What's New on the Rialto
Stewart F. Lane
By Nancy Rosati
Stewart F. Lane is only the second producer to have three concurrent shows on Broadway - Gypsy, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Fiddler on the Roof. He has a career total of seven Tony nominations and three Tony Awards. His past producing credits include The Will Rogers Follies, La Cage aux Folles, 1776, The Goodbye Girl, and Woman of the Year. He and his wife, co-producer Bonnie Comley, have received 13 Laurence Oliver nominations for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Ragtime.
Mr. Lane has written and directed a play (If It Was Easy ... with Ward Morehouse III), and is currently working on another called In the Wings.
Among his many honors, Mr. Lane has received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Jewish National Foundation Tree of Life Award. He sits on the Board of Governors of the League of American Theatres and Producers, and the Board of Advisors of the American Theatre Wing. He's also part owner of the Palace Theatre, the Tribeca Grill Restaurant, and the soon to be opened West 37th Street Theater.
Nancy Rosati: What attracted you to producing?
Stewart Lane: I started off as an actor. By the time I was 11 years old, I had seen the light. I had chosen theater as my life. I grew up in Great Neck. I moved there in 1959 when I was 8. Its proximity to New York was 30 minutes on the Long Island Rail Road. I would ride into the city and catch the Saturday matinees. I usually went by myself because the other kids weren't interested in theater, and it was relatively expensive. Compared to a movie at 50 cents, $7 to see I Never Sang For My Father or the outrageous price of $15 for an orchestra seat to see It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman was a lot of money.
I'm sure there are many reasons why one chooses a profession. In my case, I was good friends with this fellow, Ricky. Ricky and I used to hang out in 3rd, 4th, 5th grade. When we got home from school, I would see his father hanging around the house, so I asked him, "What does your father do?" Ricky said, "He's an actor. He works at night." I thought, "Great idea! What a concept! Everyone else works during the day, but he works at night. I like this."
They were a very theatrical family. They had a jukebox downstairs. They had a soda fountain that really worked and a "lima bean shaped" swimming pool in the backyard. Once in awhile a celebrity would come. Being a child, I wouldn't know who they were, but people would tell me, "That's a celebrity."
One day when I was 11, Ricky said, "My father's in a Broadway show. Do you want to see it with me?" I had never seen a Broadway show, but this was the experience that started the whole thing. I got dressed up in my one suit. A limousine drove us into the city to a beautiful Broadway theater. They gave me a Playbill and a ticket with the name of the show right on it. We had front row seats, and the curtain went up on Cy Coleman's musical Little Me starring Ricky's father, Sid Caesar. He was on stage. He was getting laughs, he was singing, he was having fun, he was joking. I was in the front row so I got to see some of the actors preparing in the wings. I saw the little tricks that they did. The audience and the actors were having a great time.
We went backstage afterwards. His dressing room was this little home away from home. He had his TV, his bed and his hot plate. Friends were coming back saying, "Sid, great job!" I thought, "This is great! I want to do this."
NR: (laughing) Oh yeah, the life of every actor. Little did you know...
SL: Exactly. Also, little did I know when I had dinner at his house that he had a serious drinking and pill problem. I had no idea. But that was what put me on the track. I thought, "This is great. This gives me a purpose in life." I held on like a pit bull to this day.
NR: But of course an actor first starting out doesn't live like that.
SL: No. I wrote this play called In the Wings which I'm going to be doing a reading of and hopefully getting on the boards next year. Some of it reflects my philosophy and in it is the fact that you've got to pay your dues. That's part of the journey.
NR: Did you know that going in, or did you think you were going to be taking limousines into the city?
SL: Oh yeah, I knew. I graduated from college with an acting degree from the College of Fine Arts at Boston University - a terrific theater school. The economy in New York stank back then and I expected to not get any work for two or three years. I thought I'd do showcases and try to get an agent. The first summer I apprenticed at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, and I started making contacts. This is about creating a life in our business - one person knows somebody else and they say, "They're looking for apprentices to get their Equity cards because they want to extend their summer stock theater to Thanksgiving."
