Talkin' Broadway V.J.



Jane Eyre The Musical

A conversation with Annette Niemtzow
Sometimes nice things just happen. We phoned Jane Eyre producer Annette Niemtzow last week to verify that the Brooks Atkinson Theatre box office will open on Monday, October 2, and she was kind enough to give us a few minutes out of her busy schedule to not only confirm the opening, but also answer a few questions about producing a new Broadway musical.
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Talkin’ Broadway: Annette, let's talk for a minute about Jane Eyre. What first attracted you to this project?

Annette: I'm a sucker for a love story. I love Jane Eyre's wit and independence. I was moved by the rich, romantic sound of Paul Gordon's music.

As a producer responsible for investors' money, I then looked at how I thought audiences would respond to the title. I considered the quality of the rest of the creative team (John Caird - Two time Tony winner, Les Miserables and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, John Napier - Five Time Tony winner, including Les Miserables, Cats, Miss Saigon, and Sunset Boulevard).

I saw that Jane Eyre had worldwide appeal.

Did I believe that this creative team could dramatize Bronte's extraordinary story and thrill an audience with its romance and mystery? Yes! That was a leap of faith which our amazing team has validated many times over.

Last summer, at La Jolla Playhouse, Jane Eyre broke all Playhouse records, reaching an audience capacity of 108.44%. Standing room was sold out. It was now time to come to Broadway.

T.B.: Jane Eyre begins previews at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on November 7. That's just a few weeks away. What are some of the things a producer deals with when the show is preparing to go into rehearsal and this close to the first preview performance on Broadway?

Annette: Everything. As is usual, this includes the branding of the show (creating an image, finding our place in the musical marketplace and tradition), the selling of the show (setting a campaign, developing promotional partners and promotions), fixing final contracts, deciding final allocations of our capital. In our case, before the show even opens, it also includes working on our cast album with Sony which will be in stores on November 21st and developing the Broadway official edition of Jane Eyre with Random House which will be in stores in October. It also involves developing a strong sense of team - let's call it company - with everyone involved. One doesn't sleep. . . .

T.B.: When did you first decide to become a producer, and why?

Annette: I realize I may sound a bit high minded, rather than commercial, but here's the story.

In 1993, a playwright friend was struggling to find the subject for her next play. I suggested she write a one woman show about her masectomy. She was skeptical - who would want to hear about this? I argued - everyone would. She eventually did write the show, as only she could (I was just her friend, listening to the preliminary script, making suggestions) and she won an Obie for her work. I didn't know that I was functioning in some ways as a producer (short of the key act of putting the work on the stage) by figuring out what would interest the public and by working with a playwright.

She was also a television writer. She invited me to a panel at the Museum of Television and Radio, which consisted of the television producer Barney Rosensweig, ("Cagney and Lacey"), his wife, the actress, Sharon Gless, and writers of "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," including my friend. Barney Rosensweig was asked what it meant to be a producer. He said, "Let us say, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas have a conversation with the nation about sexual harassment. I then turn to these writers. I say, Write me a script about sexual harassment. Let's continue the conversation with the nation. Let's set the terms of the conversation. That”, said Barney, “is what it means to be a producer." Hey, I thought. That's what I was meant to do - be a producer, help set the terms for our cultural life. I was so excited. I hope it's not too corny to say I knew I had found my calling.

I have always been literary (reading, writing) and have opinions about what is good and what is important. As a business woman, I have always been comfortable with financial matters. I then set about learning how to produce. It was a trial by fire when I became co-producer of The Kentucky Cycle, the Pulitzer Prize winning play that we brought to Broadway. Briefly, let's just say, I didn't know enough to know how to produce commercially. Having been through both The Kentucky Cycle and the hit off-Broadway play The Food Chain, I feel that I am now up to the challenge of a Broadway musical. I hope I'm right.

T.B.: If you asked a typical theatregoer to name six producers currently active on Broadway, chances are the only woman on the list would be Fran. Who are the women currently producing on Broadway you respect and admire?

Annette: Elizabeth Williams, Liz McCann, Kathy Raitt, Daryl Roth and Judy Craymer (Mamma Mia).

T.B.: How would you describe your taste as far as what you want to see when you go to the theatre? What sort of new project would excite you and make you want to put it on a stage in a commercial run?

Annette: My taste, I like to think, is eclectic. I love musicals, straight plays, comedies, revivals, all when well done. Live performances always give me something special - the quality of the performers, the designers, the collaboration. I am often moved by the quantity and quality of talent that exists in the theater community.

I've always said what I love best are shows in which we see human beings' capacity to love. I think that is probably the start for me of any new project. Then there is all the commercial thinking before one commits to the process of producing a show.

