Podcast Episode 25 Transcript – Jack Tantleff
Ken: Hey, everybody, it’s Ken Davenport. Before we get into this week’s podcast, did you know that I have a theater with my name on it? Okay, it’s not really my name. It’s named after my great-grandfather, Delbert Essex Davenport. He was this crazy Ziegfeld-like wannabe from way back in the day. He was a publicist, he was a producer, he was a lyricist . . . you name it, he did it. He wore a lot of hats. Sound familiar? It’s like this guy. Anyway, I named my theater after him and guess what? That theater is available for rent. We do workshops, readings, full productions. We have a 60 seat black box and a 150 seat main stage, so check it out at DavenportTheatre.com. That’s DavenportTheatre.com. We’d love to host your show. Now, onto the podcast!
Ken: Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. You know, one of the things that really bugs me about Broadway . . . one of the many things . . . is that, too often, people think of certain professions as being on the “other side,” or the enemy. And, for producers, some of my peers would refer to some of those enemies as agents. But the fact is that we’re all in this crazy business for the same reason. We love the theater and we want it to prosper. Contrary to popular belief, no one got into this business to get rich . . . nobody. In fact, some people might say that people get in it to get poor. And my guest today is one of the best examples the industry has of someone on that “other side,” but who truly represents the best of the “we’re all in this together” spirit. And he is talent and literary agent Jack Tantleff. Welcome, Jack!
Jack: Thank you, Ken.
Ken: Jack is the head of the theatrical literary department at the powerhouse agency Paradigm. Some clients include Glenn Slater, David Yazbek, Oscar winner Alfred Yuri, Stephen King . . . never heard of him . . . and Sara Bareilles, about to become a Broadway composer with the debut of Waitress. And another client that Paradigm represents is this little-known guy named Ken Davenport. Jack was instrumental in putting together the critically acclaimed Broadway production of Side Show, which was the subject of this incredible article in the New York Times, which we’ll include in the blog about this podcast, and he even has a couple of producing credits on his resume. So, Jack, when you were a little boy and people said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” did you say, “I want to be an agent?”
Jack: I said, “I want to be a doctor.”
Ken: A doctor?
Jack: Yes, I did.
Ken: Your mother must be so disappointed in you.
Jack: She was disappointed until the New York Times article.
Ken: So how did it happen? What was the path from doctor to agent?
Jack: Well, I went to Colby College in Waterville, Maine, to become a doctor and I got involved in their extra-curricular theater program. There was no for-credit theater there. And the honest-to-God truth is I wasn’t doing very well in my pre-med courses. I was having a lot of fun in the theater program, and then two things happened. Over spring break I saw the original Broadway production of Equus and, while I neither wanted to act nor blind horses, I somehow identified with that boy on the stage. When I got back from spring break, one of the professors at Colby had invited his old friend . . . I don’t know how they knew each other . . . Ellen Stewart, who, of course, was the creative force, founder and producer of La MaMa. And she was up at Colby for about two days, and I trailed her around. I was fascinated by everything that she had to say, and all of a sudden, at some point, out of my mouth blurted, “I want to go into theater, what should I do?” And she said, “Go to Sarah Lawrence. It’s the best school for theater in the country.” I had never heard of Sarah Lawrence. I think it’s the only theater school that she actually ever knew because Wilford Leach, who became my faculty advisor, was, at the time, the artistic director of La MaMa. That was the connection. But on that one sentence, I transferred. And that was how I made the transition.
Ken: So you majored in theater at Sarah Lawrence?
Jack: To the extent that anybody at Sarah Lawrence majors in anything, yes.
Ken: So you were a performer?
Jack: I directed. Sarah Lawrence is not a trade like Juilliard or North Carolina School of the Arts or Carnegie Mellon. It was a really low rent kind of theater program, in spite of phenomenally talented teachers, people like Will Leach, Julie Bovasso, Andre Sherbon. I took a course from him. A great director named John Ferraro, other people like that. But it was a program where basically everybody did everything, so you acted, you directed, you ran the follow spot, all of that.
Ken: And when you graduated, did you have a sense of which one of these disciplines you wanted to do as a career?
