Podcast Episode 13 Transcript – Tom Kirdahy
Ken: Hello, everyone! Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I’m Ken Davenport, I’ve missed you guys. This is episode number 13 . . . lucky number 13 of the podcast and I just want to say, first, thanks to all of you for tuning in. My lovely and capable assistant, Dylan, brings me reports every week on how many of you are downloading and subscribing, it’s just awesome. It’s a true testament to how many people out there are really interested in the business of Broadway. It’s a lot more than we all think, so thank you. Now on to today’s guest. I often talk about the Broadway season like a horse race. The race starts out in the summer, producers pick a couple of horses to back and as spring rolls around, it’s like the horses coming around the bend for the final furlong. We are in that spring right now, the handicappers are already out with lots of predictions, and it’s quite a feat to have one horse in this race, as a lead producer. And the guy sitting across from me right now has not one but two horses in the race this year and they’re big ones. I’m sitting here with producer Tom Kirdahy, the lead producer of both It’s Only a Play and The Visit. Welcome, Tom!
Tom: Hello, Ken.
Ken: Tom has a whole host of producing credits, including last year’s Mothers and Sons, the revival of Ragtime and more. Full disclosure, I’ve been lucky enough to be Tom’s partner over the past year on It’s Only a Play and it was watching his incredible work on that show that made me raise my hand and say, “I want to be on The Visit with you. Wherever you go, Tom, I’m following,” so that’s why I wanted him to be here today. Now, this is the part of the podcast where I talk about his path to producing, but it’s such a fascinating one to me that I’m going to let him do that. So, Tom, tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today.
Tom: I have always loved the theater. One of the first shows I ever saw was Chicago with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon, a Kander and Ebb musical, as you know, so to be doing The Visit right now is a particular thrill for me. I grew up across the street from Donna Murphy and we used to put shows on in our backyards. We grew up on Long Island, not far from Broadway, and would take the train in to see shows all the time. I had a great theater teacher in high school named Norm Golden and I was very active in the student government. I had two passions, politics and theater. I went to college at NYU and studied dramatic literature and I thought that I would be a theater lawyer. I went to law school from 1985-1988 at NYU and at that time I came out of the closet and my friends were dying from AIDS so my dreams of being in the theater very quickly switched to just wanting to help my community. So rather than going into entertainment law I suddenly found myself full time providing free legal services to people living with HIV and AIDS, so what I’m living right now is a dream deferred. For almost 20 years I worked providing free legal services to people living with HIV and AIDS. The passion for the theater never went away. You’re an NYU graduate as well and you know, going to NYU, you’re surrounded by great artists, people who are just beginning their careers, and I stayed close with a lot of my friends from school so I’ve always known a lot of actors, directors, playwrights. I moved out from the city to Long Island and began an HIV project out there. I quickly became the chair of a group called the East End Gay Organization, which is a political cultural group out on the East End of Long Island, and along with a critic named Isa Goldberg I produced an afternoon conversation called “Theater From a Gay Perspective” and I had three people on that panel, Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally. Terrence and I met, we fell in love, we began a relationship, and that relationship stoked the flames of my old desire to want to work in the theater. It was important to me that I not lose my identity when we became a couple so I continued lawyering for probably about five years. But over time, as I spent more time in and around the theater community, I decided I really wanted to return to that original dream, so I met with producers all over the city and I just said, “I will bring you coffee, I will lick stamps for you, I will do anything if you just let me in the room, let me listen and learn,” and a lot of them were very kind to me and they said, “Yes, I’ll let you bring me coffee but I always want to hear your opinions, you’re a lawyer, you can read contracts, you can give me all the free help you want but you will be quiet and you will sit in the corner,” and that was a great gift so for a time I did that and finally I said, “Alright, I’m done with the lawyering. Now I want to do this, I want to produce.” So slowly, over the last six or seven years, I accumulated some credits and this year has been a particularly good one.
Ken: As someone who considered law school many times through my career . . . whenever I had a bad day I was like, “Maybe I should just go to law school,” and my mother was like, “Yes, Ken, you should go to law school!” So tell me a little bit about doing that and how that prepped you for a career in the theater. Obviously the contract part is easy but what else about the legal education prepped you for what you’re doing now?