I did the usual - built the sets, hung the lights, worked props, and got on stage to act with Peter Palmer, who was the original Li'l Abner on Broadway. We did Oklahoma! and I got my Equity card. Then I got back to New York, ready to set the world on fire ... and nothing. Six months later I got my second job, touring with Van Johnson in Send Me No Flowers. That was what was left of the "Strawhat Circuit" in summer stock. We played the Cape Cod Playhouse, the Pocono Playhouse.
I did some summer stock in North Carolina. I got to do the Philadelphia Story and Picnic. I did some modeling, extra work in films. I got my SAG card - anything to get my name out.
Eventually I found myself heading out to Los Angeles to see what that's like. This was a turning point for me because I hated Los Angeles. I was such a fish out of water there.
NR: Why was that?
SL: I love the theater and they hate the theater. There's no place to meet your fellow actors. Where's the camaraderie? Where's our support system? They didn't have it out there. If you weren't in the movies or the recording industry, you didn't exist. I lasted about a year there and came back.
I started to think, "I don't like the concept of having to go with my hat in my hand every time I need to get a job," but that's the nature of the business. You can't change that. I started to look for another niche for myself. I got a job through a friend of mine, Jimmy Nederlander, as the assistant house manager at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre during the last few months of a long running show called Same Time, Next Year. Instead of dealing with character, motivation and plot, I was dealing with payrolls, unions, box office, and patrons - really nuts and bolts stuff, besides building sets. It was more from the end of running the house.
That was good, but caretaking a theater was limited, so I went to Jimmy and said, "What about producing? Let's try the business side of it." He said, "If you invest in one of my shows, you could sit down with me at every meeting and you would learn something." I took what was left of my bar mitzvah money and I went through a lot of scripts. One of them I really enjoyed - Who's Life Is It Anyway?. It was one of those plays that met my criteria - it was engaging, it had something to say, and it was important. We had a wonderful actor, Tom Conti, in the lead. I said, "Yes, I would like to start learning with this."
I invested my money, and only lost 75% of it (laughing), which is probably the first rule of producing you should learn. Tom Conti won a Tony. We were nominated, but we lost to The Elephant Man that year. I was listed in the program as Assistant to the Producer.
That's where I started cutting my teeth. I started working on other shows. Not every show can be a hit, but they give you the opportunity to work with talented people that you then may get to work with down the road. I did a show called The Grand Tour and Jerry Herman did the music. It was not a successful show, but it gave me the opportunity to work with Jerry, so that years later, he could come to me and say, "Let's do La Cage aux Folles." The same thing happened with the late Peter Stone. He did Woman of the Year for us and I worked with him again on The Will Rogers Follies and the revival of 1776.
NR: What does a producer do that the readers might now know about?
SL: The producer has the vision and is the Chief Executive Officer. He runs the company. He hires and fires everybody. He makes sure there's enough cash to meet payroll every week. He makes sure everyone gets their rightful share. Becoming a producer at least gave me the illusion of some control over my life. Rather than having to go looking for the next job, I could actually pick it. If it failed, I learned to take the bruises for that. If it succeeded, I would get the credit for that because I made it happen.
Producing is finding the show, hiring the team - the composer, the lyricist, the book-writer. You need a director, advertising, marketing, press agent. You're creating a small industry.
NR: Shows usually have a lot of producers now. If you pull out any Playbill, you can see several names listed as producers.
SL: What happens is that everybody gets to contribute. There's no set plan, but there has to be one general. There's one who says, "This is the final decision." It's usually the one who brought the original deal to the table in the first place. It's like any other business venture in that sense. With Fiddler, Jimmy Nederlander has the rights. I've been partners with Jimmy for 30 years and we put a team together that could help build a show.
NR: How much time is there between the original thought, "I'd like to do this show" to opening night?
