to have now. How else can we do the dancing waiters? How else can we have the effect of twelve elephants on stage? How can we do that? He’s really great to have that conversation with. With other directors and designers, it’s a little tougher, but I always find that, at the end of the day, if you pose it the way I just did . . . “Here’s the budget. You can spend all of it on one piece of scenery and have five cents left for the rest of it, but you can’t keep adding onto it because it’s an exercise in futility. The show will not happen because no one is going to invest in it.” These people who are investors are not unsophisticated or stupid. They look at the bottom line. “How much does this cost to run? How much does it need per week to break even, let alone recoup? And how many seats do you have?” It’s not a mystical or surprising equation.
Ken: That’s a great way to describe it. In a way you’re giving them controlled freedom. You’re showing them the line they have to color within but letting them use whatever colors they want.
Hal: Absolutely. You know what? It is like parenting. And I’m not a parent, but one of the things that they always say is that a child has a tantrum because they can’t control their environment. They want to do something and the parents are saying no and they’re not controlling their environment. When you give a child a choice, you’re the parent and you know what the choice is. Like if you want him or her to wear a coat you say, “You have to wear your coat. Do you want to wear the red coat or the blue coat?” Honestly, do you really care if it’s the red coat or the blue coast? In a way it is like that in a creative situation. You are giving them control but, ultimately, you’re getting what you need from it and letting them have what they need from it. That’s the situation where nobody has a tantrum. The tantrum happens when somebody feels like they have no say or control in something that they need or want to do.
Ken: That’s an incredibly enlightening way to look at that.
Hal: I don’t like tantrums.
Ken: No one does.
Hal: It’s not good.
Ken: You talk a little bit about investors and financially savvy investors, which I find we’re running into more and more these days. Tell me a little bit about how you deal with investors or raising money. Do you have a style or a strategy? What do you do?
Hal: I think the first thing I do is, I’m just a straight shooter. I have investors who have been with me for many, many years, who I love and I’m grateful for and we can just have a different kind of conversation. But more and more I’m also grateful that, as you produce shows that are successful, people kind of find you. The first thing I do, and I hope they appreciate it, is I kind of vet them. I make sure that they understand and are willing to, as much as people can be, to lose it all. I also make sure, because I love to sleep at night, that they’re not investing their life savings or money that was going to send their kid to school or that they had in case of a medical emergency. I always say to them, “I hope this never happens, but if you can’t afford to lose it all you shouldn’t do this.” Now nobody likes to lose money, but there are degrees of what people can “afford” to lose. Once we get past that, then I just walk them through what the process is. There’s capitalization and weekly operating and there’s net profit and there’s how all that works and how they recoup and what happens when they recoup. Then I always finish by saying this, and I believe this in my heart of hearts: “Listen, you can invest in whatever you want. You can invest in widgets or own a piece of GE. I promise you this. You may not make as much money on a show, but I promise you will never have as much fun and you will never feel as connected to something.” There is something visceral and real when a person has an investment in a show and they sit in the theater or they stand at the back and they actually can say to themselves, “I helped create this. I own a piece of this, not just financially but emotionally.” I dare you to go to a shareholders meeting at some major corporation and go, “I helped create this! I own a piece of Apple!” You don’t feel that way. It might be a nice investment. You might get a check, and I’m not saying that that’s not worth investing for, but people who invest in theater, I think, love the art. They love that connection and they love the fun. And it is fun.
Ken: I often say that investing on Broadway is the riskiest investment you’ll ever love to make.
Hal: That’s right. To certain people I say – and I say this tongue in cheek because I have made a living in theater for the past 30 years – but that old adage you hear, “In theater you can’t make a living but you can make a killing.” I have made a living, but it is true. If you have a hit show you do make a killing and I think savvy investors recognize that.
Ken: I think that honest approach to your investors is why they’ve stayed with you for so many years.
