Podcast Episode 45 Transcript – Ted Chapin
Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. I’m Ken Davenport. Thank you so much for listening. I’ve been lucky enough to have so many different professions and industry leaders on the podcast. We’ve had directors, designers, producers . . . and today we have a president. We have someone who sits in one of the most unique chairs in the business and who guards some of the greatest treasures the musical theater has to offer. It is my honor to have on the podcast today the President and Executive Director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization . . . I said that wrong, didn’t I? “Steen?” President and executive director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Mr. Ted Chapin. Welcome, Ted.
Ted: Thank you. You actually said it right the first time. Bill Hammerstein said to me, “Like Steinway pianos. Hammerstein,” so that’s the thing to remember, but it doesn’t really matter.
Ken: Great. As the president of R&H, Ted has spearheaded over 20 award-winning Broadway and London revivals of Rodgers and Hammerstein work, including the most recent and incredible productions of The King and I and South Pacific. He’s the past chairman of the board of trustees of the American Theatre Wing, he’s sat on countless boards of some of the most important arts organizations in the land, he guest lectures at all of the top schools, was a Tony nominator and is now a member of the Tony Administration Committee, published author . . . which we will get to because he wrote a great book. So, you can see, Ted’s capable hands have helped guide our industry in so many different areas over the years. So Ted, how does one get to be president of R&H? How did this all begin?
Ted: That’s such an awesome introduction. I hear that and I think, “I’d like to meet that guy. He sounds very impressive.” But my metro card has got to be full when I go on the subway so I’m just like everybody else, I feel. The fact is that I grew up in New York and loved the theater and always wanted to be part of it. I think, in retrospect, the lucky thing was that I didn’t want to be “a that.” I didn’t want to be an actor, I didn’t want to be a director, I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be, as somebody once said, I wanted to be “in the room where it happens.” That’s basically how I started, by figuring out that, if you’re a production assistant, you can be in the room where it happens. You can just take it all in. So, in a funny way, the fact that I did production assistant jobs, I did assistant directing jobs, I ran the Musical Theatre Lab, which Stuart Ostrow started. There’s this electric background in my 20s, all of which came to a wonderful head the day Mary Rodgers called me and said, “I think they could use you at Rodgers and Hammerstein.” She had seen the work I had done at the Musical Theatre Lab and she was a friend of my parents so I knew her socially, and she just said, “I think they could use you at the Rodgers and Hammerstein office. Here’s their number, give them a call. I’ll see you later, goodbye.” It was a year or so after Rodgers had died, and nobody in the families quite knew what to do. It is true that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, when they started to write together, both having years of experience writing for musical theater, they knew how the business worked. So when Oklahoma!, their first show, hit big, they and their advisors said, “Let’s control our destiny. Let’s do everything out of our office. Let’s be our own Samuel French. Let’s be our own Warner Chappell. Let’s in fact produce our own movies. Let’s produce our own shows.” So that’s why there even is such a thing as the Rodgers and Hammerstein office, where all the rights are centralized in one location. So Mary called and the families knew that they owned this place, they knew their checks came from this place, but they didn’t really know a lot more than that. So my going down there and saying, “Sure, what is it that you’re talking about?”. . . and the idea was that I would spend a year learning the ropes in the hopes that I could then take over. I think I ended up spending two years there because it was more complicated than I thought. I didn’t know what music publishing actually was, I didn’t know the difference between a first class right and a second class right, I didn’t know what grand rights were. There were all of these terms that I didn’t know and by the time I had learned them Bill Hammerstein, who was wonderful, said, “Do you want this job?” And I said, “Yeah, I do,” and so I became the executive director. I actually only took on the title “president” when we brought the publishing company in-house and I hired a very smart woman who had worked at Chappell to be the head of it and she said, “I need to be president of Williamson Music,” our company, “because in the music publishing world that means something,” and it was the first person who said to me, “So Maxine’s the president and you’re the executive director?” and I thought I should probably straighten that out so I added “president.” All of these titles are kind of silly but that’s the longwinded answer to your question. That’s why I have the title “president.”
Ken: And how long have you been there now?