I can also become passionate about supporting talents or topics I think need attention. (And bravo to recent works as diverse as Copenhagen, The Laramie Project and The Vagina Monologues.)

T.B.: Due to the current size and complexity of most Broadway musicals, do you think one person, one producer can still manage to "do it all," or do most major projects demand more than one producer?

Paul Gordon, Scott Schwartz, and John Caird
Annette: No one "does it all" or does it alone. Jane Eyre is a company. We have experts in all fields: creative experts Paul Gordon, our composer, and Steve Tyler, our music director, for music, John Caird and Scott Schwartz for direction, Spotco for advertising, The Publicity Office for press, Marge Singer for marketing. The producers and general managers collaborate and try to make decisions based on an overview.

Minimally, a producer must have the ability to raise the capital needed to support the creative and commercial structure of a show. It's always easier to share that burden, but producing involves other challenges as well. I can't imagine that anyone deceives themselves and thinks they do it alone.

T.B.: Why did you decide to take the unusual and risky step of recording the Original Broadway Cast CD prior to opening? Is the OBC CD going to be available for purchase at the Brooks Atkinson during previews?

Annette: We're extremely fortunate that Sony Classical, which is producing our album, agrees with us that people should have a chance to hear Paul Gordon's lush and romantic music even before they see the show. It is a statement of faith in Jane Eyre by Sony, as well as by us. There hasn't been another cast album released before a show opened in years. (We think La Cage Aux Folles was the last.) The Original Broadway Cast CD of Jane Eyre will be available in stores as well as at the theater on November 21. We open on December 3.

T.B.: I've heard rather than waiting for a theatre with a big enough stage to accommodate the set used in the La Jolla Playhouse production to become available this season, when the Brooks Atkinson Theatre opened up you grabbed it and decided to have a whole new set built. What's the real story?

Annette: That is the real story!

The set is really quite something and it's integral to the story-telling of John Caird and Paul Gordon. There is no Jane Eyre without John Napier's set.

We also added the awesome Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (six Time Tony Award winners, including Cabaret and Ragtime) to the design team working with one of our amazing men named John. For the Broadway production, we have an even more sophisticated version (version 6.0 vs. version 1.0 in current parlance) of the truly revolutionary set Napier created for Jane Eyre at La Jolla.

Add this set to the intimacy provided by the restored Brooks Atkinson and you'll know why we hope that audiences will come to Jane Eyre for spectacle as well as for Jane and Rochester's mysterious and moving story. We're glad to be the show delivering this new way of creating theatrical sets to theater audiences for the first time. It's quite a privilege and responsibility.

T.B.: How much influence do you think a producer should exert in the casting of a project? Looking at it objectively, what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the cast for Jane Eyre?

Annette: The director and playwright know what they see and hear in their minds. The producer has to think about what is good and what will sell. We exert . . . we exert . . . .

Strengths of the Jane Eyre cast? That's a set-up. We have 19 of them; Marla Schaffel, James Barbour, Nell Balaban, Sandy Binion, Andrea Bower, Stephen Buntrock, Bradley Dean, Elizabeth DeGrazia, Bruce Down, Gina Ferrall, Rita Glynn, Gina Lamparella, Marguerite MacIntyre, Bill Nolte, Jayne Paterson, Don Richard, Erica Schroeder, Lee Zarrett, and, of course, Mary Stout.

Weakness? The current absence of "Young Jane," shortly to be remedied when we begin rehearsals. It was too uncertain for us to cast a young Jane who may become a grown-up by the time we open.

T.B.: Can you give us any hints about who it might be? How would you describe the role in a casting break-out?

Annette: The sight of young Jane must move us. She must be frail, vulnerable, but yet feisty and independent. We have no idea who it might be. We'll know her when we see her. John Caird, of course, has a terrific eye/ear for children, as his Les Miserables experience shows. He is also a "stage father" - his daughter Lizzy was recently cast in Secret Garden at the RSC - the Daisy Eagan role.

Before this final march to Broadway, the extraordinary child actress, Anna Kendrick, had been the child of our dreams, Now that she's a young woman, we dream that she will play the adult Jane . . . in 5 years . . . .

T.B.: You mentioned that when casting a show, a producer must look at what sells. Can you give some examples of what might make a performer "sellable?"

Marla Schaffel and James Barbour in La Jolla Production
Annette: The producer, more than the director, is a stand-in for the audience. When James Barbour, then still playing the Beast in Beauty and the Beast first came to audition for Rochester, it was clear that he was extraordinary; a terrific actor, a singer with a big voice. I was interested in something else too. What chemistry would he bring to the romance with Jane? We decided that he should read with Marla (Schaffel who plays Jane Eyre). Bingo! During the reading, James quietly leaned over and touched Marla's hair, moving it gently forward toward the side of her face. She gasped. I did too. Sex was in the air. I was a very happy producer.