Tom: I think it has really helped my dramaturgical gifts. I think that I know how to think very logically and very clearly. And I think a lot of artists are not good self-advocates, so I think I know how to help artists get from point A to point B and provide them a means of having their voices heard, which is something I was able to do in the court room, but also help them with a clarity of thought so that if, in terms of their storytelling, they’re trying to achieve something dramaturgically but they’re a little stuck because, most creative people I know, so much is going on in their minds and they just need someone to help them get through the clutter and achieve their desired end. I think, as someone who was an advocate, that was a lesson that I learned and that’s a skillset that I bring to my job as a producer. Does that make any sense?
Ken: Absolutely. Not everyone who’s listening has watched you be an advocate like I have personally but that’s exactly what I’ve seen you do. I’ve never thought about the legal aspect being a very dramaturgical education but it certainly is. You talked about being around some producers early on, licking stamps, but were there any that provided real mentor-like guidance for you?
Tom: Yeah, the first person was a woman named Susie Dietz. I approached her very gingerly, in a frightened way, and she just threw up her hands and said, “Of course, come on it!” and she was great to me. Manny Azenberg, Kevin McCollum, Scott Rudin, Stuart Thompson, Liz McCann, Hal Prince, all of these people were very generous.
Ken: I’ve never heard of any of those people!
Tom: They were very clear they were not going to tolerate a diva and I was not going to be treated in any special way because I was the partner of a playwright. It was literally, “You will bring me Starbucks. You will do all those things. You will have to earn your way through to the next steps,” and that was good for me because it’s a tough business, as you know, and sooner or later all of the contacts in the world go away and it’s just you and your responsibilities and only you can achieve them. I was fortunate that a lot of people were willing to give back or at least give me enough space. I’m a sponge. I love being around very smart people. I say to all of my interns and my staff and all of the people in my life, “Surround yourself by people who are smarter than you because if you become the smartest person in the room you’re not likely to learn anything.” I’ve loved working with you because I always know that some crazy idea is going to come out of your mouth and it’s going to lead to a great solution that no one has ever thought of. I mean you are just an endless source of invention and innovation and you love to push boundaries and be a voice for the future and I think that that is a particular gift that you have. I think the minute we get a little too comfortable, stasis sets in and I don’t want to go to that place. I don’t want to live in too comfortable a place.
Ken: Well thank you for that. You gave some great advice there. I so agree and I tell this to people all the time. A contact can get you in the door to a room. It can’t keep you in that room at all.
Tom: No, it can’t. Nor should it.
Ken: Not at all. So a modern day producer, what do you think the greatest skills are that they should have? If you could design and build a producer doll with a certain skillset, what do you think those skills would be?
Tom: I think the greatest skill of all is the skill of communication. I think that you have to communicate with your investors, you have to communicate with the team that surrounds you, your ad agency, your press people, your artists. Unless you’re willing to do that and have those abilities I think you’ve got a problem and maybe you’re in the wrong profession. There is a lot of multitasking that goes on. I think it’s also recognizing your weaknesses. I love budgets and I love numbers but I’m not fast with them and so I like surrounding myself with people who are really facile with numbers and really understand the concept of dynamic ticket pricing and how flexible we have to be in this business. If you’re rigid, I don’t think you’re going to get very far.
Ken: One of the things I’ve said to everyone I know when they say, “What’s it like working with Tom?” is I say I’ve never seen anyone work with stars as well as you do. It’s Only a Play has more stars per square inch than any show that I’ve been a part of certainly, if not that’s been on Broadway. How do you deal with it? Obviously these folks are larger than life. Dealing with one is a lot. On It’s Only a Play it’s seven. Everyone speaks so highly of you, all of them love you, what’s it like dealing with those kinds of people on a day to day basis?
Tom: I love artists and I think that every star that I’ve ever worked with recognizes that. If we strip stars of their humanity we are not being fair to them and we have to remember that, although we deify them, they are still very much human beings. And I think that remembering their status and honoring that while treating them like human beings with feelings and fears and emotions and passions and hopes and insecurities is key. I’m one of seven kids. I grew up in a big Irish Catholic family and I was sort of Switzerland in my family, I was neutral and got along with everybody, and I think that understanding quirks of personality is invaluable in this business. But I think the most important thing is that I truly love artists and I think that, so far, people have recognized that.