Ted: I’ve been there for 32 years. I have grey hair . . . you can say silver, maybe. I didn’t have any when I started. But it’s been a great, great time. I have said, and I will say again, no two days have ever been the same and that’s the fun.
Ken: Imagine you’re at a cocktail party in east Wichita, Kansas, which may not get a lot of Broadway activity, and someone says to you, “Hey, Ted, nice to meet you. What do you do?” How would you describe at a cocktail party to someone who doesn’t know our business and hasn’t seen Oklahoma! what you do?
Ted: Well at a dinner party last night at the Waldorf, not dissimilar to what you’re describing, I said, “Entertainment.” With these Brazilian bankers, entertainment is where I started. But where I get to, very quickly, is I will say the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and then I will say “The Sound of Music” because that’s the signature. And actually the guy who does the printed music for us, several years ago, said that he hired a new secretary who didn’t know Oklahoma!, didn’t know The King and I, didn’t know who Rodgers and Hammerstein were, but knew The Sound of Music. And so he said to me, “That’s your ticket in. That’s your way in, just so you know that. Be realistic about it.” So that’s always . . . “You know The Sound of Music? Have you seen The Sound of Music? That’s the guys that I work for.” That’s the way in.
Ken: So when Mary Rodgers called you and you were like, “Okay, I’ll go over there,” did you like the R&H stuff? Were you in a position to love it?
Ted: That’s a really interesting question, because I grew up at a time when I could have seen the original production of The Sound of Music. I probably could have seen Flower Drum Song but I would have been taken to it as a very young child. But my parents, even though my father worked at Columbia records that put the cast album of The Sound of Music out, they didn’t take me to The Sound of Music. They took me and my brothers to Bye, Bye, Birdie because that was a little bit hipper. So I always think how interesting that was. I knew the recordings, I saw the productions that were done at the New York State Theater, part of the music theater of the Lincoln Center, one of the derived creative constituencies of Lincoln Center that only lasted a few years, so I knew of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. I listened to the recordings. I didn’t actually have a direct relationship to them as much as I had to other shows that I had seen and had loved at that time.
Ken: You say that no two days are alike. Give me an example of a typical or atypical day. What kind of calls do you get?
Ted: I always like to answer that question starting with today, because today is a day and I went to the office in the morning. A lot of conversations today were happily about the new production of The Sound of Music that is playing at the Ahmanson that Jack O’Brien directed and, again, that production is in some ways the quintessential example of what my job is. I found out a few years ago that Jack O’Brien and Margo Lion had gone to Moscow on a State Department visit and had been asked to go and see a dress rehearsal of what is referred to as the “first authorized” production of The Sound of Music in Russia . . . don’t think it was the first, but it’s the first that we’ve got any royalties from . . . and he was very moved by what he saw and Margo told me, “You’ve got to get Jack to tell you about that production.” So I got Jack to tell me about that production at the same time that Ken Gentry, who runs Networks, had been saying to me, “It’s time for The Sound of Music to tour the country. All of those very well run theaters across the country that take touring productions, they do audience surveys and they throw out titles and The Sound of Music is on everybody’s list. It’s time for The Sound of Music.” So what I did was kind of put it all together, because for Jack O’Brien, three-time Tony Award-winning director, to direct a touring production, is not normal. For Networks to hire Jack O’Brien to direct a production is not normal. So my challenge . . . and, frankly, it was a great challenge . . . was to see if we could all put this together and everybody could step up their game a little bit so that we could do a touring production that is as good as anybody could make it. And it opened last week to very good reviews. So now, what’s the future? That’s the fun. That’s the fun part of today.
Ken: You’re basically doing the work of a producer.