Jack: Well, interestingly, because Sarah Lawrence was so, as I put it, “low rent,” I didn’t really know what the career options in theater were. I didn’t know about agents. I think if you said to me, “What are the jobs available?” I would have said, “Actor, director, producer.” That’s more or less what I understood. I kind of knew that I didn’t want to be an actor . . . although I did go on some auditions . . . just because I’ve never been good with rejection. I think, had you asked me at that point, “What do you want to do?” I probably would have said director because I became, within the confines of the school, a director of note. My father knew someone who knew someone who knew a man named Peter Bobley. Peter Bobley was a book publisher on Long Island, and he was the producing partner of a man named Michael Harvey. That was my first job. I typed labels for Michael Harvey, who was producing two shows when I worked for him. One which never happened, called Playboy on Broadway. I don’t know if I can say this but it was going to be a big tits and ass musical revue to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the magazine. They went out to people like John Guare and Terrence McNally and Woody Allen and they commissioned sketch material and song material from all of the people you could ever want and it was all terrible. And the show never happened, although I find it very interesting that not very long after was Sugar Babies, which, in a lot of respects, was sort of the same show except with no nudity. The other show that Michael was producing was a pair of one-act plays that he found at the Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival by James McClure called Lone Star and Pvt. Wars. They were produced at the Century Theater in the Century Hotel. It does not exist anymore. It was down in the basement but it was a Broadway-ish house. The entire show . . . and as a producer, Ken, you will think fondly of days like this . . . cost $125,000. At the last minute he lost some financing and he said to me, the boy who was typing his labels, “Do you want to try to raise money?” And I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know what to do, but I just called people and everybody I called said no but, interestingly, everybody who said no said, “Why don’t you call this person?” And most of those people said no too, but eventually, and by now I was talking to completely strangers, eventually people said yes and I think I raised $25,000, which gave me an associate producer credit. My co-associate producer, also his first show on Broadway, was Stewart Lane.
Ken: Mr. Broadway himself!
Jack: Mr. Broadway himself also raised about $25,000, I think.
Ken: So you go from typing labels to cold calling people and you successfully raised money. Why didn’t you follow this? “I want to be a producer now!” You had so much success. So many people I know can’t raise a dime.
Jack: Well nobody in the commercial theater world was standing with arms open but, beyond that, it was only $25,000 and, beyond that I really didn’t feel like I had produced anything. I was, for all intents and purposes, always the office boy, just the office boy with a credit. But what was great about that job was I had the opportunity to meet a lot of the people who were in Michael Harvey’s world. Two of them were, at the time, legendary . . . I don’t know if they’re even remembered anymore . . . general managers Jack Schlissel and Jay Kingwill. Jack and Jay managed Sugar Babies, for one, Best Little Whorehouse for another, a revival of She Loves Me, the list goes on and on and on. Anyway, so I more or less asked Jack Schlissel to hire me, and he did. I worked as the assistant company manager of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. One of my very first jobs was working for Alan Wasser, who was the company manager of Sugar Babies. Just as an aside, I don’t know if people who listen to this will know Susan, but Susan Sampliner was also working . . . she was a little bit more senior than I was . . . but she was working in the Schlissel/Kingwill office at the time as well.
Ken: I worked for Susan at one point, when she was in Charlie Wilcox’s office. Everyone has worked for Susan Sampliner at one point, who, for those of you who don’t know, is in the David Stone Wicked offices right now.
Jack: Well there you go. So I worked on Whorehouse and I worked on Sugar Babies and, as an aside, I can say “tits and ass” I probably can say that our team on the Broadway show bowling league was named the Whore Babies, and by the way, we won and I have a trophy to this day at home and this is not what this podcast is about, but I will tell you that the Whore Babies were the very last team to bowl, and I was the very last bowler on the very last day, and I’m not a particularly good bowler but somebody pointed out that if I bowled three consecutive strikes in the tenth frame we would win by one pin, and I did.
Ken: Wow, did you retire? Are you still bowling today?
Jack: I am not bowling. Once you have bowled three consecutive strikes in the last frame to win a championship and you have that trophy, that’s when you retire.
Ken: I believe they call that a turkey. Don’t they call that a turkey?
Jack: Something like that.
Ken: It’s a little different in our business now.
Jack: It’s never happened before or since, so there you go.
Ken: So you amass this great deal of experience on the other side of the table, if you will, from general managers and company managers as an associate producer and you then decide to apply these skills, as I referred to it in the introduction, the other side of the table. What was your first introduction to being an agent? How did that start?