SL: It's not unusual to take seven years. In the case of The Will Rogers Follies, Pierre Cossette sent the first check out seven years before we opened up on Broadway. It was his first time producing on Broadway, so maybe that made it take a little longer.
Thoroughly Modern Millie took almost seven years, but it was a matter of getting the rights and getting the right team together. There are so many factors involved.
NR: What do you look for when you're picking a show?
SL: I just closed a deal on a new musical. I saw a presentation at the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, which is a group that shows a 45 minute presentation of 12 different shows over a two day period. I was taken by this show. The music was contemporary pop, which you don't see enough on Broadway. There were certain ballads that were traditional with a pop score, so I thought it would appeal to a larger audience. It had a story that was very engaging. It takes a classic tale and puts a contemporary spin on it. It's proven material on one hand, but brand new because we're giving it a new spin. I got excited about it, but is it going to work? (shrugs) Who knows, but we're closing the deal this week.
In the case of Thoroughly Modern Millie, I saw a 45-minute presentation and was not impressed. I thought they were trying to make the movie on stage and I was not interested. Then, director Michael Mayer came on board and gave it a vision. It was not a movie anymore - it was a staged piece with theatrical tricks and a real live production. They did a presentation at the Lambs' Theatre with Kristin Chenoweth, and I could see it. It was fun, it moved quickly. They had eight original songs. Now, with the character, the storyline, the music - it was great.
As for La Cage aux Folles, I loved the movie. I heard Jerry's score and I said, "This is great. It's funny, it's got heart. It's a love story and love stories sell." This was 1983 and my friends said, "It's a gay musical." I said, "What do you mean - a gay musical? Look at it. Look at the big picture here - it's two people in love. What's wrong with you?"
NR: That was risky back then.
SL: What's not risky?
NR: Is there any show you brought in that you regretted?
SL: Yes, there's one show I did. It was a musical I had moved in from Chicago called A Change in the Heir. It was a charming musical based on a Mark Twain short story. Subsequently, other people have done the same thing, so it's obviously good material for this sort of thing. I did it at the Edison Theatre, which was a small Broadway house. Looking back on it, maybe it should have been Off Broadway.
It was actually very good, but we had a problem the night the critics were there, and they all came on the same night. Five minutes into the show, a fire alarm went off. Of course the critics were thinking, "Is this part of the show?" You couldn't hear the actors because it was so loud. I ran through the Edison Hotel trying to find out where it was. On the 46th Street side of the hotel, there was a nightclub downstairs. It turned out that the Fire Department had decided to test the alarm system, and that included the theater on 47th Street. I went downstairs and said to the fire chief, "What are you doing? I have a million dollar show up there! The New York Times is there!" He said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know that. It's on a cycle. It takes another five minutes for it to end."
I ran back upstairs. We stopped the show and started again from where we were. Five minutes later, the alarm went off again. The director was in the green room crying. This man has won awards, but he was crying. I said, "I'm upset, but don't worry."
"Oh, I'll never work in this town again."
"Don't say that - this is one of many shows we'll do. You'll see." But he was right - he never worked in this town again.
NR: If all that hadn't happened, do you think the show would have done well, or was it inevitable?
SL: It might have done well. We don't know. You walk in with the right attitude, but you learn that so much is timing. You hear, "The play's the thing." (shrugs) Yeah it is, but the chemistry with the actors and the concept of the director can add so much to it that it's more than just the play. It's the play and the timing of it.
NR: Tell me about the decision to bring Fiddler in now, aside from the fact that every show we've ever seen in a high school is either on Broadway, was there recently, or is about to be there. You chose the Minskoff. People cringe away from the Minskoff because it's so large, but somehow you're filling it.
SL: (shrugs) The Palace was booked.
It had been 14 years since Fiddler was done in New York. My 18 year old daughter had never seen a professionally staged version of Fiddler on the Roof. That was terrible. My daughter, who's seen every Broadway show for 10 years had never seen Fiddler on the Roof! I felt there was a new generation out there that has never seen one of the greatest musicals ever written. When you talk about the top five, you have My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls - Fiddler on the Roof is up there.