Ted: And, in fact, through in an ironic slight change in the way that Rodgers and Hammerstein is organized, I’m actually one of the named producers of that production, which came about after the fact. We had a video conference with Bert Fink, our colleague in London, who basically said that, with the exception of Pipe Dream and . . . what was the other one? Not even Allegro. Not even Me and Juliet . . . but Pipe Dream and something, he has activity for every one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals somewhere in the UK. The fact is, these are 50-year-old-plus shows and the challenge and the fun is to keep them alive, to keep new generations of people discovering them. I haven’t answered your question about how much I knew them when I started. I didn’t know them that well but, boy, have I come to respect them because they are first-rate works of theater and that’s why, when Lincoln Center does South Pacific or The King and I and puts the production in the hands of Bart Sher he examines every word and finds things . . . the whole relationship between Lady Thiang and her son, Prince Chulalongkorn, has always been in that script but no one’s ever focused on it the way Bart did so you never lose that thread throughout the evening. Jack has done some of the same things in The Sound of Music. Just, what’s on the page? What’s a cliché and let’s push that aside. Let’s see what the words actually say and what the music says and then let’s direct a production from there. So the more we can do those, I believe, the more people will have a good experience with them in the theater and then, hopefully, leave and think about them and buy a recording or listen to a download and think, “Wow, that’s good. I like that stuff. What else did they write?” And that’s what I’ve been able to do for 30 years. It’s always changed slightly but it’s always been interesting.
Ken: Let’s talk numbers. How many productions of The Sound of Music are there around the world in a given year?
Ted: I don’t actually know that. We have said for years that we license about 2,500 different productions and The Sound of Music is our top show. It’s interesting. The bookends, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music are out most often performed Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. Probably about 600, 700 productions a year, I would guess.
Ken: And what is it that keeps people coming back and back? These are high schools and community theaters. Why the craving for this?
Ted: They’re just very, very well written. I think what a lot of the younger generation have discovered is how hard the musical theater is. That alchemy of speaking, singing, movement, dancing . . . as somebody said, “In a musical, when you can no longer speak, you sing. When you can no longer sing, you dance.” Easy to say, very, very hard to construct a story in which you can validate all of those things and make it interesting and enlightening to an audience. So I think, as there are now programs of how to create musicals and workshops . . . I have said, and it’s not a popular thing to say, but you can get any musical on these days and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. You may never get it on a second time, but you can find a workshop, you can find a place, you can get it done. But in the old days there was a kind of process, in the Broadway world, by which people would learn as they went along. The fact that John Kander wrote dance music for Irma la Douce and Gypsy before he wrote his first musical, and it was a flop before the second musical. Those kind of built-in training grounds are very different today. That’s a little bit off the path but I think the fact is, as people are learning how shows should be constructed, there’s always Rodgers and Hammerstein to go back to to realize, “Oh my God, that first scene in The King and I on the ship gives you so much information without anybody telling us anything. It’s characters in a situation talking to each other, and you find out she’s arriving in Bangkok, it’s scary, the king is sending his people to come down, she has a young son, she’s brave and she figures out how to buck herself up with a kind of silly throwaway song, ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune.’ And then the Kralahome comes . . .” There’s all of this information without anybody having to look out at us and say, “We are approaching Bangkok. It’s a scary place. I’m coming from somewhere else,” that kind of stuff. It’s very tricky to figure out how to create characters and situations and make them valid for the time and the locale and the style of the music and the style of the show. That’s what Rodgers and Hammerstein really, really did well and can withstand thorough study in order to guide any creator of a musical.
Ken: If Oklahoma! opened in 2016 as a new musical, do you think it would be a hit, based on what today’s audiences want?
Ted: That’s a really, really good question. I think if it opened in 2016, looking and feeling like the production that opened in 1943, it would not be a success at all. Among other things, the sophistication of scenery and lighting has come a very long way so those original productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein kind of look like high school productions, when you see the photographs today. I don’t think anybody would reject that. I certainly think, from what the Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman production was like in London, there would be every reason to think that that kind of version of Oklahoma!, done brand new today, would be very exciting to everybody because the libretto is very strong, the story of it is fairly simple but the way it’s told is very complex and very emotional. Again, a thing to understand, you don’t need a complicated story if the way you set up the people who are part of the story are themselves interesting and the situations are interesting. “Who is that peddler? Is he really from Persia or is he from the Lower East Side?” All these questions that would be taken up anew if it were a brand new musical today. I think the basic show still stands up.
Ken: You are in this very difficult positon. Some might say it’s an enviable position but it’s probably much more challenging than those of us who are outside ever think.
Ted: Thank you!