Jack: I didn’t decide to do anything, actually in my entire career, pretty much. What happened was that the last show that I company managed was A.R. Gurney’s play The Dining Room at the Astor Place Theatre, before it became the home forever and ever of the Blue Man Group. It was going to close within the foreseeable future. What I wanted to do was take a show on the road as an assistant company manager, and I reached out to all of the general managers that I knew, particularly Peter Neufeld, who was a great advocate for young people coming up, and there were just no shows. And so this is a true story . . . a lot of people have heard this story. It’s kind of idiotic but there you go. So I was working at Playwrights Horizons. They were the producer of The Dining Room. And this was before 42nd Street was renovated and so Playwrights was kind of sketchy, not compared to other theaters on the block but it still was. And there was no air conditioning. It was July, there was a historic heatwave. I think it was something like 106 degrees for three consecutive days. I had been offered an interview with Clifford Stephens, who had a company called STE Representation, and I had no interest in working for an agency. My experience with agents, especially when I was working for Jack and Jay . . . I was always getting nasty calls. “Where’s our money?” All of this, and it was horrible. It was the type of call that I make to you now all of the time. And I kind of disliked them as a breed of human being. But I have always believed that if you have the opportunity to meet somebody, you meet them. So it is the second or third day of this historic, massive, horrible heatwave and people are dripping. It’s just disgusting. And I walked into Clifford’s office and it was like a refrigerator. It was so cold, and I thought, “Well I have to work here.”
Ken: And your agenting career was born!
Jack: I kind of begged for the job. I remember it was a very cordial interview, I was leaving the office and I turned around, I walked back into the office, I said, “I really, really want to work here,” and he hired me and that was how I got into the agency business. I knew that my time at Playwrights Horizons was ending anyway. I needed some job, but I wanted that one just for comfort.
Ken: So obviously over the years, in your path, you reversed your opinion of this other breed of people.
Jack: No, never.
Ken: So what about it attracted you to it once you got into it and learned more about it? What do you like about it now?
Jack: Not a lot. No, I shouldn’t say that. I think that going back to my days at Sarah Lawrence and being part of the process in school of putting shows together from every different kind of angle, that’s the thing that has always appealed to me, and those were the two qualities that, over time, I realized that I brought to the job. One was, for lack of a better way of describing it, an ability to talk to artists . . . that was something that I enjoyed . . . and also a real interest in putting things together. I don’t think of it as a selling job. If I’m going to sell something, there probably are better things to sell, and much more money to be made selling those other things than playwrights.
Ken: So if you were writing a job description for an agent, one or two sentences, what do you think that would be? What is the job of an agent today?
Jack: I don’t know if I can do that because the job changes constantly. That’s one of the appealing things about it. Every day when you walk into the office, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. I don’t see the job the way most of my colleagues do, I think. First of all, there is a big difference between talent agenting and what I do, representing everything but the actors. I’m not . . . well sometimes I am . . . but mostly I’m not booking people into jobs that exist. Mostly what I’m doing is trying to create the job in the first place.
Ken: Can you give me an example of that? What’s an example of an artist or a team of artists that you’ve helped?
Jack: You mentioned Side Show. That’s the most example that there ever will be, just because of the sheer number of people that I had on it, but certainly another example is Waitress, Sara Bareilles. I approached Sara and asked her if she was interested in writing a Broadway show, and made the introduction to Barry Weissler, who’s the producer of Waitress, and the rest is history.
Ken: Besides being able to speak to artists, what other skills do you think are necessary for agents to have today? Is negotiating part of it? Is understanding the business a part of it, the numbers?
Jack: Well, sure, I think all of that is part of it and I think my general managing background is very helpful because it doesn’t do anybody any good if you advocate so strongly for your client that you lose sight of the needs of the project. A deal that is brilliant on paper but is not part of the show that actually exists is meaningless. I think that a certain degree of meticulousness is important in the job because there is a lot to keep track of. I sometimes joke that one of the prerequisites to being a good agent is that you had to have been a really, really good assistant because, in a lot of respects, that’s the kind of work you’re doing. You are still trying to anticipate and take care of other people’s needs, always before your own.
Ken: Let’s talk about negotiating a little bit and cutting these deals. You’ve been cutting deals for a long time now. Do you think it’s easier to get deals done today than it was yesterday?
Jack: No, it’s much harder.
Ken: And why do you think that is?
