Episode 12 Transcript – Wendy Orshan Transcript

 Ken: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast, episode number . . . something, I can’t even keep track, we’re doing so many of these things these days. We’re heading back inside the fort today, inside the office of one of only a handful of people who are responsible for the real day-to-day business of Broadway. I’m talking about general managers and today I’m talking to one of the general manager elite in the industry, Wendy Orshan of 101 Productions. Welcome, Wendy!

Wendy: Thank you, hello.

Ken: This is the part of the podcast where I would list some of Wendy’s credits but if I did that this podcast would be longer than Les Mis and August: Osage County combined. I’m sure that’s why Wendy just chuckled. So, Wendy, I’ll start with this . . . how many shows has your company general managed on Broadway?

Wendy: It’s funny that you say that. My business partner, Jeff Wilson, and I used to have to a joke that when we hit 101 productions we were going to close up shop, and recently the office did a list and we have done 104 shows.

Ken: 104 shows.

Wendy: Yes, counting more than just the shows we’ve done on Broadway. I’ve never broken out what we’ve done on tour and in other places but, combined,  with everything we’ve done? 104.

Ken: That’s pretty amazing. Let’s just, for fun, say that each one had an average capitalization of about $5 million so, doing the math, Wendy has written checks for over $500 million. That’s a lot of cash. You can understand that she knows the business inside and out. The grosses of those shows must add up to ten times that, we’re in the billions of dollars here. Some of those shows . . . this season alone they’re doing Elephant Man with Bradley Cooper, Hedwig, which is a holdover from last season, the upcoming American in Paris, Bridges of Madison County, which I was a producer on last season, but going back in time, we had Lucky Guy with Tom Hanks, Addams Family, Spamalot, I’ll Eat You Last, Nice Work if You Can Get It, and you get it. But, more importantly, you can get all of that and realize that Wendy is very experienced GM by looking at her list of credits, but I can tell you that if you have not worked with her, like I have, then you wouldn’t know one very important thing . . . Wendy adopts each one of her shows like a child and cares for them more than you could ever imagine. When her kids are successful she’s smiling like a proud momma and when one of her kids is sick she’s doing everything she can, even outside the scope of a GM, to get them better. So, Wendy, one of the things I’ve learned in the few podcasts I’ve done already is that everyone’s path to where they are is very, very different, including many of the general managers that I’ve talked to. Tell me a little bit about your path to becoming a GM.

Wendy: Well I always knew I wanted to work in theater and I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts, the Fame school, and I was accepted there and I went into the drama program, believing that I wanted to be an actress. And along the way a couple of things happened in my life that put me on a path of working backstage, and I was very happy being a part of what was behind the scenes in making other people’s dreams come true. I worked at dinner theater, I worked Off-Broadway, I worked at Barry and Fran Weissler’s office for close to five years, I was Alecia Parker’s assistant, and I very closely got to see how a general manager . . . she’s brilliant and very experienced . . . got to work very closely with producers and how the two of them had a particular kind of synergy and, from there, I was really lucky enough to work at Gatchell & Neufeld for close to eight years with Peter Neufeld and Tyler Gatchell who were preeminent, brilliant general managers and were also executive producers. And I worked with Nina Lannan very closely, who’s done one of your recent podcasts, who’s one of the most highly respected GMs in the business, and was brilliantly happy being an assistant and thought that that was truly what I was going to do forever and then, when Tyler very suddenly, sadly passed away, I was unsure of what I was going to do next. I really didn’t believe I could be a general manager. I didn’t believe I had it in me, having worked for people who were so brilliant at what they did. But at that time I was working on a show called The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeff Wilson was a company manager, we were travelling across America, and after Peter decided to shut down the company and go in a different direction a friend of Jeff’s and mine just said, “Why don’t you guys open up your own company?” I thought we couldn’t do it, Jeff Wilson thought we could, and we opened 101. I was very surprised and very lucky and very appreciative that people took us seriously. We had one show, Crazy For You, at that moment that we were still managing, that was back in 1994, and that led to many other kinds of work that we ended up doing Off-Broadway, on Governor’s Island, for IBM, in the Bahamas in a hotel. We just said yes to whatever work came our way to really learn our craft.

Ken: When you were coming up . . . first of all, let me ask you, you worked for Alecia Parker as her assistant. And this is something I find a lot in this business, because it’s very small and people stay in it for a long period of time . . . now you work alongside her on many projects. What’s that like?