Ken: I first met you when I general managing the Ken Gentry Cinderella that was going out, and I remember being told, “It’s got to go past Ted. It’s got to go past Ted. Everything has to get Ted’s approval,” and we were all so nervous of you coming in the room on the first day, because you are the safeguard for this incredible pieces of work. How does that feel for you, number one, and how do you challenge the authors’ original intent? Obviously they’re not here to tell you, “Yes, I would allow this. No, I wouldn’t allow this.” Where do you get your guidelines?
Ted: That’s a very, very good question. First of all, I’m a hired hand. The Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue is vast enough that the two families could hire somebody to be in charge of everything that they inherited. I say that because there are a lot of estates that have people who have enormous emotional connections to what their father, their grandfather, their grandmother, whatever, wrote, and that’s more complicated, to have, on top of everything else, an emotional connection. I don’t have that. My emotional connection is to the theater. I’m an emotional theatergoer. I know what I like. So starting with that, number one. Number two, when I started, I worked for Dorothy Rodgers, widow of Richard Rodgers, and Bill Hammerstein, oldest son of Oscar. Bill was a producer and director in his own right, had been doing the management of copyrights certainly longer than Dorothy had, and was very wise. He seemed a little slow, perhaps, but he wasn’t. He was very wise and he just wanted to let things take their time. Dorothy was incredibly smart but had nothing to do with the office, so her mandate was to keep Richard Rodgers’ music alive. So I learned from my bosses. And I made a couple of little mistakes and I learned where the lines are drawn, when I could come into Cinderella and say, “That’s not good,” or, “That is good,” and when I had to defer to the people who actually owned everything. And that was a challenge but, as far as I was concerned, it was a good challenge because I was willing to say, “I think this is XYZ. Do you want to come and see it yourself?” And they, mostly, would say, “No, I trust you. I think that’s fine,” or, “No, that is something I’d like to see.” So, in a way, what I learned, without any job description, is where the lines need to be drawn, drawing on my experience, my love of the theater, and just trying to go with my instincts as much as I can. A lot of people who do estate management, as I said before, are either emotional members of the family or they’re lawyers. And they have a very different mandate because they’re always terrified they’re going to do the wrong thing. My feeling was, “I’m sure I’m going to do the wrong thing sometimes. That’s part of it.” I actually said yes to a production of South Pacific which happened in Los Angeles and I remember going out with Bill Hammerstein to see it and as we were driven back to our hotel from the music center in like a pimp-mobile . . . a white limo that was three blocks long . . . I remember sitting in the back of it, thinking, “Gee, if I were Bill and I was sitting next to the young guy at the office who’s encouraged this production, I might not be so thrilled with this guy.” But the good thing was that Bill was a person who had seen enough in the past and he knew that it was all an arc. And I was very honest, I said, “Gee, this didn’t go very well, did it? What are we going to do and how are we going to deal with this?” I think we’re still owed royalties for that production. So it was basically following your instinct and being honest. In that situation with Cinderella, it wanted to put a bit of a modern spin on it, which had been proven effective in the remake for television so everybody knew it was going to be a little different. There were a couple of things, you may recall, in the music that I wasn’t wild about but it’s a dialogue. I don’t have the right answer but I’ve learned enough by osmosis to say, “That’s going too far,” but it’s my opinion based on what I’ve learned. I would never want to say, “You absolutely must do that,” because it’s a collaboration. Theater is a collaboration, and you know as well as anybody, any time you have everything absolutely lined up, “This is exactly what’s going to work,” somebody throws you a curve ball and it’s like, “Wow, that never occurred to me.”
Ken: Any crazy stories about productions you’ve had to shut down for just being totally absurd and ridiculous?
Ted: Well the infamous production was Anne Bogart’s production of South Pacific at NYU. Again, there was an interesting lesson to be learned. I had a visit from John Wulp and Evangeline Morphos, who were both involved with NYU, and they came to see me because this was a production of South Pacific that had been properly licensed and they said to me, “We haven’t changed a word.”
Ken: You know that’s a sign that something is wrong.