Jack: Probably because there’s less money to go around. I mean writers . . . let’s just talk about writers . . . for instance, playwrights and musical theater writers, back in the day, there was no negotiating. They made 10% of the gross. That was it. And, over time, that became more and more unwieldly until, on Woman of the Year, Sam Cohn more or less invented what we now call the royalty pool. Or rather post-Woman of the Year. Woman of the Year was the tipping point because it was a show that, by all accounts, was or should have been successful. The creative team made lots and lots of money and the investors lost everything, and so it was subsequent to that that they came up with the concept of the royalty pool and that’s been evolving ever since. So with shows costing more and more to produce and profits being harder to come by, it’s more difficult to figure out how you’re going to pay everybody, and of course there are a lot of people to pay. So I think the deals require more creativity than they ever did, and I also find that with every show you have to look at the deals differently. There are no standards anymore. I mean there are standards but they’re just sort of points of departure.
Ken: Do you see a way for this to get any easier? John Breglio gave me the exact same answer. I asked him the exact same question and he gave the same answer, that it’s become more complicated to figure out how to compensate everybody now than it was, and I’m hoping that someone out there listening, or you, has a solution as to how we can go back to a simpler way. Do you see that as a possibility or do you think we’re just past that and it’s going to be complicated now forever?
Jack: Well part of the problem is that Broadway is a place where a kind of rarefied craft person is employed, and I don’t just mean writers or directors. I mean seamstresses. These are the kind of people who, if you renovated your home, you couldn’t possibly afford them because everything is done by hand, so it’s a very, very expensive art form. That’s a problem. This is not a popular thing to say, but when people talk about how expensive ticket prices are and they need to be lower, they need to be lower, in point of fact, they actually need to be higher. The money that we get for tickets does not give us the same level of profit that much, much cheaper tickets once did when costs were low. Costs have increased much faster than ticket prices, in spite of the fact that it seems to the uninformed that ticket prices are always just shooting up. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be necessarily easier. For some reason it’s become the rule of thumb that a show should be able to recoup its capitalization in approximately a year. Well, to me, this always seemed like a crazy and arbitrary amount of time, because other businesses don’t recoup their costs in a year. And it causes producers to make, with apologies, stupid deals because they will make amortization deals in order to be able to recoup, if all goes really well, within a year, and yet without that amortization deal, which is going to cost them much more money in the long run, they might have recouped their costs not in a year, but in 15 months. You see those deals all the time and, as an agent, you say, “Why are you doing that? Ultimately it’s not good for you,” but because this has become a mantra . . . “We have to recoup within a year!” . . . deal making gets driven not necessarily, at least as I would look at it, by common sense. I think a lot of the problem that we face when we make these deals is we’re trying to give every show an opportunity to pay back its investors, whereas I think, if you just look at shows, the truth is that there are no mid-level hits anymore. Shows either really succeed or they don’t, and I’m not sure that the shows that really succeed need these cockamamie deals and so we’re making very, very complicated deals to benefit shows that ultimately don’t need them because they fail. Some of my easiest deal making was for the Broadway production of Hamilton. I represent the costume designer, Paul Tazewell, and it was a very easy deal to make. And it’s because . . . obviously anything could happen, but everybody is assuming that this is going to be, at least at the outset, a very, very substantial hit, and the deal was made very easily. I don’t know if that really answers the question.
Ken: You have obviously worked with a lot of producers and what I love about you is that you think like a producer, even when you’re on the other side. That’s one of the reasons I really wanted you to represent me. With all of the producers you’ve worked with, what do you think are the characteristics that a producer producing today needs to have in order to be successful? In other words, tell me who your favorites are.
Ken: Do you see how quickly he answered that with a no? Well, describe those favorites for me.
Jack: What I will tell you is that, relative to other business, it is rather inexpensive to get into the theater. If you have $12 million . . . now $12 million is a lot of money, but if I wanted to create a software company, that’s not going to pay for a week. $12 million gets me to opening night and beyond on Broadway. Suddenly, if I have that money, I’m a producer, and that’s the kind of producer that I don’t like. I like to not really have to think about that part of things. I like producers who understand that the financing of something, if it’s good, should go without saying or, even if it doesn’t go without saying, it’s not the principle driving force. The people who I like most of all are the people who I think see it like me. It’s exciting to put something good together and I think that you can look around at the kind of shows that get done and what you think about them and pretty much figure out who I like and who I don’t. I like everybody!