Wendy: I’m laughing because I sit in meetings and I watch Nina Lannan or I watch Alecia Parker and I still believe I’m their assistants. I don’t take myself seriously that I do what they do. I think there are still people in the business that we all will always look up to and we’ll always think, “I can’t believe I just said that really stupid thing in front of that person.” I’m very honest about it, actually, with both of them. I think that each one of us has a different skillset. I’m very grateful for what you said about me adopting my shows as my children. I think that we each do things in a similar but different way. When producers interview us and they’re very honest in saying, “I’m meeting a handful of GMs,” I’m always grateful that 101 is on that list, but I say to them, “We can all do a budget. We can all sit in an advertising meeting. You need to make your choice based on who you think you communicate with, because it’s a marriage. It’s a forever thing with your show.” Yes, sometimes GMs get replaced but it’s very, very rare. So if you were interviewing Bespoke or Foresight or 101 or Richards/Climan, you’re interviewing a group of people who have a dynamic and who have a synergy and you have to figure out who you’re going to want to speak to ten times a day.

Ken: I asked you that question because I’m faced with this all the time. I was Charlotte Wilcox’s, “It’s Friday, go get some wine from the store,” gopher guy, and now, of course, she’s GMed for me. What I love about Charlotte and all of these people in the business is that they don’t look at you that way. Certainly Alecia and Nina, I know they respect you an incredible amount. So tell me a little bit about what you think the role of a general manager is today, if you can define it in a couple of sentences.

Wendy: I think we’re the center of a wheel. That’s what I say to producers. Jeff and I work frequently for first time producers. We like doing that. We enjoy doing that because you reinvent it every time because somebody from the outside world says to you, “What do you mean, you can’t do that?” and it makes you think about it. So I often say to people that a show is a wheel and the GM is the center. Everybody interfaces with you and you are the motor and the engine that moves it up a hill. You do it in tandem with a producer, but every producer has a different level of experience, a different bandwidth for minutiae and you have to sort of morph and fill in where those empty voids are.

Ken: And how has the role of general manager changed over the last couple of decades? Is it the same? Do you find your days spent today are divided among tasks a little differently than they were?

Wendy: Yes, I think it’s changed enormously. Back in the Gatchell & Neufeld days, Tyler was often an executive producer for someone who wasn’t living here . . . let’s say for Andrew Lloyd-Webber on Aspects of Love because Really Useful was producing it but he was in London. Today, a general manager is teaching people who has never done it before, or you are often somebody who has an idea . . . we’ve put together productions for people where we’ve had an idea or we have a relationship with a director or a star who wants to do something on Broadway. You’re often helping put together first time investors who have come to you. We get phone calls from people saying, “We want to be a part of theater. What do we end up doing?” And you’re spending endless, endless hours talking about ticketing, dynamic pricing and marketing, which can make an enormous difference for a show to recoup. We did The Heiress with Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens and, for Paula Wagner, it was the first production that she had been a lead producer on, on Broadway. Jessica Chastain was in Zero Dark Thirty and, through dynamic pricing and very smart initiatives, that show ended up recouping despite blizzards and snowstorms and productions being cancelled, in part because of who Jessica was and in part because of the brilliant production, but in part because we worked really closely with Jujamcyn on ticketing. But it’s hours and hours and hours of discussing that.

Ken: Do you prefer working on plays versus musicals? Do you have an individual preference?

Wendy: I don’t. I think what’s happened with plays on Broadway is that you can have four productions in one year in a building when you have a star in a limited engagement of 12 or 13 weeks. But that’s exhausting and difficult and challenging and the availability of the buildings is so difficult. But if you get a musical that can sit in a play house you can hopefully have a product that can run for a couple of years and spawn off companies and everybody’s office needs to have that.

Ken: If you could go back and do it over, your path to where you are now, how would you redesign your training, if you will? Or what would you prescribe to someone who wanted to get involved in general management today? What do you think they should study or learn or what’s the best path for the GM chair?

Wendy: I think what was missing for me is I was never a company manager for enough years. Being Tyler’s assistant or Alecia’s assistant I supported the company manager but I never actually got to be a company manager. I’m very lucky because Jeff Wilson is an amazing business partner and I’m very lucky he’s my best friend too, but he was a great company manager. So there are things that I don’t know how to actually do or things that I don’t understand to the degree that Jeff Wilson does but that’s why we’re a terrific team together. I don’t think either one of us would do this if we didn’t have the other person. I’m in awe of people like Charlotte, who is amazing, and Jeff worked for her for years, who do it on their own, but I work well with somebody who has done multiple payrolls or has signed a million different box office statements and I think that what we require out of company managers now has changed. We require so much more out of them, and that’s a whole part of my career that I missed. I might have done it had Tyler not passed away and Gatchell & Neufeld kept on running.