Ted: The concept of the production was that it was being performed by people who were coming back from the war experience, because Anne was smart enough to realize that, while the war is a very important part of South Pacific, the play doesn’t actually take place in the war. It’s on the periphery. It’s people who are involved in it. So her idea was that these were people who had been involved in the war and, as part of rehabilitation, coming back into society, they were going to do this play, and there were some very odd things about it. My recollection is that the girl who played Nellie Forbush was standing at the piano as the audience walked in, going, “I’m in love! I’m in love! I’m in love! I’m in love! I’m in love!” Some scenes were performed by four different couples and in some instances lines would bounce around. So the answer is they didn’t change the words, they reassigned them and they changed it around and there were things about the production that were clearly not what South Pacific was intended to be. My dilemma was that it was fascinating. It was absolutely fascinating and it delivered South Pacific, not necessarily in the way that audiences would expect, but I sat there . . . and it was fairly early on that I was there . . . and I thought to myself, “You know, this is a really strong piece of material.” So we did not shut them down. We didn’t extent their contract, which they asked for, so that’s where we got the bad reputation for having shut them down, but I remember thinking at the time, “There’s a production of this show to be done before this kind of production happens because this town hasn’t seen it in a long time,” and we had to wait almost 20 years, probably, until Bart Sher and the Lincoln Center production happened and it was the serendipity of a lot of different things going on . . . Light in the Piazza, written by Adam Guettel, grandson of Rodgers, that Mary was very enthusiastic about. I was sent out to Sundance and we all went out to Seattle to see it and it ended up at Lincoln Center Theater with Bart Sher, who nobody knew who he was, and it was based on that having been a success that André Bishop thought, “Oh, we’ll put them on South Pacific.” Again, it’s all a mosaic. You just have to be both patient and also forward-thinking about this connecting with that, which may be a bit of a surprise, and this connecting with that. Again, in the theater, sometimes it all works in a nice way and sometimes it doesn’t.
Ken: Do you think there will continue to be these big revivals of these shows 50 years from now? Will they just continue like this? And part B of this question is explain a little bit about the copyright situation that I’m sure you’re dealing with now.
Ted: The current United States copyright law gives the shows and songs that are of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era a copyright life of 95 years from the date that it was first registered for copyright. So Show Boat is the first one in our camp that’s going to go into the public domain in this country in 2022, so it’s not that far away.
Ken: That’s pretty soon.
Ted: Then, 15 years later, it starts with Oklahoma! Nobody knows what’s going to happen. I put before you what happened with Gilbert and Sullivan. They were rigidly controlled when they had copyright protection. You could only do them the way that D’Oyly Carte wanted them done. Then when they fell out of copyright they kind of fell out of fashion. Perhaps if Gilbert and Sullivan had allowed other people to do them then in different ways they wouldn’t have fallen off the cliff. I mean, yes, there are occasional brilliant productions that are rethought, but in terms of Rodgers and Hammerstein I doubt that I will be around when the major R&H shows start to go into the public domain. What will happen? I don’t know. They are big shows for the economics of the commercial Broadway and touring world these days. We try to be as cooperative as we possibly can be to cut the cast size down, to cut the orchestra size down, so that they can be as economically feasible as possible but still have enough of what makes the shows work. The other irony that’s happening now is the opera companies are discovering them, and of course they have 70-piece orchestras usually on staff, and for them doing a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical they get to send half the orchestra home. I’m not sure that that’s the right kind of movement but that’s one place where the lyrical drama/musical drama has a life that has, for many years, been seen not in a commercial way but in a not-for-profit world that may be where some of these shows will end up having more of a life. But I like seeing them in theaters. They were designed for theaters. They were designed for the same theaters that you’re doing shows in now. The orchestra pits have been buried . . . they used to be visible and there was no amplification in the theaters so you had to design the orchestrations acoustically so that the orchestra would be balanced. There are wonderful old pictures of Richard Rodgers conducting Oklahoma! and you can see the orchestra. Now there are very expensive seats there but in those days it was important to balance it all.
Ken: R&H wrote how many musicals together?
Ted: Nine musicals for Broadway, one movie and one television show.
Ken: Over the course of how many years?
Ted: 17 years.
Ken: 17 years. Nine musicals.