Hal: I hope so, I do hope so. It’s not easy. When Catch Me sort of didn’t work people were shocked by that. That was the easiest money I ever raised. Margo Lion and I produced that together and I will never forget . . . we did a tryout in Seattle which got a mixed response. We then went back and they rewrote stuff and Margo and I looked at each other and said, “You know what? We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the creative team to have another go.” We didn’t have a theater, we weren’t even sure that the rewrites were working. You know, you’re in such a vacuum at that point. I will never forget, this was right on the cusping edge of summer in June on a Friday afternoon, and we were just going to do one reading. We didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money on this. We just wanted to make sure we were going in the right direction, so we thought we’d just have a small reading. We invited the usual suspects, and people were hurling checks at me. I’m not kidding. At the end of the weekend I called Margo and said, “If you can believe this,” and I had no reason not to because I knew these people, “I have pledges of over $8 million,” and Margo herself said, “I have pledges close to that.” And I said, “Honey, we should just to Brazil. Let’s take the money and Max Bialystock out of here!” Those people saw something in the room that just ignited something in them. Some of them were first time producers or investors, and when it failed one of the heartbreaks was watching them have this thing that they loved so much sort of not work. What has been great about Catch Me is that, now that it’s out of that glare of Broadway, it’s done in a lot of places. I saw a production in Germany, I know high schools are doing it, we had a great US tour that was a smaller version of it that was successful. So it is great that it lives on.
Ken: A real benefit of the modern world is that there’s more downstream revenue for shows than ever before because of the globalization of Broadway. Let’s talk about a couple that did work, and very, very well. I was the company manager on Millie and it was my first Broadway company management gig. I had been an assistant on many.
Hal: Listeners, he was great! I’m underlining great. He was great.
Ken: Thank you very much. One of the things that I was so amazed at was how Millie won that Tony Award. We opened, we didn’t get a great New York Times review.
Hal: That’s putting it mildly!
Ken: Nederlander and I were in the audience at the first preview, going, “How are they going to turn this around?” It was rough going at the beginning, we weren’t selling lots of tickets. Then we didn’t get the good New York Times review. And then I watched one of the most courageous things happen, which is you and Kristin Caskey and Mike Isaacson, your partners at Fox Theatricals, say, “We’re going to go for it. We’re going to put some more money into this show and we’re going to go head to head against Urinetown,” which was critically lauded.
Hal: And Mamma Mia!
Ken: And Mamma Mia!, which was doing great business at this time, and really mount one of the first Tony campaigns that I witnessed. And you won that award. Look, I think Millie deserved it, no question.
Hal: I wouldn’t disagree with that.
Ken: But at the same time I watched you really lobby and position and advertise accordingly. And then you did it again with Kinky Boots. I will say that one of the reasons I signed on a producer of Kinky Boots was because you were in charge.
Hal: That’s so wonderful to hear.
Ken: It was Kinky and Matilda, and Matilda was this 800-pound gorilla that Ben Brantley had already anointed. It was going to win every single award.
Hal: Everybody, all the critics.
Ken: And I said, “Hal’s in charge and I’m going to put my money on Hal and the longer shot here because he knows how to win this award, and also capture the minds of audiences with his shows.” Tell me a little bit about how you structure a Tony campaign.
Hal: First of all, I just want to thank you for noticing that and saying that because one of the things that producers don’t get a lot of, is that acknowledgement that we actually have some creative input. When a show works, we had nothing to do with it, and when it doesn’t, it was all our fault. That’s the cross we carry so thank you for saying that. I’ll never forget this . . . with Millie we weren’t selling a lot of tickets, but Kristin and Mike and I were standing in the back every night and it was just this delightful show with this newcomer, Sutton Foster, and Rob Ashford’s new choreography. It had a lot of stuff to it. And then . . . I guess it’s who you ask . . . you think we got a bad review, I think we got decimated. To this day I still say, when I read a bad New York Times review, “It’s not as bad as Millie.” He just did not like that show. I was stunned. In my brain I thought we were going to get a good review, if not a rave, and I was stunned. Next morning, again, I was lying on the couch having a little pity part and my husband said, “Get up. I’m sorry this didn’t work out the way you thought it would but now you have a job to do and you have 100 people attached to this show on stage and they’re counting on you. You can feel sorry for yourself later, but not now. You have to go to that advertising meeting.” You know, after you open you have this ad meeting where everyone is looking at you, and I thought, “He’s right, I have to do this.” And I walked into that ad meeting and there were investors and people with tears in their eyes and I thought, “I’m not going to be able to do it,” and I don’t know, I just said, “Dammit, no. This is a good show! Audiences, the ones who are coming, are loving it, and it’s everything that we wanted to do and we have all of these positive things, a