Who Calls the Shots on Broadway? She Does
After the talk of taxi ads and touring, what to do about scalpers and what’s up with the cast recording and how much will the investors be repaid, the conversation turned, improbably, to artificial flowers.
It was a steamy July morning in a poster-packed office on the ground floor of a Greenwich Village apartment building, and 23 people who had raised money to finance “Hadestown” were gathered for the first time since the show — a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth — had won the Tony Award for best new musical.
Mara Isaacs, one of four lead producers and the only person in the room standing, punched her right hand into her left palm to punctuate her points as she outlined plans to keep the show front-and-center while newer musicals began to arrive and lure the limelight.
That brought her to the buds: a red ranunculus has become the marketing image of the show, and throughout previews the production had given plastic versions to patrons as souvenirs. Now some fans missed the freebies.
Did the co-producers want to pay to resume distributing them, at least to the scores gathered nightly at the stage door? And what about the effect of a nonbiodegradable memento on the environment? Ms. Isaacs — who had helped shepherd the project since “Hadestown” was a concept album by a Vermont-based folk musician with no ties to Broadway — knew a tricky issue when she saw it. The matter was tabled for another meeting.
“We’re obviously in a really great position right now,” Ms. Isaacs said. “But we’re not taking that for granted.”
She was talking about her own show’s fortunes, but she could have been talking about women like herself, who are arriving on Broadway as lead producers in ever greater numbers, and whose influence is reshaping theater’s top tier.
“There’s been such a change,” said Julia Jordan, the executive director of the Lillys, which promotes gender parity in theater. “Some sort of tipping point was reached this year.”
Of the four shows that won the top prizes at the 2019 Tonys, three featured women as first-billed lead producers — Ms. Isaacs and Dale Franzen of “Hadestown,” Sonia Friedman of “The Ferryman,” and Eva Price of “Oklahoma!” They were the ones who clutched the statuettes and gave the acceptance speeches, marveling at the success of three shows that were each, in its own way, commercially dicey.
“Every woman who led a show took the biggest risk,’” Ms. Franzen said. “They took the hard road.”
Broadway still has a long way to go: Among other issues, women continue to be significantly underrepresented as writers and directors.
And women are not new to producing: They have been making a mark on Broadway for at least a century, and in recent decades women like Margo Lion, Elizabeth McCann, Nelle Nugent, Robyn Goodman and Daryl Roth have been important players.
But, even though women remain a minority among lead producers — those in charge of the commercial life of a show — their power is clearly growing, not only on artistically adventurous projects but also on big dollar ventures.
Just this season, Carmen Pavlovic is the lead producer of “Moulin Rouge!,” the lavish musical that opened in July. Kristin Caskey is leading “American Utopia,” the David Byrne concert show that opens in October; Tali Pelman is overseeing “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” which opens in November; and Beth Williams has “Diana,” a musical about the life and death of the 20th-century British princess, which opens in March.
They follow Stacey Mindich, who led “Dear Evan Hansen,” and Sue Frost, with “Come From Away” — both now international hits. And there are women on smaller projects as well. Diana DiMenna is the lead producer of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which closes on Broadway later this month before going on tour, and Dori Berinstein is among the lead producers of “The Prom,” which struggled on Broadway but is now hoping to find success as a star-studded film on Netflix.
As leaders and tastemakers they are bringing their own life experiences to bear on the shows they oversee, particularly attentive to how women and girls are portrayed, and whether women are employed on their creative teams.
“Of course, if we have a different way of being in the world, it’s going to affect what we produce and how we produce,” said Ms. Price, who staunchly believed that a radical rethink of “Oklahoma!” belonged on Broadway. “It really matters.”
How They Got Here
Some Broadway producers, of both genders, arrive in the industry with personal fortunes to draw upon. Others have historically learned the ropes by starting as apprentices to already successful producers.
But many in this new generation of female producers are taking alternate paths to the industry’s top rung — picking up skills in the nonprofit theater world, which has become an important breeding ground for Broadway shows, or in the corporate entertainment industry, home to many of the movie and pop-music brands that end up seeding international stages.
“Collaborations between the nonprofit and commercial sectors have become much stronger, with much more fluidity,” said Caro Newling, a British producer who has worked with the director Sam Mendes, first running the London nonprofit Donmar Warehouse, and now as commercial producers. “Once you become part of the fabric, it allows you to learn more, understand more, find your way around more.”
Among those who have taken this path: Ms. Isaacs worked at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, N.J., and the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, and Ms. Franzen at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif. Ms. Frost spent two decades at Goodspeed Musicals, in Connecticut. Jenny Steingart, a founder of the Off Broadway nonprofit Ars Nova, is one of the lead producers of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” which is opening on Broadway in October.
And then there are those working in both spheres: Barbara Pasternack, the artistic director of the nonprofit TheaterWorksUSA, is leading a commercial production of “The Lightning Thief” that opens on Broadway in October, while Ms. Roth is supporting a nonprofit Broadway revival of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” that opens in April.
Other women are cutting their teeth in the recording industry, the film business and large theater conglomerates before coming to Broadway.
So Ms. Pavlovic, as chief executive of the Australian company Global Creatures, is simultaneously shepherding stage adaptations of “King Kong,” “Moulin Rouge!”, “Strictly Ballroom” and “Muriel’s Wedding.” Lia Vollack, as head of the theater division at Sony Pictures Entertainment, is developing a musical adaptation of the film “Almost Famous,” which begins its Broadway-aimed production in San Diego next month, and “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” the high-stakes Michael Jackson bio-musical. And Ms. Pelman, as creative managing director of Stage Entertainment, a large European venture, is leading “Tina.”