Ken: Let’s look to the other people you have to negotiate with, which are your own clients. What do you do when you have to tell one of your clients that you don’t think their work is very good? Does that ever happen?
Jack: It’s never happened.
Ken: I’m sure it has. How do you deal with it? This is what I find fascinating about what you do, because being an agent is very cutthroat, especially when you’re dealing with people like Sara Bareilles. They could jump to other agencies. There are people lurking around every corner trying to steal them, all of these three-lettered agencies out there. What do you do when you have to tell your client, “You have to make this better,” or, “Maybe we should stop doing this,” or, “Maybe it’s time for this to close?”
Jack: Well, first of all, my clients are never the ones to decide when something should close, so there’s that. In the creative process, every artist is always striving to make something better. People also have a pretty good sense of when something represents their best work and when something doesn’t. I think you could say that about yourself, I could say that about myself, so too can writers and designers and directors. There are also often extenuating factors. A show that’s rushed into production so there wasn’t time to do that next set of rewrites, or there wasn’t the budget for the costumes that the director envisioned. There are many, many things, so it’s not like you’re at home making a painting until the painting is perfect, and then presenting it to the world. That painting that I’ve made, I think it’s perfect. That’s never true on a Broadway show, there’s always something else that can happen. The one show I will say, and this says a lot, I think, where everybody involved pretty much got everything they wanted, down to how it was advertised, how it was marketed and how it was reviewed, was Side Show. There weren’t any “what ifs” attached to that revival. Three months later . . .
Ken: What happened?
Jack: Well how many times did you go and see it? Nobody went is what happened.
Ken: Do you have any idea, in your own post mortem, about the show?
Ken: Because I know you’re emotionally attached but you think about it like a business. Why didn’t the revival of Side Show work commercially?
Jack: There are a number of reasons. The first and foremost, which I think is difficult for all of us who have been involved in Side Show, this time and the first time around to accept, is that people simply do not want to buy tickets to see a show about conjoined twins, in spite of the fact that they were told by every critic in the country, including Charles Isherwood, that it was one of the most wonderful things they would ever see. Charles Isherwood called it “the essential ticket of the Broadway season.” You cannot do better than that. People didn’t want to go. And I suspect that the reason they didn’t want to go . . . because sometimes people have said to me, “Yeah, but people see Curious Incident, they went to see The Elephant Man” . . . none of those shows, and interestingly, not Side Show either, are about sex. And yet I think the idea of a romantic story, which Side Show clearly is, that involves conjoined twins, creates subconscious nervousness in people that actually is not what they see when they see the show, but it keeps them from buying tickets. So I think the reason that people don’t buy tickets is all about icky stuff that they’re imagining that’s not really there. That’s the first reason. The second reason, and this is not just about Side Show but I think it’s about shows like Honeymoon in Vegas and a lot of musicals that don’t open big . . . maybe The Last Ship to a certain extent . . . if you look at the Broadway landscape this year and you’re a ticket buyer and you’re buying a pair of tickets to the things you want to see, well, what do you want to see? You want to see Bradley Cooper, you want to see Glenn Close, you want to see Hugh Jackman, you want to see Nathan Lane . . . I’m probably forgetting one or two . . . and you have to see them right away because they’re only going to be here for 14-16 weeks, period. Larry David . . . I’ve talked this over with my partner, we’ve bought tickets to all of these things and we’ve spent a few thousand dollars and when we think about Side Show or Honeymoon in Vegas or The Last Ship or, in point of fact, Finding Neverland or any of these other shows, the first thought we have, I’m pretty sure, is, “Oh, those are musicals. They’ll be there,” and also, as much as I adore Emily Padgett and Erin Davie, they’re not what’s selling tickets. I just want to see Side Show. I will see it when I have my next chunk of money. Well, too late. I think by making it very easy for major stars to appear for a very limited time on Broadway, especially since just by how the calendar works those things tend to be concentrated in the fall, we’ve created an environment where a musical has to hit a home run out of the box, or it’s not going to work. The days of musicals catching on slowly are over. The last one that did, really, was Gentleman’s Guide, but there was no one waiting to go into that theater. We have an environment where there are a lot of shows waiting for theaters, so a theater owner has to do the responsible thing if a show’s not making it. They can’t just give their venue away for nothing. A lot of things happened with Gentleman’s Guide that make it the exception that proves the rule. It’s not just that it’s a great show. Nobody was buying tickets, but it had very low running costs, it had the supportive investors who were pumping money in and it had a theater owner that didn’t need the space. You needed all three of those things in order for it to get to the point where it could win the Tony. Would Gentleman’s Guide have won the Tony had it closed? Who knows, but would it have mattered? It was closed. With Side Show . . . although for the size of the show it was a very reasonable running cost, it was more expensive than that . . . there were shows that wanted the St. James and it was a long time to get to the Tony Awards, so there you go.