great cast, and we are just going to do this.” At the time it wasn’t even so much the Tony Award because that didn’t come out for a couple of weeks, but I was not going to let this show collapse based on this one review. And we just had to tell people and get them into the theater and they would be our emissaries. So we did. Those were the days before huge social media, so print ads meant something and TV commercials were the focus, so we just went big. If you want to be a hit, act like a hit. So we took a double truck ad and then we got the nominations. The nominations came out and we were right up there. In fact I think we got one more than Urinetown because of Gavin Creel. That’s the thing that we needed. Then we started just going to the Tony voters because now they had permission to like us, and that ties right into Kinky Boots. That’s what scared me about the Kinky Boots–Matilda one. Everyone read those reviews and it wasn’t just the Times review that was great on Matilda. Every single one was better than the next. In our little circle we like to call the day after opening Black Friday because we opened on a Thursday and the reviews came out on Friday. I said, “Guys, you look on that stage and people are having a good time.” We weren’t in danger, it wasn’t like we got bad reviews on Kinky Boots, it was just that everyone said, “Matilda’s winning the Tony.” What was scary about Kinky Boots was that the day before the Tony nominations the Drama Desks came out and we got like one nomination, I think it was for best socks or something. We were just totally ignored. I mean totally ignored. And I thought, “Did they forget we’re performing? Did somebody not put my name on the ballet?” It was unbelievable. Then, the day after that, the Tony nominations came out and, again, we had one more nomination than Matilda. It was just that we started to give people permission. The one thing that I did . . . because you have all of these pundits who write for these different columns and papers and they were all saying, “Matilda, Matilda, Matilda,” and I called one of them and I said, with no axe to grind, “I will pay for dinner and I will either buy the tickets or we’ll stand in the back of Matilda and watch the audience reaction. And then we’ll stand in the back of Kinky Boots and watch that audience reaction, and you tell me who’s having the better time.” Tony voters are people too. They react the same way that the audience does, and that’s how we turned it around. You just have to let them see what it is you’re selling. You can’t sell garbage, as the expression goes, but if you have something you think is a really good show with a heart and a story, the music, whatever it is, you can go toe-to-toe with it and you can say to the Tony voters, “Tell me what show you have a better time at.” And we prevailed. But I thank you for saying that, that’s great.
Ken: So now there are a lot of people out there, people that want to be producers, people that want to work in the theater, that open a Playbill, like you did with Manny Azenberg’s name or David Merrick’s name, and say, “Hal Luftig. I would love to be just like Hal Luftig.” What would you say?
Hal: I’d say call Manny Azenberg.
Ken: The business has changed a lot in the last 20 years, though. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get in today? What should they study or what should they do?
Hal: I don’t think that has changed much. I think the face of the business has changed but what a producer does or how you get into it hasn’t changed that much. You have to love the business, you have to love the art form. I quote Manny, who’s often said this . . . “If you can see yourself doing any other kind of business, you should probably do it.” But if you can’t, like I can’t . . . I could not be in a corporate office, I could not be an attorney, I could not be an accountant. I did, I tried, for two years I tried and I was miserable because this was all I wanted to do. If you have that in you then we welcome you. Come and be part of us. And the way you do is not much different than I did it. You start out at the bottom and you’re someone’s assistant, or someone’s production assistant or office assistant, and you learn and you read and you get knowledge. When I was at Columbia and I was doing these internships I was the slowest copier ever because I would read everything. I would read the contract before I filed it. It wasn’t that I was snooping or that I gave anyone that information, that’s how I learned. That’s how I learned how a theater contract was written, or an equity contract. That’s how I learned the business part of the business. If you’re a producer you have to know that. You have to know how the business part of this business works. So I strongly recommend that and then, when it comes time to actually produce, start small. See if you can raise some money and get into a production whether you get billing or not. That seems to be the template these days. But learn! More important than the billing is to attach yourself to someone who you think is really going to let you see the ropes. Go to meetings, even if you just sit in the back of an ad meeting and zip your lip and never say anything, you are hearing, you are seeing, you are learning. I think that’s how you do it.
Ken: What’s next for you? What’s on your slate?
Hal: Elephant Man is finishing its run on Saturday night but it’s going to London, which is great. I have been trying to revive Children of a Lesser God, the play, a Tony winner from 1980 about a deaf student and her teacher, which Kenny Leon is directing, and I’m just loving working with him. That’s one of the fun parts when you ask about this job. I sit at lunch and I think, “Oh my God, I’m talking to Kenny Leon! Oh my God, he’s talking to me!”