NR: I feel silly saying this to you, with my 12 years of Catholic school behind me, but it struck me as a very non-Jewish version.
SL: You're not the first person to say that. That was a universal reaction.
NR: Was that deliberate, or did it just work out that way? I was surprised.
SL: Well ... I was shocked that anyone brought it up in the first place. That just threw me for a loop.
NR: You don't see that?
SL: No, I don't see it. When you start working on that premise, then only Danes can play Hamlet.
NR: I know what you're saying, but that's not what I meant. I certainly think a good actor can play any role, but I felt less of a "Jewish sensibility" from the production as a whole than I expected.
SL: I thought it was an irrelevant subject. I was shocked when it was brought up. I didn't see it coming.
NR: What show are you most proud of?
SL: Well ... I love all my shows.
NR: (laughs) Is that like asking your favorite child?
SL: That's right.
NR: If you had to pick one.
SL: I suppose I could say that my next show is my favorite one. But, I think that in terms of importance, I would pick La Cage aux Folles.
I got my first nomination for Woman of the Year, but it was La Cage where I won my first Tony, and that sort of established me as a major player. Not only can I deliver a Broadway show, but I can deliver a Tony Award-winning Broadway show. All of a sudden, all those years made sense. I WAS RIGHT, DAMMIT when that acting teacher said I should get out of the business. And La Cage was wonderful. It ran over five years at the Palace. It made people happy. It made money. I still get checks from it.
NR: Now you're doing a revival of it.
SL: We're doing a revival back at the Palace. We'll see how that goes, if it will work a second time.
NR: How do you have time to write?
SL: I do it in the summertime. We have a place in the Hamptons and my wife takes the car away. She leaves me there, and it's so boring that unless I write to entertain myself, it gets very slow out there. She takes the car and says, "Do some writing. I'll see you at five o'clock."
NR: What are you're writing now?
SL: In The Wings. It's sort of A Star is Born for the theatre. There's a young boy and girl, both actors, living together in New York. They're trying to make it work. They study with the great guru, Bernardo, who's written a new play, 15 years in the making, about how his father was treated during the great black-balling of the '50s. "The Hollywood 10" should have been "The Hollywood 11" because they left his father out. He wrote a play to rectify that and he's going to put it on. It goes to Broadway, but they drop the guy and keep the girl. It's very funny. I had a lot of fun writing it.
NR: Are you trying to bring this to Broadway or Off-Broadway?
SL: I'm going to do it as a reading here. In terms of producing, we'll see what happens. If we get a star-studded cast, then you start leaning towards a larger commercial run. My name doesn't sell tickets, but Britney Spears in my show might sell tickets. We have to get a sense of whether it's a Broadway play or not. After the reading and maybe an out of town testing of it, we'll get an idea of where we are with it.
NR: What else are you working on?
SL: I've got a new theater opening up this fall - the West 37th Street Theater. It's a new complex with three theaters - a 499-seater, a 399-seater and a 290. It has four floors of dance space where Baryshnikov is going to run his foundation. I'm excited about that.
I'm producing a new show called Jay Johnson, The Two and Only - here's an example about why I choose a show. This actor is a ventriloquist who has put together an evening in the theater where he's very entertaining. He talks about the history of ventriloquism and how his career started. When's the last time we saw an original ventriloquist? It's been generations. There was Shari Lewis when I was a kid, Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney. So, maybe we'll find out why you haven't seen this sort of thing, but I found it new and exciting, and family entertainment that would appeal to a whole new audience. We're opening up at the Atlantic Theatre May 13th. If we get the reviews, we'll hopefully move to a larger house. If we don't, then we didn't lose our shirts.
There is no doubt that the job of Broadway producer comes with enormous pressures, but Stewart Lane appears to take them in stride. He knows the risks involved, but he reassures himself that, although some shows will fail, others will succeed beyond his expectations. He enjoys the ride, and looks forward to future challenges with energy and enthusiasm.
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