Ken: Those two reasons are both fascinating and, I think, dead on. The first one I just experienced on The Visit, because however brilliant that piece of art was in that Lyceum Theatre, people decided for some reason . . . and there may have been a bit of that icky factor that you described in a love story between two older people that people didn’t want to buy into, never mind the story of a woman who wants to go kill her first love.
Jack: Well we all want that.
Ken: That is true. So that’s fascinating. And, number two, this idea of the limited run revival sucking the air out of the space.
Jack: It doesn’t suck the air, it sucks the dollars. These shows, and God bless, them but they gross musical numbers. Who’s buying those tickets? I used to have a rule, which is no longer true, that people would buy tickets to an unlimited number of musical numbers over the course of the year, but one play. One play. And I was lucky enough to have one once . . . it was Dancing at Lughnasa . . . and you could look back, there was proof. There was always the one play. August: Osage County. And everything else would have its little runs or come and go but there was this one play that was a must-see ticket. Now, when you put these big stars in these shows, it’s almost reversed because people have to see those plays now if they want to see those stars. And the “want to see” aspect is becoming more and more true. I’m going to comment about a few shows, and I’m not going to give my opinion, but I’m going to give what I think is conventional wisdom. Finding Neverland . . . and I represent a number of people on that show so we’re all very happy . . . but I think it is safe to say it did not get good reviews. I think it is safe to say, I am trying to not be critical and not subjective, but these are facts. It’s safe to say that it was not embraced by the theater community. I think Sunday is evidence of that. It is safe to say, if you look at the various chat rooms, that it was the object of . . . let’s call it “commentary.” People love it. Love it! And I will tell you that when I take my nieces and nephews to a show next Thanksgiving . . . and I always do, every Thanksgiving I take them to a show . . . It will probably be Finding Neverland. People want to see Finding Neverland. It is the exact opposite of Side Show. Motown, a show that also had a lot of commentary and was not embraced by the theater community and did not get particularly good reviews . . . during previews you could not get a ticket to the point where the free seats that are always reserved for the lighting designer, the scenic designer, all of the creative people who actually have to watch the show during previews as they’re making changes, they didn’t have seats. They gave them up to sell them. People were going crazy to buy tickets. There is this intangible aspect that, as a producer and certainly as agents, we ought pay attention to. Knock on wood, you never know, but I’m involved with a show right now that I think has that, which is School of Rock. Now, obviously the hope is that it’s good, the hope is that it is embraced by the theater community, the hope is that it wins fans among our snobby friends. But whatever happens, I can tell you just by the phone calls and the e-mails and the texts from people who I haven’t heard from for years, School of Rock is something that people want to see.
Ken: Let’s talk a little bit about how you find new writers or artists or people to represent. If some of my listeners out there were looking to get an agent . . . I have a feeling a few are . . . how do they attract someone like you?