Ken: You are taking on the role of an executive producer now on several shows.

Wendy: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes we do say yes. We don’t always say yes to being executive producers because it requires you to have a different faith and belief and understanding of the product that you’re working on. But then there are other times where something comes out of our desire to really work hard at it and sort of form something and make something happen, or there’s an actual need for us. We were executive producers on Annie, a show that I love, because we have a long history of working with Arielle Tepper Madover, who is an amazing producer. It was the first musical that she was doing, it was a show that was her dream and there were things she wanted us to do on that show and she asked and she thought we should. There are other times where we actually behave like an executive producer but the lead producer, for whatever reason, doesn’t want us to have that title so we don’t, but we do the job anyway.

Ken: Someone like Arielle you call an amazing prouder. What do you think makes an amazing producer in 2015?

Wendy: It’s an excellent question. If someone loves what they’re doing . . . and, once again, we work for a variety of people who are experienced to people who are first time people with a really interesting idea . . . but when somebody understands their material and someone loves what they’re doing and someone is willing to do the work, I get excited about working for them. That comes in a variety of ways. We were very lucky to be executive producers and general managers on Lucky Guy. Colin Callender was the lead producer . . . he had done theater, and he had then gone off and had an amazing, amazing run at HBO and he had done a lot of television and he had done movies. And this piece he understood better than anybody else and he had this idea of this piece, that Nora Ephron wrote, to be a theater piece. I was honored to do that show with him because he understood what that show was. He maybe hadn’t put all of the pieces together on Broadway before, but we knew how to do that for him. So, for me, I think it’s passion, in part because I am a passionate person. Sometimes I’m too passionate . . . sometimes I push too hard on certain things so I’m not everybody’s style. I sometimes don’t know when it should come to an end. I sometimes believe in it too much, I don’t want to see its warts, as any mother about their child. That’s why I think your description of me is a really interesting one, because I’ve noticed a couple of people that I respect a lot have said that about me, and I think that is my strength and that is my weakness.

Ken: My first Broadway show was one that you general managed and I remember feeling very taken into the community by you, so first of all I will say thank you for that, but that’s one of the things that I think you do so, so well, allowing these first time producers to get involved in the game because of what you just said. You believe that just because someone hasn’t done it before doesn’t mean they can’t do it now. Have you ever wanted to produce?

Wendy: No. It’s very, very funny you say that. Two people that are very close to me, that I admire very much, have this conversation with Jeff and I all the time. My parents were teachers and I think I was always raised, and I think everything I look at is, “How do I support someone else to make it happen for them?” In that I get ultimate joy. I could list 50 productions where I’ve sat there with Jeff on that first preview and said, “Look at so-and-so. We helped to make that happen,” and I get a lot of joy about that. The company name is 101 Productions, not Orshan-Wilson, because it’s not about us. It is, in part, because there’s 101 ways to do it, there’s 101, the basics. There was a concept in the name of the company and not having it be us because it’s not . . . it’s great when you get the recognition, it’s incredible when someone thanks you at an awards show, it means the world when somebody wins the Tony and your name is said. But even if all of that didn’t happen and they wrote you a note and they said, “Thank you. I know you were a part of getting here,” that means something. So exec producing, for me, gives us that little extra “oomph” where you do sit with the director and talk about the concept, or there have been times when we have been instrumental in the director coming on to a production, and that tiny little change helped that production get over the finish line, so I’m happy with that.

Ken: We just got into the fourth quarter of the current Broadway season. So far this year things are looking good. Grosses are up, attendance is up, we’re trumpeting it like crazy from the hilltops, but I want to get your perspective on this . . . we go inside, away from the press releases . . . how do you think Broadway is doing, as a whole, in 2015?

