Mark Shenton: Broadway, like the West End, thrives on impresarios
Every industry has its power brokers and theatre is no exception. Every year, The Stage 100 lists British theatre’s most influential people.
Some of these regularly work on Broadway as well, consolidating their power in both of the world centres of English-speaking theatre.
One of the most prominent is Sonia Friedman, who has just taken her co-production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to Broadway. She is also represented there by the transfer of Shakespeare’s Globe’s Farinelli and the King and will soon see Travesties join it. She has a lead-producing interest on the musical Mean Girls and has announced plans for a Broadway transfer of The Ferryman.
That’s on top of her West End roster, including The Book of Mormon, Dreamgirls, The Ferryman and The Birthday Party, plus imminent transfers for Consent from the National and the Young Vic’s The Jungle.
You wonder how there are enough hours in the day, let alone how many balls you can keep in the air at any one time. But Friedman once told me that her inspiration is Scott Rudin, the producer who makes her seem like a slacker.
Having cracked both Hollywood and Broadway, he may be the single most prolific producer in the world today. His film Lady Bird was up for five Oscars, including for stars Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. In 2016, Ronan starred in Rudin’s Broadway revival of The Crucible; and Metcalf is in Rudin’s production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.
Three Tall Women is at the John Golden Theatre on West 45th Street, Broadway’s premiere theatre thoroughfare, with six venues between Broadway and 8th Avenue.
Also heading to this stretch are Rudin’s productions of musical Carousel and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. He recently occupied the Booth with the biggest play hit of last autumn – Meteor Shower starring Amy Schumer. And, around the corner, is his revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Bernadette Peters.
No one else produces at this level and intensity. Interviewed by NPR in 2016, he said: “The risk is intense and the stress is intense, but I think the chance to make something great so balances the equation in its favour that it honestly is never much of an issue for me.”
It’s all about the work. And that’s something Broadway’s theatregoers can be truly grateful for. In a world where money may seem to be the most important commodity required to put on a show, Rudin proves that you need a lot more: taste and access to the best talent, too.
And it’s a striking fact that the best producers lead creatively as well as financially.
Cameron Mackintosh long pioneered this approach of being active in the development of shows he produces (now extending to authorship, with credits for conception and writing contributions to Barnum and Half a Sixpence).
Commercial theatre thrives off strong, personality-driven leadership – from the quietly determined sort such as Michael Codron or Duncan C Weldon in London or the late Robert Whitehead on Broadway, to the more showman-driven ethos of Bill Kenwright in London or the late David Merrick on Broadway.
As theatre has become more expensive to produce, it is an increasingly collaborative and/or corporate endeavour – the billing for a Broadway show can, as that for the recent Dirty Rotten Scoundrels quipped, stretch to “the entire Prussian army”. But someone still needs to take charge or the endeavour can flounder in a sea of contradictory opinions.
It is striking that juggernaut Disney is helmed by a powerful, charismatic individual. Thomas Schumacher segued from president of Disney Animation to lead Disney Theatricals, overseeing the transition of The Lion King to a stage hit that is now the most profitable entertainment of all time, grossing over $8 billion – more than all the Star Wars films combined.
But he is not taking anything for granted with the stage transfer of Disney’s top-grossing animation, Frozen. He told the New York Times: “This is the first time we’ve done one of this scale with so much social media around the movie. That means you have seen a lot of Frozen around you. I’m sure you could go online and find bleating goats that sing Let It Go. People know this material profoundly, and have seen lots of different interpretations. That can be a very positive thing, or maybe not a positive. I don’t know.”
The same is true of the cult of personality around producers themselves. We’ve recently seen titans such as Harvey Weinstein fall; there have also been allegations in the Wall Street Journal against Schumacher himself, which he denies. But Broadway loves a hit. And it’s often the vision of an impresario that creates them.