Ted: One every other year. Oklahoma! in 1943, Carousel in 1945, Allegro in 1947, South Pacific in 1949, The King and I in 1951, Me and Juliet in 1953, Pipe Dream in 1955, then Cinderella in 1957, Flower Drum Song in 1958, The Sound of Music in 1959 and Hammerstein died in 1960. I once asked James Hammerstein how his father dealt with the setting of lyrics by Rodgers if he didn’t like it, because I figured for that many shows in that time period there wasn’t a lot of time for arguments and getting mad at each other. And his answer was that there was a verse to “Love Look Away” in Flower Drum Song and, when Oscar Hammerstein heard the way Rodgers set it, Oscar Hammerstein cut it. And I thought, “That’s a really telling thing.” I then went to look at it, because it is actually in the sheet music, and I don’t think either the music or the lyrics are very good. My theory is that, when Rodgers wasn’t inspired by a lyric from Hammerstein, he just wrote some melody in a 2/4 tune of not much consequence, because when he was inspired he had no problem coming up with melodies that were, a lot of times, very surprising and harmonically surprising. But the verse of “Love Look Away” is not their best work.
Ken: These guys are the most prolific writers the theater has ever had. Do you think it’s possible to write that much today? We don’t see the big hit makers on Broadway now writing a musical every other year. Lin-Manuel, of course, now with Hamilton, his second after In the Heights.
Ted: How many years was it? Probably five?
Ken: At least, I think. So why is that?
Ted: I think there are a lot of distractions in this day and age. I mean everybody talks about the computers and the phones and all that stuff. It’s very easy to find things to distract your attention, but I do think it’s fair to say that, when Rodgers and Hammerstein were working, and Cole Porter and Lerner and Loewe, there were fewer of those kind of distractions so the idea of focusing on work was, I think, probably easier. They talked a lot about their shows. Hammerstein went to his house in Doylestown, on his standing desk, went into his study at nine o’clock in the morning, came out for lunch, in the afternoon played tennis . . . there was a kind of discipline that they had that I think is possible today, but it’s very, very hard. In a funny way, Hammerstein wrote Allegro about that, about how, when you become successful, there are all of these things that grab at you . . . to be on committees, to be on boards . . . that take you away from the thing that got you to that position to begin with. As Sondheim said years later, a fairly esoteric idea to write about . . . something that he, Sondheim, did not understand in 1947 when he was the gopher . . . but when we talked about it a few years ago, he now did understand it. So I do think that’s the case. They also worked for many, many years beforehand, so by the time they started to write together I think it was very clear that they saw the same kind of theater. There’s a consistency to the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, even though they take place in Siam, in the Oklahoma territory, in Austria, in different locales and with different people with different personalities. But I think there are some basic, theatrical storytelling things that both guys understood instinctively so that when they got to The Sound of Music they knew that Mother Abbess . . . there needed to be the older, wiser person who, at the point in the story where the lead needs to get a little push, that was Mother Abbess, who had antecedents in Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! and Nettie Fowler in Carousel and Bloody Mary in South Pacific and, interestingly, both Lady Thiang and the Kralahome in The King and I, a variation on the theme. But “Something Wonderful” . . . that’s the same kind of, “You don’t know that you need this but I need to tell you this. Now’s the time. You need to go to him.” One of my favorite scenes in The King and I is after she sings “Something Wonderful” and Mrs. Anna listens and realizes, “Okay, I do need to go swallow my pride and go back and talk to him,” and when she goes the Kralahome comes out of the shadows and says, “Did it work?” Originally, I found out by looking in the files, that song was to be sung by the Kralahome, not by Lady Thiang. Part of my fun is I get access to the files. Any young writer listening to this . . . understand that every Rodgers and Hammerstein show was as much rewritten as it was written, because the first outlines of shows that Hammerstein would put together, with song titles, there’s hardly a song title that ended up as the title of the song that ended up in the show. Aunt Eller’s song, “She Likes You Quite a Lot,” not only did that song never show up, but Aunt Eller didn’t have a song. “Face Life” was “Climb Every Mountain.” Again, in Hammerstein’s titles, the essence of what the song needs to be is there, but he was not afraid of writing something down that wasn’t good enough. Then he had to go back and think, “Okay, how does the Mother Abbess say to Maria, ‘You have to face your life. You have to face the life that you were born to live?’” And, interestingly, in that instance, “Climb Every Mountain” was at first a personal song. “I will ford every stream, I will climb every hill, I will this . . .” And you can see, through his drafts, it went and got turned around to the Mother Abbess saying, “You will do this.”