Ken: You can’t fake it as well as it comes off with you. Every time I hear you talk about them or hear them talk about you, it’s so genuine. Again, as I’ve said to you and I’ll say publicly, how you’ve managed to keep all those stars and replacements all working together, now, of course, with Chita and Roger . . . it’s amazing. So let’s talk about stars a little bit and their necessity on Broadway. Do you think The Visit would be happening if it wasn’t for Chita Rivera? Could The Visit exist on Broadway these days without the legend that it has in it?
Tom: That’s a great question and I don’t know the answer to that. I think that probably someday it might but my Visit wouldn’t exist without Chita Rivera. Someone asked me recently, “Let’s face it, it’s wonderful that you’ve been so passionate about this project, but isn’t it great for Terrence?” And the truth is that that had never, ever, ever occurred to me. As I’ve pushed to bring The Visit to Broadway it has always been Chita, Chita, Chita. It never even occurred to me that my husband wrote the book. That’s the God’s honest truth. In my mind, I was doing this because that woman who I saw in Chicago when I was 12 years old needed to be seen giving one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in my life. That is not hyperbole, I’m not worried that it’s overstatement, I’m not nervous that people are going to go into the theater and say, “What was that guy talking about?” This performance will be talked about for decades to come. Again, that’s not speculation, that’s a statement of fact. So this Visit would not happen without Chita Rivera.
Ken: I think all of you can get an idea of the type of passion we’re dealing with when Tom speaks about his show. I’m producing the show and I’m going to buy tickets right now! Let’s talk about that, because your passion for this project is obviously amazing. This piece has been in development, on its way to Broadway, for a decade or so and it’s stalled many times and yet here you come, pick it up and all of a sudden it’s here. So tell me a little bit about the later part of the path, from when you said, “I’m going to be the one to do this,” and then you got it done.
Tom: Well it’s here because we’ve finally, I think, got it right. The Visit has always been a good musical. The raw materials have always been wonderful, but it needed a specific vision. It needed a strong dramaturgical hand and it needed a shape that it hadn’t previously had. It also needed sex, and Roger Rees brings that to the table. Roger and Chita together create so much chemistry it’s really quite thrilling. But the smartest thing I’ve ever done as a producer, I think, is stop John Doyle on an airplane and say, “Will you read this? Will you just take a look at this?” Because even though it’s been around a long time, I wouldn’t have brought it to Broadway if I didn’t feel it was ready. It’s not like I had this property and I needed to get it on Broadway because I had nothing else going on, it was really about the fact that we had finally found the missing ingredient, which was a director with a very clear notion of what had to happen to let The Visit flourish in its best possible light. He’s the guy who cracked it, not me. I’m just the lucky person who thought of him.
Ken: Did you know John before you saw him on that airplane?
Tom: I had met him a number of times, but I didn’t have his phone number, for instance. When he did Sweeney Todd and first came to New York, he and his husband came to my home, actually. We got a random message to him saying, “It’s brilliant. It’s such beautiful work,” so we had a friendly exchange and he came over and we all had a drink together. But it was just congratulations, there was no deep relationship. And then he directed an evening as a tribute to Terrence, so I got to know him casually but we had never had a meal together or anything like that. But I absolutely, for years, had believed that he was the right guy for this project and I literally was walking around with the script in my bag, I don’t know why, but when I saw him on the plane, I’m not one to let opportunities pass me by, so I pounced. I basically stalked the guy.
Ken: I wanted you to tell a little bit more about that story because, for me, that is the definition of what great producers do. Both parts of it, “I carry around the script in my bag,” which means you’re always available for the opportunity, and when the opportunity presents itself you recognize it and pounce on it, which is great. That one moment of you approaching him on the airplane changed theater history. This thing is happening now.