Wendy: I think that it’s great that there is a variety of shows. I think it’s terrific that we all work hard at trying to have accessible ticketing. I think our numbers are obviously false to a great degree because there’s only a handful of people . . . and we manage shows that do it all the time . . . premium seating. I love premium seating and I hate premium seating at the same time. I think more and more the plays are driven by who you have in them. You and I are working on a show together where the question is always, “Who’s playing that part?” and we all circle around the same ten directors and the same ten stars. That’s not good. The lineup for getting a building is very, very difficult. We were doing The Cripple of Inishmaan and Daniel Radcliffe couldn’t move at a particular time. We then didn’t have the building, then he could move the show at a particular time and luckily we ended up getting a building because the Shuberts came through. Bob Michael has a long history with them. But it was all about his availability and the building’s availability. So I worry that we are as limited in certain moments as we are and that we are reliant on being a big hit. The mediocre hit, the show just hanging on, it’s getting harder and harder to get that show to go all the way to the end. We’ve been involved in a couple of productions where we’ve had to reinvent the financial structure of the show midway in order to get that show to get that extra 10 weeks or 20 weeks that it needs in order to last until the end of a run. That’s getting harder and harder.

Ken: So you coach a lot of these first time producers, you bring a lot of them into the industry. First of all, I will publicly say that, in a business that can be very snobby, it’s wonderful to have someone like you who really opens her arms and says, “No come, the water’s just fine and I’ll take care of you.”

Wendy: Actually, I don’t say that. I say the water is very trepidatious and it’s going to be very scary, but everybody started somewhere and you have as much a right as somebody else to try to pursue your dream and we’re going to try to help you.

Ken: That’s a much more accurate representation, thank you. I have a lot of first time producers probably listening to this right now. What would you say to them . . . young, old, middle . . . about how they get started producing?

Wendy: I’m not a snob about what a person works on. As I said to you, David Binder had an idea about doing an arts festival on Governor’s Island and we were thrilled to be a part of that. George Wolfe put together a celebration at the White House, we were ecstatic to work on that. You should work on live theater wherever you possibly can, if that’s in your hometown, if that’s in your community, if that’s Off-Broadway, if that’s in a fringe situation. Arielle Tepper did the Summer Play Festival, $10 tickets, off-Off-Broadway, we worked on that with her. Wherever you get to put a group of people together and to make something happen and to either charge for a ticket or do it for free, that gives you your experience in communication, and theater is communication. When we work with people from Los Angeles, either from movies or television, who haven’t necessary done theater before, they’re taking that skillset and applying it here, and that is producing. So put together something, create something live, work with an artist who’s written something or get the rights to a revival and do it in your local theater. It’s always the same. The budgets change and the playing field changes and the players change, but then you join a team, so we try to put people who haven’t necessary done something together and surround them with other people and those people become their strategic partners along with us.

Ken: If we could take a time machine ahead 10, 20 years, what do you think Broadway is going to look like? What do you see coming in this business?

Wendy: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I worry, in part, that we take one step forward and we sometimes take two steps backwards. We were very, very lucky . . . NT Live, National Theatre Live, filmed our production of Of Mice and Men, which we were incredibly proud of. We were the first Broadway show where they had done that. It was wonderful to see that the unions were willing to open their arms to understand the power and the importance of bringing a live Broadway show into rural communities and other places where people would never get to see it so I felt like we took a very big step forward with that. But on the same hand we don’t have enough theaters, we’re all driven to win awards, yet we’ll have 12 new musicals competing for a slot that might be four or, God willing, this season, five openings. I don’t know what the industry is going to look like. I think it’s important that people like you, people like me, people like Jeff Wilson, that we all continue to try to share information and say, “Here’s something that worked that made this thing possible. How do we collectively move forward so that it’s not a big rock up a hill next time, it just happens, everybody together understands how important it is?” I know that sounds very Pollyanna but I want to believe that it’s not an adversarial situation all the time, it’s a collaboration to help make it happen.

Ken: This is something that . . . I try to do a lot of new and different things and you helped me a lot with this because when I came into the game I think I wanted to do too much, forgetting that there’s a lot of tradition for a reason, a lot of things that we can learn and how we combine the old with the new. You were one of those general managers who, again, when someone like me comes into the game and says, “Hey, I’ve got a crazy idea,” you can support that. But how do you deal . . . because you push this a lot in the business . . . with some of the other industry players who are like, “No, no, no. Let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing, it will fine. 101 will have lots of shows, you’ll make a fine living, we don’t have to reinvent that wheel.” How do you deal with that?