Ken: I just had a meeting with him two weeks ago and I thought the same thing!
Hal: This guy is the smartest guy I know, right?
Ken: I’m not cool enough to sit down with this guy.
Hal: Oh my God, yeah! And I’m thinking, “What am I going to say?” So I’m working on that and we have a new musical, Corrina, Corrina, that we’re writing for Audra McDonald.
Ken: Never heard of her!
Hal: I know, right? The reason this project came about was because she had said once that she’s never had a new musical written for her. Like in the olden days, Merman had musicals written for her. And I said, “That can’t be true!” Like incredulous, like, “Come on, you’re Audra McDonald,” and she looked at me and tapped her finger and said, “Uh huh. Go ahead and tell me what it is,” and I’m thinking, “You know, you’re right,” and she’s like, “Thank you.” So we’re writing this new musical based on the film Corrina, Corrina, which is great, it’s a great story. And Alan Menken is doing the music and Brian Yorkey is doing the lyrics and Lonny Price is directing, so it’s a great team. As a producer, you must have your bucket list too, right?
Hal: Audra’s on my bucket list. Again, what I love about this job is I just blurted out at dinner one night, “Audra, on opening night of this show I’m just going to have to lay down and die because my bucket list is complete.” And she just laughed and she said, “Oh, honey, you’re going to have to get out more. We’re going to have to expand that list.” I thought it was so cool of her to say so.
Ken: Okay, the last question, which I ask all of my guests, is if Audra McDonald was a fairy princess and could grant you one wish . . . one wish . . . and you could change anything about Broadway, the thing that keeps you up at night, the thing that drives you nuts, drives you mad, makes you throw a tantrum, what would be the one thing that you would change about Broadway today?
Hal: What a great question. I feel like I’m on a Barbara Walters special. I feel like I should answer this and start crying.
Ken: We haven’t had anyone break down in tears yet but I’m trying. I’m going to get Manny Azenberg next.
Hal: You know what it would be? I would want more theaters. It drives me bonkers when you have this piece and it’s ready and you’ve got a star and now that you have done all the hard work . . . which is hard, you’ve got to get all of these pieces of the puzzle . . . now you’ve got this last piece, the theater. But for every theater there’s like 14 shows and you have to play that theater game and get in line, and your whole project can fall apart because on certain projects, if you have a star or a director or something that only has a six month window to get the show up and running and you can’t, for no other reason than there’s no place to put it. I’ve often thought, “Dammit, we’re going to do this show. We’re going to play in my living room.” So I would change that because we just don’t have the opportunity, I think, to see as much as we should and as much variety as we should because we’re all vying for that same piece of real estate.
Ken: I would agree with you, with a couple of shows in my developmental slate just waiting.
Hal: Exactly. I had to do it with Evita. I had the first revival ever and I had Ricky Martin and Michael Grandage and all of this stuff and we couldn’t get a theater. Even way back with Millie . . . if I have a second, I have a cute Millie story. Michael Mayer and I, our director of Millie, we could not get a theater and I remember we took a weekend out on Fire Island because I didn’t know how to tell him we weren’t coming in this season because there was no theater. The theater that we wanted, the current tenant was not leaving, which I understand too, but I didn’t know how to tell him. It was like I wasn’t sure if we were breaking up or I was telling him I was pregnant. I didn’t know how to break the news. We went out to Fire Island with friends for a weekend and I remember I was on the dock on the pier and I figured, “It’s now or never.” We were about to get on the ferry to go home, that’s how chicken I was. And I started hyperventilating and I started having a panic attack. My heart was beating fast, and Michael came over and he said, “Oh my God, are you okay? You look awful, do you want to sit down? Are you going to faint?” and I figured I’d just say it, and I just blurted it out. “Michael, we don’t have this theater!” and he was basically consoling me. It either went well or really badly. So if Audra could grant me that wish we would have a dozen more houses.
Ken: I think you all can probably hear why I love Hal, why the industry loves Hal and why he is such a success. He throws his emotion into doing everything he does, including telling his director he doesn’t have a theater and telling Audra McDonald he’s going to die the moment she performs in his show. Hal, thank you so much for doing this.
Hal: Ken, thank you.
Ken: And thank you all for listening. Make sure you subscribe. We’ve got some pretty exciting people coming up. Go to www.theproducersperspective.com or just Google “Ken Davenport” and the blog will come up. You can subscribe there. Until next time, thanks everybody.