Ken: You’re right, you don’t think of these shows having gone through the same development process that we go through every day, but of course they did.
Ted: And don’t ever think that rewriting and throwing stuff that you love out is a bad thing. It’s the collaboration of the musical theater and that never, never changes. Also, get enough of an audience so that you can listen to them, because individually they are worthless but as a unit they tell you everything you need to know.
Ken: The other big tip that I never realized until you started to say this is how much location . . . specific locations . . . had to do with their musicals. Oklahoma, Siam, Austria . . .
Ted: And where Rodgers’ genius is in evidence is he always managed to give you enough of a signature . . . Oklahoma! starts with what sounds like a square dance, kind of “Turkey in the Straw.” South Pacific has “Bali High.” There’s something about that melody and those harmonies that makes you think you’re somewhere slightly exotic . . . a slightly different exotic thing in The King and I. “Lonely Goatherd” in The Sound of Music . . . but he was never slavish to it. I always like to point out that the penultimate emotional and dramatic moment in The King and I is a polka, “Shall We Dance?” What, I ask you, does a polka have to do with either the king of Siam or a Welsh school teacher? But they knew how to do it and the audience never says, “Why a polka?” You are so in the moment. It just was the right thing at the right time, and that they learned from experience. You learn the more you do.
Ken: They give the audience what they want in that moment. So you’re obviously this incredible safeguard of these musical theater treasures. I can think of no better person to also be a safeguard of the big prize of the musical theater. You’ve been a Tony nominator before, but I want to talk about your position as part of the Tony Administration Committee, which is this very mysterious committee that I’m actually composing a letter to right now for Spring Awakening.
Ted: White smoke or black?
Ken: Yes, white smoke or black! Eligible or non-eligible, revival or new musical? Can you tell us a little bit about what this committee does?
Ted: Sure. First of all, a brief background . . . Bill Hammerstein was on the board of the American Theatre Wing and, in the mid-1980s, the League and the Wing had a rapprochement about how the Tonys should be operated, because the Wing owns the Tony Awards but they’re given for shows that are produced by the League members. So at the rapprochement the Wing needed ten people on the side of the administration table and they didn’t have the warm bodies, frankly, so at that point Isabelle Stevenson said to Bill Hammerstein, “What about the new kid at your office?” So, as the new kid at the office, I was asked if I wanted to be on the Administration Committee so I was on the Administration Committee. And it was a very eye-opening experience because it was very much, “Okay, come into the operating room now. Whether you know what’s going on or not, you’re going to see it and you’re going to see it in all its glory, or gory as the case may be.” But, that being said, it is and should be a perfectly honorable partnership between these two organizations. It’s good for the League to have somebody who’s a little bit removed from it. I mean part of the challenge of the Wing is for them to get people who do sit on the Wing side of the table who are not conflicted, who know the theater, who care about the theater and are ready to have enough of an overview that, if somebody on the producers’ side kind of wants to push something in a direction that may be a little more personally generated than big picture generated, just to have some checks and balances in there. So that being said, I’ve been on the committee for many, many years. We are the committee that decides or approves of where the categories are, and there are always interesting places where there are discussions. I put before you projections as one. Projections is something that is becoming more and more important in the world of, “Is it scenery? Is it lighting?” These are the kind of things we have discussions about. The committee can and has made the decision that, “The projections in this given production are part of scenery, so we have the ability to say those are joined together.” Or, “It’s lighting,” or, “It’s not eligible at all.” We do seek guidance from producers, which I think is right, but there are times when, for a variety of reasons, the producer doesn’t want to make that determination. He has relationships with these people and the designers might not all agree on how it is. So being an administration committee that’s supposed to look at the overall and say, “No, in this instance, this, we feel, makes sense.” It’s difficult to do it correctly all of the time but there’s a valiant effort that’s made to do that. So that’s the Administration Committee. I actually chaired that committee until I became the chairman of the Wing and then I stayed that, and now it’s become sort of the chairman of the Wing chairs that committee and it’s a large room and it takes some wrangling.
