Jeremy Gerard has covered the evolving fortunes of Jujamcyn Theatres since it became a formidable competitor to the larger Shubert and Nederlander organizations in the late 1980s. In 2013 producer Jordan Roth became Jujamcyn’s majority owner and the Street’s youngest power broker. Here they talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.
ROTH: Everything is different now. As the President said, our union became a little more perfect. Actually, all our unions did. His speech was the first of many times I cried this weekend. Then my husband and I started thinking about all the people who fought so hard who didn’t live to see this day. What would they make of this? Watched the last scene of Longtime Companion, imagining that glorious flood of now-survivors reuniting and returning to exhilarating life today. Cried again. And that brought me to all the movies and TV shows and plays that have shown us life not just as it is, but as it could be.
In theater, La Cage Aux Folles and March Of The Falsettos showing us what a family could look like. The Normal Heart showing us what a wedding could look like. Throughout this fight for marriage equality, data has demonstrated that the more people who know a gay person, the more they support. I wonder how many people first came to know a gay person, truly know and care about an openly gay person, on stage. Theater as change agent. Shows that change the world, one mind at a time.
‘When I was 17, my mother took me to see Ian McKellen’s A Knight Out, his solo show about his life as a gay man.’
When I was 17, my mother took me to see Ian McKellen’s A Knight Out, his solo show about his life as a gay man. How much she said to pre-gay teenage me — not by saying a word, but by just buying those tickets and sitting next to me. Usually in my memory of shows, I picture what was on stage. For this one I picture those two seats where my mother and I sat at the Lyceum.
When my husband was about the same age, his mother took him to see Torch Song Trilogy. She had seen it already and before she left the theatre, she bought tickets to bring him back. After the show, she said to him, “You know, if you ever told me you were gay, I would never react like that mother did.” Mothers and theater. Changing the world, one mind at a time.
GERARD: It was a week that took me back some years, as well. I’ve just reviewed Shows For Days at Lincoln Center Theater, in which Douglas Carter Beane revisits his time as a stage-struck teenager who stumbled into a community theater in Reading, PA and in a way never left. The play is set in the early ’70s, very close to the time I dropped out of college and spent a year with the New Agape Theatre Ensemble in White Plains, where we put on timely plays like William Hanley’s Slow Dance On The Killing Ground, which dealt with abortion and prejudice, in the social hall of a church. We were a determined, committed and randy group. I can still picture every member, from our serious, mysterious Russian leader and his patient wife to the tech director who gave me a 12-month immersion course in hanging lights, building sets, running a light board, selling tickets and teaching improv to bored local teens.
The marriage ruling also took me back, of course, especially as I’ve been reading an advance copy of Michael Riedel’s book Razzle Dazzle, about the changes on Broadway from the British invasion that began with Jesus Christ Superstar and fully took hold with Evita, Cats and Phantom Of The Opera. That was also the time when AIDS was swinging its scythe through the theater world. I was covering the devastation at the New York Times and, later, at Variety. It was impossible to feel separate from so much anguish, especially when tough plays like Beirut and poignant plays like As Is and The Baltimore Waltz were being done off-Broadway, which is really the theater world in which I came of age.
All of which made me wonder where the plays are today that compel us to look at the world through corrective lenses. The work of Ayad Akhtar, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Quiara Alegria Hudes gives me great hope. But I fear that the explosion of ambitious TV series has made it even more attractive for our best writers to abandon the stage.
ROTH: I would add Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Katori Hall, Bruce Norris and others to your list. And while I certainly don’t bemoan the renaissance of exceptional storytelling we all get to experience on TV, you make an important point. Artists being able to make a sustainable living from a life in the theatre continues to be a crucial challenge. For some, it’s the potential of making more money in Hollywood, and for many others, it’s the struggle to find the time and head space from the day job to actually write that play.
Do you know about PoNY (Playwrights of New York; click here)? It’s a program started by my friend Sandi Farkas that gives a year-long fellowship to a playwright that includes a free apartment in the theater district, living expenses, health insurance and artistic support from the Lark Play Development Center. A room of one’s own and the money to make playwriting a job. Eight years later, eight playwrights have written 33 new plays out of that apartment. Astounding!
For those playwrights who do find a home on television, I’m also observing more who are able to do so in addition to theater, rather than instead of. With so many of these major series now happening on cable and online, and with those season commitments of 10-12 episodes rather than the 22-23 of broadcast, writing a season of television and a new play in a given year is now possible. Liz Flahive and Heidi Schreck, for example, were both writers on Nurse Jackie and both wrote plays on the show’s hiatus that were produced at MTC and Playwrights Horizons, respectively.
Some stories want to be told live on stage, some over an evolving period of time on television, and some through the expanse or intimacy of film. The healthiest artistic ecosystem I can imagine is one where our great storytellers can move among all three as their stories require, and in so doing they can make a healthy living that sustains their families and their hearts.