Every indication is that women will play an increasing role in lead producing on Broadway. Ms. Frost, who teaches a producing class at Columbia University, said nine of her 10 students last semester were women.
And Valerie Novakoff, an associate producer whose research found that 28 percent of commercial shows on Broadway in the last five years had a female lead producer, is planning to start a private equity fund next year to invest in productions with women in their leadership teams.
Patted on the Head
Sonia Friedman is among the most successful and powerful theater producers in both London and New York. But recalling her start, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, still stings.
“As I was going up through the industry, I would often get accusations that I was sleeping my way through the business,” she said. “There was this view that I wasn’t getting these opportunities or climbing the ladder through my own skill, tenacity, strength or talent — that there had to be something else going on as well. It’s shocking to say it out loud — and I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud — but it means I had to work that much harder, putting in more energy and time to prove myself.”
Ms. Friedman, based in London, now has a long list of credits in the West End and Broadway, and shelves full of Olivier and Tony Awards. Her productions won the best play Tony each of the last two seasons, with “The Ferryman” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and this season she is a lead producer, with Tom Kirdahy, of “The Inheritance,” an ambitious two-part play about gay male life in New York.
She is heartened by the progress she sees in the industry. “I love the fact that younger women are feeling far more empowered to speak their mind, talking about stories and ideas that they’re interested in,” she said.
But she is not alone among female producers who say they have faced sexism.
“There are significant unseen hurdles to leading a show to Broadway, some of which have implicit gender bias — there’s a lot of ‘She’ll never be able to do that’ and ‘What does she know? ” said Ms. Isaacs of “Hadestown.” “There were a lot of things we had to do that men would never be asked to do — proving how we were raising money, who our investors were, and that the show was ready.”
Paula Wagner, a longtime Hollywood agent and producer who led “Pretty Woman” on Broadway, described similar experiences.
“When it comes to the area of finances, I think women are held to much more rigorous standards,” she said. “Men can walk in the room, and say ‘I am the lead producer,’ and there is a natural acceptance of that person and that position, but a woman has to earn that.”
Ms. Friedman said she will never forget an incident a few years ago in New York when a senior industry leader walked over to her, as she stood chatting with male producers, patted her on the head and said, “Aren’t you doing well? I’m so proud of you.”
“It was really humiliating,” she said. “I challenge you to tell me that person would have patted Scott Rudin on the head.”
Ms. Pelman brought up another complication for women: family responsibilities. She has children ages 6 and 8, and is living in London while bringing a big show to New York. “For me the obstacle is never being a woman, but being a mother,” she said. “If you’re a hands-on parent, you probably need to do it without anyone noticing.”
Several women said they had also had to examine their own practices as leaders to make sure they were not perpetuating gender imbalances.
Ms. Pavlovic said she was startled when she conducted a salary survey of her own organization and discovered that women made up half the staff but were earning 33 percent of the salary budget. “I consider myself a feminist, so I was pretty surprised, given that I do a lot of the hiring,” she said. “I went back over the negotiations and realized how much harder the men had fought for their salaries and their titles.”
Ms. Vollack raised the same issue, saying that “One of the things that is really important as a woman producer, as much as giving opportunities, is making sure there is pay parity.”
And Jill Furman, one of the lead producers on “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” as well as “Freestyle Love Supreme,” said she has become increasingly focused on making sure there are women on creative teams.
In some cases, that’s obvious — she is producing, with Rachel Sussman, a musical called “Suffragist” with a largely female creative team. But she has committed to having female creators for a musical adaptation of the young adult novel “Wonder,” too.
“I was so taken by what Rachel Chavkin said,” she said, referring to the Tony acceptance speech by the “Hadestown” director. “It’s not a pipeline issue, it’s a failure of imagination, and we have to give them opportunity.”
Two in a Row
Eva Price sat alone on one side of a stark conference room, taking notes in a journal. The blood-and-bluegrass reimagining of “Oklahoma!” had won the Tony for best musical revival a few weeks earlier, and now her bookers were arrayed on the other side of the table, doling out the good news, and the bad, about their efforts to find theaters around the country willing to stage the audacious revival, which is darker than audiences raised on school and summer stock productions might expect.
For years, Ms. Price placed small shows at small houses all across America — but now she is playing in the big leagues. She is a lead producer not only of “Oklahoma!,” but also of “Jagged Little Pill,” an Alanis Morissette jukebox musical that opens in December.
Ms. Price took an unusual path into producing — she was working as an assignment editor at ABC News when she made the leap, helping a friend put on an Off Off Broadway show. “I didn’t have family money or a wealthy husband or wife, but I just networked my face off, got a hold of properties, got a hold of investors, an eventually everything got bigger and better,” she said.
So she was carefully taking notes at the meeting with her bookers. There are expected to be about 40 Broadway-scale shows touring the country next season, and most theaters will present only eight to 10 of them. Which presenters were committed to “Oklahoma!” and which were hesitant? Who might benefit from a call, or an early glimpse at marketing materials?
Then there were the other issues, specific to Daniel Fish’s idiosyncratic interpretation: Could chili be served at theaters on the road, as it is on Broadway? (To be determined.) Will a contemporary dance interlude be as long as it is on Broadway? (No.) And how could the show help theaters educate their audiences about what to expect? (Materials to come.)
“Sorry to give you a tough one,” Ms. Price said to the team as the meeting ended. “Next year,” she said, referring to “Jagged Little Pill,” “will be a little easier.”
Michael Paulson is the theater reporter. He previously covered religion, and was part of the Boston Globe team whose coverage of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. @MichaelPaulson
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