Jack: That’s interesting. Obviously it’s not just me at Paradigm. There are a bunch of us, and we’re always looking for new people. Bill Goldman wrote a book called Adventures in the Screen Trade, which is his follow-up to The Season. Both books are seminal and should be read by everybody who’s interested in entertainment. Even though both books are a little bit outdated they still are, in many ways, profound. I think it’s the second chapter of Adventures in the Screen Trade where Bill Goldman discusses getting an agent. And he talks about the fact, and it really is true, that everybody who is involved in representing, producing, anything in the arts, wants to be the person who finds the thing that’s great. And yet people who are submitting material tend to only want to talk to Ken Davenport or Jack Tantleff or whoever. And Bill Goldman’s point, which is very well taken, is talk to anybody. Because if your thing is really terrific, that person who go to the next person to the next person to the next person. Talent will out. A great piece of material will out. The people who constantly call, constantly write, constantly are rude to assistants, all of that, only want to talk to me . . . what they don’t realize is we actually remember those people, and not for the reasons that they want to be remembered. So there’s that. I think if we’re talking to aspiring writers, it’s really smart to learn a little bit about the agent that you’re writing to. Like who do I represent? In fact, we just got a letter . . . and it was a letter, it wasn’t e-mail, which I really appreciate too . . . just got a letter from somebody who actually said, “I really admire your client list. I particularly like so-and-so.” They had done so much homework about me. It was so flattering, I’m like ready to represent them having not read a word. But of course we’re going to reach out to that person. This sounds stupid but it’s really true. If you can’t write a good letter, why should we think you can write a good play? So what’s a good letter? Please don’t tell me that your play is easy to produce, or that big stars will want to do it, or that it’s going to make $1 million, but a letter that captures my attention. And not me, anybody out there, you’ll get a response. It’s really good to call me “Jack” and not “Jeff,” and what’s really, really good is to not address the letter “Jack Tantleff CAA.” And you’re laughing but these things happen every single day. Cutting and pasting does not work in looking for an agent or dating or anything like that. You need to be talking to the person that you are writing to. So there’s that. How else do we find clients? Obviously when people make recommendations. If you, Ken Davenport, call and say, “You should read this person,” the first question I’ll ask is, “Have you?” And sometimes you’ll say, “Well, no, they’re just a friend. Can you do it as a favor?” In which case we will, and maybe it’s good and maybe it’s not, but what carries a lot more weight is when you say, “Yes, I have, and I think they’re terrific.” So, again, it’s always getting your stuff to people who can advocate for you. And it doesn’t need to be on a high level, it just needs to be anybody. For playwrights, my advice always is write a brilliant one act play. Because if you write Long Day’s Journey Into Night it’s just not going to get read for a long time because when I’m looking at the things I have to read . . . and we all know, you’re going to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award . . . but when I’m looking at these things and there is this 25 page thing, and I’m tired, and then there is this 230 page thing, I’m going to read the one act play. I think the most general but important answer to the question is find ways to inject yourself into the community. Theater is not solitary, it’s about people. It’s also about people who happen to like each other and get along and spend a lot of time together, so if you’re part of that and you have something worth paying attention to, people will pay attention.
Ken: When they land an agent, when you sign one of these people, then what should they do? Should they sit back? “Oh, I’ve got an agent, I can sit back now, Jack’s going to do all of the work for me.” What’s their role?
Jack: No, they should never stop. We coach them all the time, of course, but, first of all, you should never stop writing. The worst thing for any agent is the playwright with one play. The agent probably thinks it’s brilliant too, except nobody wants to do it. And if they haven’t, they’re not going to. You have to always be thinking about the next thing, not only the next thing I’m going to write, but how can this thing I’ve already written be used to bring me a step ahead? So, no, they’re not sitting back and letting me do all the work. They’re writing something new, they’re meeting people, they’re doing everything they did to get me but they keep doing it until something pops.
Ken: Okay, last question, Jack, and then I’ll let you get back to repping all of these great clients of yours, before they start calling and yelling at me. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin . . . do you have any people in Aladdin?
Jack: I represent the costume designer, Gregg Barnes, and Paradigm represents Aladdin himself.
Ken: Fantastic. So the genie, in his fabulous costume, knocks on your door and says, “Jack, you’ve done such wonderful things for the industry and you’ve taken such a proactive role for your clients and you think about agenting like a producer. I want to grant you one wish.”
Jack: You mean other than putting Getting the Band Back Together on Broadway?
Ken: That’s right. That’s my show, for those of you who don’t know. See that? He’s such a good agent, pitching my stuff for me. I want you to imagine that this genie says, “You’ve done such a great job. What is the thing that drives you craziest about our industry? What keeps you up at night, what frustrates you, what makes you bang your head into the table? With the snap of a finger, oh Jack, I will make this disappear. I will change this forever. All that you have to do is ask me, the genie.” What would you ask the genie to change?