Wendy: Well Jeff always says that we should pick the hill we want to die on each time and that you can’t reinvent everything. So you go into a show and you think to yourself “What is the most important thing that I need to make happen here?” and I think you choose what it is. Every one of our shows, I can think of something that meant the world to me and I’m incredibly proud that it worked out, and other times where it didn’t. Elephant Man was an incredible situation, totally driven by the passion of Bradley Cooper and his dream of playing this role. We kept on moving the schedule because he had filming commitments. He wanted to go into the Booth Theatre, it’s the only building that he and Scott Ellis wanted to go into, and luckily all of the teams, including the Bradley Cooper team, worked together to come up with an economic formula that allowed that play to go back into the building where it was 20 years ago in today’s time and work for a 13 week run. And I’m incredibly proud that I was part of that and really everybody, the agents, the theater owners, the producers, the co-producers, the individual investors, they all looked at a different way of how to produce that show and luckily it worked out wonderfully for everybody so my hope would be, were I faced with a situation like that again, I could say to everybody, “But we did it last time and it did work out okay. I’m not asking you to do that every single time but when a challenge like that happens, rather than not do the show, we should do the show this way.”

Ken: What I loved about The Elephant Man is, as you talked about, it worked out for everyone. Obviously you’re probably mostly speaking financially but I will tell you it worked out so artistically well for everyone and I think you take that charge on, it’s a great responsibility. We can reinvent the business model and the financial model and still deliver a product that is a fantastic one.

Wendy: I think what’s so amazing about the Elephant Man experience is that, artistically and financially, it worked out brilliantly, better than anybody’s expectation. When you do a production with stars . . . and we are very, very lucky at 101 that we do a lot of productions that have stars in them . . . they are a larger target in our community and part of your job is to try to protect them as best as you can so that they get the satisfaction of being artistically well received as well as financially. If everybody gets bad reviews, if everybody gets picked on, if everybody gets harped on, then why come and expose yourself? There’s nothing harder than making a 13 week commitment and understanding that your show isn’t doing well and you still have 8 weeks left. It’s very, very hard, and those people are our leaders. Something like Hedwig was a dream come true. David Binder had never gotten great reviews on a production and that night after Hedwig opened and all of those reviews were great for the show, for the entire team, for Neil, it was a massive celebration because everybody got the love that they had worked so hard to earn delivered to them that night. Those kinds of instances are rare.

Ken: Okay, my famous last question, I know you’ve listened to a couple of podcasts so you’ve probably cheated and done your homework like a good general manager would . . . I want you to imagine that you get one wish, you can change one thing about Broadway, whatever keeps you up at night, makes you mad, frustrates you, whatever it is. What is the one thing that, with the snap of a finger, you would change about Broadway?

Wendy: This might sound shallow . . . and I did think about this answer and I wish it was a more artful one . . . but I would change the way the awards are done because, unfortunately, we are a competitive business. People are driven by awards, I’ve seen the power of what a Best Play or Best Musical Tony Award does, I know what it’s like when you are in a very crowded season and there are only four slots, not five and not six, and watching the Oscars I thought how wonderful it was that there was such a division of awards. Awards are important not only for artists or for producers but for investors and I think I would take a look at how all revivals, new work, non-profits . . . we all share in the same bucket and that’s very, very hard.

Ken: That’s a great answer and one we haven’t heard yet so thank you very much.

Wendy: It’s a little shallow, I apologize for that, but unfortunately it matters.

Ken: Do you think we should change the schedule, the calendar of the awards?

Wendy: I’m not sure. I think it takes a moment to look at all of it because, unfortunately, it is a marketing tool, it is an artistic tool, it is a financial tool. It’s all of those things and therefore it needs an evaluation in some way.

Ken: I’m going to start a lobby for the Tony Awards in September I think I’ve decided.

Wendy: Thank you. I would like that, that’s interesting.

Ken: Your summer might be a little busier!

Wendy: Yes.

Ken: Okay, I want to thank Wendy for taking time out of her very busy day. There’s probably a string of producers who have left her messages through the past 30 minutes waiting for her to get back to work so we will let her go but first I want to say thank you so much for being here. As Wendy said, anyone can do a budget but not everyone can add the joy and the passion to your show like Wendy and her partner Jeff Wilson, who was the first company manager I ever worked for.

Wendy: Okay, I’ll have to hear about that.

Ken: Not everybody does it like they do it and I’m very thankful that they work on my shows and the industry is very thankful that they’re here for us and will be here for us.

Wendy: Thank you. I think what you do is really terrific as well. It’s wonderful how accessible you’ve made it for everybody so thank you, Ken.

Ken: My pleasure. Thank you, all of you, for listening. Subscribe, download, you know the drill. TheProducersPerspective.com . . . we’ll see you next time!

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