Tom: I think so, yeah. There’s a line in It’s Only a Play . . . “All is in readiness.” And I think that the best producers, especially emerging producers who don’t have the luxury of relationships, have to be ready at all times to take some risks and to go up to that person or make that phone call or send that e-mail and just seize opportunities, seize the day. It’s sort of like a Hollywood story, you can’t make it up. I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t say, “I should leave him alone,” or, “Maybe when he gets off . . .” I pounced, and it has sort of changed history. Tonight’s our first preview and he sent me the most beautiful e-mail this morning saying, “Tonight, for the first time, The Visit will be seen on Broadway,” and that’s a Kander and Ebb musical, that’s crazy. I’m a little kid from suburban Long Island. I pinch myself.
Ken: Well it’s happening because of you so you should be very proud of that. Your note about emerging producers being ready to pounce, listen, it’s not only emerging, you and I know . . . and I won’t say who it is . . . but I’m going to pounce on someone tonight because there’s an idea that I want and I know this person is going to be in the audience of It’s Only a Play and I’ve got to summon up the courage and it’s not easy for me either. I’ve got to do it because I want something done.
Tom: You’ve got to do it. If you have information like that, you can’t not seize the day.
Ken: Now you’re very active in the Broadway League’s government relations committee. They were not idiots when they said, “Let’s get a lawyer and someone who is a major advocate for other organizations to be our advocate.” So tell me a little bit about what the government relations committee is up to right now.
Tom: On a federal level we are lobbying for legislation that would provide certain tax credits to people who invest in live theater and, in a nutshell, what we are asking congress to do is to give us parity with film and television. People who invest in productions of up to $15 million can write off their investments immediately. People who invest in theater do not have that luxury. We are not given the same credit that people who invest in film are. So if you or I are in LA and we are courting investors who have invested in films before and we start our pitches, they’re likely to ask about tax consequences and what they can write off because it’s part of people’s business plans. To get people who invest in film to understand that their investments will be treated differently is so difficult. It takes such a leap of comprehension that they shouldn’t have to take because they’re used to something very different. People who invest in theater are not afforded that same luxury so it’s a disincentive and all we are trying to do is say, “Treat us the same.” And the government doesn’t lose anything as a result, it’s just when people are taxed and how they’re taxed are different. It’s cost free. I honestly think it’s just that the film and television lobby was stronger and more organized when the legislation was passed, and we’re just playing catch up at this point.
Ken: Do you think we’ll be successful?
Tom: I do. We’ve had the task of educating people because congress is always afraid of anything that’s going to cost them money or reduce income streams to the federal government, so we’ve had the challenge of explaining that there’s no outlay here and that ultimately this provides stimulation to the economy. It gives people incentive to invest. Paul Libin always says Broadway is the longest street in America and when people hear “live theater” they assume that we’re only talking about Broadway. But these tax incentives exist in all 50 states and will help theaters all across the country. So we’ve had to do a fair amount of educating and now Senator Schumer is going to be one of the co-sponsors of the legislation in the senate, we have a myriad of co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle in both the senate and the congress so I think that we’re well poised to get it passed. I think we’ve done the educating and now we just have to do the execution.
Ken: So, listeners, write to your congress people about this, we want this one to pass. It’s obviously a very busy time for you. Nathan’s coming back to It’s Only a Play next week and, as you said, the first preview of The Visit is tonight. Are you nervous?
Ken: That’s the quickest answer you’ve given so far.
Tom: Yeah, very nervous. I’m more excited. We did a dressed rehearsal last night, it was really thrilling. I’m not nervous about what’s going to happen on that stage, I just have the butterflies that come with the job because it’s the first time we’re going to be in front of a paying audience and we have a packed house and I just want the actors to have a great night. I’m very confident that the audience will have a great time, but I want the actors to just relax and be able to enjoy the evening. And I’ll be happy when it’s over. Last night I said to John Doyle and to Chita and to Roger Rees and actually to John Kander as well . . . and I can’t believe I know these people . . . we are giving the world what we set out to give them. And so we’re feeling a sense of eagerness. It’s not fear, it’s just nerves.
Ken: During the preview period, there’s obviously lots of chatter in the business, lots of people talking and changes going on. We’ve talked about this before but do you block out the chatter, industry people, chat rooms? How do you deal with this as a producer? Do you go into the chat rooms?