Ken: That’s a room I’m not sure I want to be in.
Ted: I think we want you in there!
Ken: Great! So you are obviously such an expert and have given a masterclass in some of the classics of musical theater right now. You see everything, of course. What do you think about the current state of musical theater on Broadway today?
Ted: I think there’s a lot of really good stuff going on. I look at isolated examples like Next to Normal, like If/Then, shows that are not what you would expect. If anybody thinks that Broadway musicals are a cliché, these are not clichés. They are shows that have, if I may, old fashioned passion for telling a story in a way and, when they are successful in the Broadway community, that’s really, really important. At the same time, the institutional, the Disneys, those kind of organizations that are relatively new to Broadway, creating a kind of entertainment that is certainly as theatrically good as other things, that’s important as long as it’s put in the proper perspective and doesn’t overshadow the other original stuff. They both can exist side by side and I think they tend to exist in that way and the more both can be encouraged the happier I am. Good revivals can fit in between there, thank you very much, but I think, for the most part, there’s some really good stuff going on. I felt last season was remarkably good on a lot of different levels and I even found myself saying, “I hope everybody really is aware of that.” The level of production was good. The bar that is set for Broadway should be high and I think, for the most part, is high and I think last season was a pretty good example of some very good stuff.
Ken: So my last question, Ted . . . I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to your office and knocks on your door and says, “Ted, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for your incredible work safeguarding these incredible treasures and giving us these incredible revivals . . . South Pacific and The Kind and I . . . and all the work you’ve done on the Wing and on the Administration Committee. I’m going to grant you one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that gets you so angry, that keeps you up at night, that you would want this genie to wish away in an instant? Only one thing. I know, I can see your mind going, “There’s a list of a hundred!”
Ted: That’s a very, very good question. I think I’ll preface the answer, if I can find answer, by saying that very little keeps me up at night. I was fired when I was 24 years old, right around the time that I had a show that I produced that closed out of town. I was going to be the youngest producer on Broadway many, many moons ago. And I’ve always been grateful for the fact that that was a devastating experience for me when I was 24 years old, so everything since then I look at and nothing could ever have that effect on me. That being said, so there isn’t anything that keeps me up at night with anger, but if there was a wish that I could have it’s that the world that we live in would acknowledge what the live theater is all about, in a cultural way, that they don’t recognize today. When you look at Entertainment Weekly magazine and one out of every ten issues has two pages on the stage, and I page through it and I see endless bad television shows and endless books that I don’t care about. Again, I said I’m not angry, but I don’t care about that stuff, but I look at it and I think, “Why isn’t the live theater elevated to a position where people can recognize it and embrace it in a way that makes people accept it in the way that so much else in our culture is accepted?” Towards that end, I loved seeing on CBS, on the nightly news, a little piece on your Spring Awakening at the end. The more that there is of that . . . I promise you there is a kid in a wheelchair in East Lansing or whatever, Snowshoe, Nebraska, who saw that . . . because his or her parents were watching it, unfortunately . . . and noted it and saw a young woman in a wheelchair who has made a success as a performer. That’s the kind of thing, that the more the people who make the decisions about what gets circulated in the discussion about our cultural work can embrace what live theater is, that’s my wish for that genie.
Ken: It’s a great wish and I have to say that your work in allowing The Sound of Music, the live telecast on television, all of the efforts you’re making there, I thank you for that because that is obviously doing just that.
Ted: That’s part of it. That’s all part of it.
Ken: And we need that desperately. I can’t thank you enough for doing this. All of your listeners can understand why Ted is one of the most respected people in our industry. He’s one of the smartest guys I know. Thanks you so much for being here and, again, for giving us this incredible masterclass. By the way, Ted wrote this great book called Everything Was Possible, which is the story of the birth of Follies from his perspective . . . the production assistant’s perspective . . . and it’s very near and dear to my heart because that’s how I started as well, as a PA, and it’s a great read. So thanks so much and tune in next time for someone that Ted mentioned . . . Susan Stroman is on the podcast next week. Thanks so much!