T.B.: The recent success of Broadway Television Network's pay per view cable broadcast of Smokey Joe's Cafe seems to be opening the door on a new era of the original productions of popular Broadway shows becoming available to a national, possibly an international audience. As a producer, what are your thoughts and concerns about this? Do you currently foresee a pay per view broadcast of Jane Eyre later on, towards the end of its Broadway run?

Annette: We are certainly open to exploring television options for Jane. Broadway Television Network produced a beautiful show. However, Smokey Joe is closed. People who missed it wanted to see it, people who saw it wanted more. In my view, a closed, rock 'n roll revue is different from a "sit down and watch" Broadway musical currently on the boards.

I'm optimistic that pay per view will attract even live audiences for ongoing shows, late in a run, but we are all in a "let's see" mode. Jane too.

T.B.: One of the most confusing things for an average theatregoer to grasp is how a Broadway play or musical can have a run, sometimes of several years, and still close in the red. Is there any way to explain the economics involved so a layman could understand?

Annette: I hope we won't be a show that needs to explain it!

I think, though, that a layman can understand this. Imagine that someone has built a building for a great deal of money, and then rents its units for low fees. The building is still there and looking good if the costs of operating the building can be met by the rental fees, but the owners are not making money. They haven't paid off the mortgage. Is that helpful?

T.B.: New musicals cost several million dollars minimum to open these days. Sometimes we see all that money on the stage, a lot of times we don't. What are the major costs that an average theatregoer never sees?

Annette: As with any business, advertising and marketing, rent, benefits, utilities, our La Jolla developmental production - everything costs so much! and there is so much "everything." One happy thought, one thing that will not cost either the audience or the investors on Jane Eyre a great deal of money is the Opening Night Party, although we hope this will be a memorable party. The opening performance and party for Jane Eyre will be sponsored by Andersen Consulting, the global management and technology consulting organization.

T.B.: Whether through sheer luck or clever planning (or both) Jane Eyre looks to be the closest thing to a "classic Broadway musical" opening this season. (That perception may be due more to the novel its based on than anything else.) How would you describe Jane Eyre? Where would you place it on a scale running from "conservative, in the grand tradition" to "wildly innovative and groundbreaking?"

Annette: We're happy to be thought both clever and lucky.

Theater philosophy first. What is "wildly innovative and groundbreaking" to me may also be "in the grand tradition." "The grand tradition" to me need not be "conservative."

For example, Rent was "wildly innovative and groundbreaking" but it was also "in the grand tradition" of rock musicals (Hair, speaking for a generation) , opera, and Broadway shows (Les Miserables).

The "grand tradition" perception, I think, stares at us for Jane because we use materials from a source that many people know, whether from the novel or one of the movie versions. "Classic" is the term, but in our case, it means "familiar," "top quality," "long admired," not "standard" or "old."

Though the show honors its source material, this is not a school room Jane Eyre. Words like "passionate," "mysterious," "moving," "intense," "thrilling" come to mind.

This is a new musical with a score by a composer, Paul Gordon, who writes commercial hits for people like Amy Grant, Smokey Robinson, Quincy Jones and Vonda Shephard. It has a writer/director, John Caird, who always is on the cutting edge, as his new hit, Hamlet at London's National Theatre shows. It has a set unlike any used before in musical theater. As John Napier has said, we are putting a kaleidoscope on the stage.

The terminology of "wildly innovative" and "grand tradition" becomes too hard for me to hold onto. Is Jane Eyre "wildly innovative and groundbreaking," because it uses the extraordinary John Napier set as integral to the story telling? or is that part of a "grand tradition," the "grand tradition" of Cats (also Napier), Phantom, and, of course, Les Miserables (also Caird and Napier)?

I leave it to the audience to decide which category we shake most thoroughly. I think when audiences see the show, they will recognize that Jane Eyre challenges many familiar assumptions about musical theater and how it is done. Jane is emotionally and theatrically rich and satisfying.

T.B.: Next Summer, when the pundits write the summing-up for the 2000-2001 Broadway season, what do you hope they'll be saying about Jane Eyre? And please don't be modest!

Annette: Okay, how about "Jane Eyre hit its mark, and a very high mark it was - with its compelling story, its lush and romantic music and its revolutionary and spectacular set. This is the one show that should always give us faith that musical theater can always be reinvented, made fresh and startling, by people with extraordinary and magical imaginations. This is the one time, that the Tony voters, the audiences, and the critics all concur."

Is that a big enough dream? I hope everyone will love us.

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Jane Eyre The Musical Previews begin November 7 for a December 3 opening, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street. The box office opens October 2. Tickets may also be purchased online at the Jane Eyre website.


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