Richard Steiner was never interested in sailing smoothly into the Cincinnati toy business his father and two uncles founded and which produced Play-Doh. A free-spirited adventurer, he was nevertheless interested in real dough and made a goodly sum of it on Broadway as a producer of Big River, Hairspray and The Producers, among other box-office hits. As engaging a character as any in the many shows he helped navigate to success in Times Square, Rick Steiner died Thursday at home in Cincinnati, five days shy of his 70th birthday.
Steiner was a gambling man who found pleasure and profit in high-stakes games that included not only the legitimate theater, but as a part-owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball franchise and as a world-class poker player — which was, no doubt, why his most enduring partnership was with Broadway’s best-known gambler, former Jujamcyn Theatres owner and horse-track habitué Rocco Landesman. Landesman once described his friend, in typical sports-analogy form, as having “a higher batting average than anyone I’ve ever met in the theater business. Period.”
Yet Steiner also maintained deep roots in his hometown, where he was a committed supporter of local culture as a board member of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati and the Cincinnati School for Creative and Performing Arts.
“Rick was a rare human being,” Steiner’s brother, Corky, told the Cincinnati Enquirer, adding that they were raised to love each other because siblings won’t always have their parents: “We were the epitome of that.” Corky Steiner confirmed his brother’s death but said the cause had not yet been determined, though Rick Steiner had recently undergone open-heart surgery.
After earning his BA at the University of Wisconsin and an MBA at the University of Chicago, Steiner moved to Boston and opened a branch of Channel One, an early experimental video club that presented sketch comedy by the likes of Chevy Chase on closed-circuit television. A brief stint learning telemarketing in New York ended up with Steiner hitting the road, where he sold custom-printed photo T-shirts from a van at fairs and other venues around the country. He also honed his skills at the card table, eventually winning the World Series of Poker in 1992.
When fellow Badger and childhood friend Landesman cajoled the singer/songwriter Roger Miller to try his hand at writing the score for a Broadway show, Steiner signed on as an investor in Big River, Miller’s adaptation of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. It was on life support, losing $17,000 a day, when Steiner began urging people on the streets around the Broadway Theater District to take a chance on the show. He also spearheaded an audacious marketing campaign. Before that high-stakes game was over, Big River had won seven Tony Awards in 1985, ran 1,005 performances at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre (which Landesman would soon oversee as president of Jujamcyn Theatres, the five-theater group he took over in 1987), and doubled its $2.5 million capitalization.
In all, Steiner was billed as a co-producer, often with partners including Fred Mayerson, Daniel C. Staton and Marc Bell, of 11 Broadway musicals, including The Producers, Hairspray, Into The Woods, The Secret Garden and Jersey Boys. He also co-produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog. Steiner didn’t call his flops flops, instead characterizing such flops as the Bob Dylan-dancical The Times They are A-Changin’ and A Catered Affair as “interesting experiments.”
Perhaps most important, Steiner, with his gut-honed business acumen and lifelong experience assessing the odds, lent something honest to typically bloated above-the-title billing: the idea that in the long terrain between lead partner and angel, there are dreamers who bring more than a check to the Broadway gambling table and who actually justify that valued moniker of “producer.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with a check.)
Rick Steiner’s funeral will be held Sunday in Cincinnati.