Tom: I used to and I don’t anymore. I don’t post in the chat rooms, I never did, but I used to spend way too much time in them and they would hijack my days because I would be more interested in what other people were saying than in doing my own work and I realized that that was not constructive or healthy for me. I think it’s a great place for people to get their opinions out or whatever agendas they have. I think it’s important that, as producers, we know what people are saying and what the general temperature is around our shows so I have staff and interns who tell me what’s going on. But, for me, the best thing that I can do is not spend time in them because I do think there’s too much toxic behavior going on inside them. I feel like the general culture inside those rooms has turned very negative. I feel like, as a community, we could do a little better. I think the anonymous nature of chat rooms is such that it allows people to say whatever they want without accountability and, for me, I just found that that was not a healthy place for me to be spending my time. But I’m not above asking, “What are they saying?” I’m not above that, but I don’t spend time in them.
Ken: Where do you get feedback during previews? You just listen to the audience, the actors?
Tom: I’m the all-time great eavesdropper. I generally don’t wear a suit when I go to the theater. I try to be as anonymous as possible, I try not to be seen by audience members talking to artists or tech people so that nobody knows that I have a position of authority because I want authentic responses. The men’s room is a great place to hear chatter, or at the bar. In our ad and press meetings I get feedback from people and, again, I have some staff members who do spend time in the chat rooms and they tell me the gist of things that are going on. But when people say unkind things about my friends, whatever show they’re on, I just get too upset. It bothers me and I don’t want to hear that.
Ken: There’s your love of the artist again. Speaking of that, you’ve worked with the love of your life on shows and you’ve worked without him on other shows. What’s it like working with the playwright and maintaining your objectivity as a producer at the same time as being a partner?
Tom: It’s a challenge. I think we’ve gotten really good at it and I don’t know when that happened, but it did. I think the one thing that Terrence and I know about each other is that we love each other and so it’s pretty safe . . . if I say something brutal about the writing, and I’ve been known to do that . . . with a red pen . . . it can wound but he knows it comes from a place of love, so there’s trust. And if he has things to say about management, meaning you and me, he doesn’t hesitate. But I trust that he really cares about the show and the health and welfare of the production so I give it its place. We do have rules in the house, like we don’t talk about it in bed, definitely not after 11 o’clock. And we send social messages, if we’re in a rehearsal room or even a meeting, we don’t sit next to one another, there are no public displays of affection. People on my productions need to feel safe saying, “This book scene needs work,” or, “Terrence is making the actors nervous.” They have to be able to comment on the work. Otherwise I’m not getting the information that I need out of people. I said earlier it’s important to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. That extends to people who can be honest. If we create an environment where people can’t be honest, the work won’t get done. And I genuinely believe anyone who has worked with us will vouch for the truth of what I’m saying.
Ken: 100%. I’ve had a few relationships with people in shows of mine and it’s very hard, and you guys do it unbelievably well. I’m shocked how objective you can be and how tough you can be on him, it’s really wonderful. Okay, one last question, which one of my readers has now deemed the “genie question,” which is . . . I want you to imagine the genie from Aladdin came down, did a big song and dance number and said, “I’m going to give you one wish. Not three because Scott Rudin took the other two.” So he’s giving you one wish. If you could change one thing about Broadway . . . just one thing that drives you crazy, keeps you up at night, frustrates you, makes you want to jump up and down . . . what would that one thing be that, with the snap of a finger and a wave of his wand, he could make go away?
Tom: Make go away or make happen?
Ken: Make happen, whatever you want. The one thing that you’d love to see change on Broadway.
Tom: I often say that, to outsiders or to emerging producers, it feels like the lifeboats are full and it’s very hard to get on to one of them if you’re a new producer. And I wish we had another lifeboat so that a group of emerging producers could get on and flourish and I think that we can be better at allowing producers who have not had an opportunity to lead be lead producers. I think that we could be better at giving them a safe voyage and giving them theaters and supporting them financially, just making a little more room for the next generation. Does that make sense?
Ken: 100% and it makes sense with the theme of this whole podcast, which is, Tom, you are an incredible advocate, from the beginning of your career with people living with HIV, to artists, to producers now and I can’t thank you enough for being a part of this and for being a great partner to me on my shows. Good luck to both of us tonight on The Visit. Everyone out there, go see it, and thank you for tuning in. We will see you next time.
Tom: Thanks, Ken.