Jack: Well I’d like to get rid of stupidity. That probably goes beyond this industry. By stupidity I mean stupid producers, in that “Why are they producing that?” Stupid critics who don’t know what they’re talking about. But you know what, Ken? I don’t have a lot of problems with the business. You said something at the beginning of this interview, which is that nobody goes into it to make money. People really tend to be in theater, by and large, for the right reasons. There are bad eggs here and there, and I hated Charles Isherwood on First Date but how can I hate him after his review of Side Show? Everybody is a human being. I do look around and I wonder why certain shows get produced, but of course if you dig deep you always find out the answer. There’s always an answer. There is something, and it’s not going to be very popular because it would probably impact Aladdin. I think one of the ways that Broadway has been damaged . . . this is part of the big star, limited engagement argument . . . it’s an adjunct but it’s been going on for longer. What some of your audience may not realize is that, in its day, the longest running show on Broadway was Fiddler on the Roof and it ran, I think, for seven and a half years. Before that, it was Hello, Dolly!, which ran just under. My facts may be completely wrong about which show beat, which but it wasn’t more than eight years, either one. I think if they were to look up the length of the runs of shows like My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, pick one, they would be shocked. Three years was a huge hit. Hairspray, which I represent, was really a victim of the economic crash in 2008. Hairspray closed in January of 2008 when the bottom was dropping out of the economy and the producers and the management looked into their crystal balls and they saw a summer coming where nobody would be in New York, nobody would buy tickets to see theater, and they closed preemptively to protect a show that had already profited quite handsomely and, as it turned out, they were wrong. Everybody was wrong. The recovery, not the overall recovery, but the recovery in terms of Broadway theater and hotel occupancy and stuff like that, was almost immediate, and it was a very good summer. And a show like Hairspray probably, although, again, no crystal ball, would have done very well. It probably did not need to close then. But anyway, Hairspray ran for five years and it’s disappointing, so today when we have Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia!, although it’s closing, Book of Mormon, I don’t think that that’s particularly healthy. I am praying that School of Rock becomes one of those but, when your real estate is so much more limited than it ever was back in those days, everybody . . . and this is creatives, theater owners, producers, investors . . . start to look not necessarily just to make something good but what is that hit that can run for ten or more years? I’ve tried to not name shows, and there’s one example of all of this happening in a way that I think was, I don’t really want to say this because I don’t like to speak ill, but the show that I’m talking about is Rocky. Because, to me, and I wasn’t involved with Rocky . . . we represent Andy Karl, who was Rocky, but I wasn’t involved with any of the creative team . . . it always seemed to me, looking at that show, that that show was built to be one of these shows. To me, just again, as an observer on the outside, it seemed that almost everything about it was calculated to turn it into, for lack of a better word, an attraction, the way that Phantom of the Opera is an attraction, or Book of Mormon is now an attraction. And that’s the wrong way of thinking and that’s what, in this environment of shows that run 10 years, 15 years, when that becomes your measure of success, I think it creates that. And so if I am talking to the genie, even though I might have to say, “This may put you out of a job,” that’s how I would like to turn the clock around. I would love if there was just much more real estate and changing real estate all the time so that people would feel comfortable taking risks. That people would look at a show like Billy Elliott, that ran for just three and a half years, and say, “That’s an important hit,” as opposed to something that was disappointing. That’s what I would wish for.
Ken: A very good answer, especially with the theater crunch that we’re in today. I talk about this all the time and this season is a great example. We added four shows that I don’t see going away any time soon: Finding Neverland, American in Paris, Fun Home, these shows are just going to run . . .
Jack: Well Fun Home won’t. I mean, Fun Home will run for a long time, but it’s not going to be here ten years from now.
Ken: No, not ten years, but certainly all of these shows will run, it looks like, for a couple of years.
Jack: Oh, for sure.
Ken: And that’s a lot of hits to get in one season.
Jack: And next season, Hamilton and Waitress and School of Rock probably are joining the list. Hamilton for sure. I can’t really speak about Waitress other than the word on it is very, very good and it’s Sara Bareilles, and Jessie Mueller is going to attract a certain audience because she won the Tony Award for Beautiful. School of Rock seems to have that built-in “want to see,” so that’s three more theaters that we’re losing.
Ken: 10 to 20 years from now we could have nothing but long runners, and we’ll all be out of work. Jack, thank you so much for doing this. Thanks to all of you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe. There are some great guests that I can’t even reveal coming up very soon. Thanks so much, talk to you soon!
Ken: Thanks for listening to this week’s podcast, everybody. Don’t forget, if you’re looking for space for your reading, your workshop or your full production, check out DavenportTheatre.com. That’s DavenportTheatre.com.