“I wanna be a producer.
With a hit show on Broadway
I wanna be a producer
Lunch at Sardi’s every day.”
– Mel Brooks
I admit it. I’m a theatre geek. I’ve wanted to be a producer for as long as I can remember. Sadly, I’ve never had lunch at Sardi’s.
By the time my identical twin brother Mark and I were 17 years old, we had seen 40 Broadway musicals. Our parents, both native New Yorkers, loved musical theatre. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a family of five could see a Broadway show, from the balcony, for a grand total of $30.
We grew up in Paramus, NJ, a suburb of New York City located 17 miles from the theatre district in Manhattan, a drive that usually took only 30 minutes each way in those days with the only interruption being a flip of two quarters into the coin chute at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza. We moved to Paramus from central New Jersey in 1962 when my Dad was hired as a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.
My parents were teachers. The arts were very important to them and our family life. When Mark and I showed a natural inclination for music, we were enrolled in private piano lessons. In school, I took up the trumpet and Mark played the clarinet starting in 4th grade. We continued studying music through high school, undergraduate and graduate schools and played professionally for almost 10 years.
Musical theatre, though, was a regular staple of our cultural education at home. Looking back at this gift my parents provided, it’s no accident that Mark and I became theatre producers, when at 29 years of age, we co-founded ArtsPower National Touring Theatre.
But as children, we weren’t run-of-the-mill theatre goers.
Mark and I loved seeing Broadway musicals with our older sister, Julie, and our parents. There was something about the magic of theatre that intrigued us. Everything about the rhythm of musicals was synchronized so perfectly. Musicians played without flubbing a note. Actors sang and danced flawlessly. Set pieces glided or floated in and out right on time. What was going on behind the curtain that made it all flow so seamlessly? We needed to see how it was done.
I don’t remember how this happened but starting in 1967 when we were 10 years old, Mark and I would write letters to the stage managers of the shows we were about to see asking for a backstage tour after the performance. As I recall, almost every letter was answered by the stage manager with instructions about when to meet him (they were always men in those days) at the stage door. Our parents waited for us outside until our guided tour was over.
The stage manager, usually dressed in a jacket and tie, greeted us at the stage door and took us right to the stage. That journey didn’t take very long. When you stand at the center of most Broadway stages, you’re usually less than 50 feet from the sidewalk outside.
At the Martin Beck Theatre, home to MAN OF LA MANCHA, the stage manager let us climb to the top step of the steep Inquisition staircase that led to the dungeon where much of the action took place. The actual view from up there, with no special lighting and just a deceivingly small patch of bare stage in front, was unremarkable – but awesome! I remember looking out at a sea of brightly upholstered red seats, a chandelier suspended over the orchestra section, and lots of lighting instruments hanging from a pipe not far from my head. It felt powerful and slightly scary to be up that high.
Our backstage visit to the Majestic Theatre after a performance of 1776 was surprising and slightly disorienting. The rake of the stage was so steep that every desk and chair on the set replicating the Continental Congress was bolted to the floor. To maintain our balance (and not slide into the orchestra pit), we were instructed to stand sideways, with one foot upstage and one downstage. Today, Actors Equity Association rules strictly regulate stage floor angles to prevent actors from falling into orchestra pits. Actually, when I was in high school, I saw Jim Dale accidently tumble into the orchestra pit and injure himself during a Sunday matinee of SCAPINO at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. But that’s a story for another blog post.
Since becoming producers, Mark and I have been backstage at lots of Broadway shows including CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG; 42ND STREET; PROMISES, PROMISES; OKLAHOMA; THE MUSIC MAN; HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING; and WAR HORSE. We’ve sat in the pit orchestras during performances of MATILDA and SOMETHING ROTTEN. It’s nice to have musician friends who work on Broadway.
Mark realized a life-long dream when in November of 2017, he made his Broadway debut as a sub for the Reeds 1 player at a Saturday evening performance of HELLO DOLLY! with Bette Midler. What a night that was! It was Mark’s second time at HELLO DOLLY! The first time was as a 12-year old, sitting in the second row of the orchestra to watch Ethel Merman in the title role.
Most Broadway theatres are old and many of them are in serious need of refurbishing. The backstage areas are a ramshackle hodge-podge of make-shift dressing rooms, stacks of storage bins filled with unused props, costumes, sound equipment, cables, and lots of other junk. The hallways and stairwells are narrow and creaky.
In several Broadway houses, the orchestra does not play from the pit but rather from a remote location, sometimes in the theatre’s basement or in another building altogether, with the sound “piped in” to the theatre. Video monitors mounted on the façade of the front mezzanine give the actors a televised view of the conductor. Likewise, the conductor watches a monitor of the entire stage from the podium, ensuring that the orchestra and actors are perfectly synchronized in real time.
During our trips backstage as kids, we never quite found the glamour we had imagined. What we did find, however, was a group of highly dedicated and creative people working in less than ideal conditions focused on the same goal of making the onstage magic happen, night in and night out, without much recognition or adulation. We realize now that, in their quiet way, they were the real stars of the show. Perhaps that’s what inspired us to be producers all along.
Today, after producing 34 ArtsPower musicals and dramas that have presented more than 15,000 performances for 13,500,000 people throughout 49 states and Canada, we wax nostalgic for those revelatory backstage adventures that gave us a peek into the magic we still feel to this day when the curtain goes up on an ArtsPower show.
Maybe it’s time to make those lunch reservations at Sardi’s
By Gary Blackman