Friday, November 28, 2008

The man who saved Broadway

One of the reasons I love New York so much is that I can spend all day walking around sightseeing (and I mean all day), then enjoy great theatre at night before heading back to my hotel feeling completely safe in Times Square.

This week, reading some of the obituaries for Gerald Schoenfeld, longtime head of The Shubert Organization who died Tuesday at 84, reminded me that 30 years ago, the area wasn't nearly as welcoming. I wouldn't have felt nearly as comfortable.

And Schoenfeld, for decades one of the most influential figures on Broadway, was one of the people who helped change that. (Although I guess Disney also had a lot to do with the resurgence of a safer and more G-rated Times Square.)

I didn't want to let Schoenfeld's passing go without mention. He's credited, literally, with saving Broadway through three shows that became hits at Shubert theatres: Pippin, Equus and most importantly, A Chorus Line.

In his tribute, former Times drama critic Frank Rich writes that Schoenfeld and his Shubert partner, Bernard Jacobs, "saved New York’s commercial theater industry — and, implicitly, Times Square — when everyone else had left it for dead."

If you watch the segment on A Chorus Line from the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical you'll hear narrator Julie Andrews talk about how New York, like the rest of America, was in a recession in the early 1970s, and the Great White Way was hit especially hard.

"This area in the '70s was a sewer," Schoenfeld says of Times Square. "This was the den of pornography, prostitution, felony crime, drug dealing, you name it."

What Broadway needed was a hit, and it found one in A Chorus Line, the late choreographer Michael Bennett's musical about the lives and aspirations of Broadway dancers. And it was a musical based on an original idea - imagine that!

A Chorus Line began downtown at The Public Theater before transferring to Broadway's Shubert Theatre. It opened in July 1975 and stayed there for over 15 years, breaking all existing box office records. (And I was thrilled earlier this month to make my first visit to the legendary Public Theater where, in addition to A Chorus Line, Hair and many other Broadway shows got their starts.)

"Michael Bennett and A Chorus Line totally changed the musical theater," Schoenfeld said in the PBS documentary. "It really saved the financial fortunes of the Shubert organization. It was a catalyst for the improvement of this area. And of course this area now is the most desirable area in New York."

The Times obituary notes that Schoenfeld ran the Shubert organization, which owns and operates 17 Broadway theatres as well as others around the country, with a combination of "combativeness and charm," and gives some examples of each trait. I guess the combativeness part isn't surprising. Like Debra Monk's character, Broadway producer Carmen Bernstein, sang in Curtains, "It's a business."

I liked this remembrance, from Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, who recalls that Schoenfeld was a champion of last season's rock musical Passing Strange. The show didn't turn out to be a hit but was certainly one of my most unique Broadway experiences. I'm so glad I saw it and I'm glad there was a place for it on Broadway, if only for a short time.

"I watched him fall in love with Stew and Passing Strange last year, and it was all the more beautiful because it was obvious even Jerry couldn't really explain why this story of a young African-American artist from Los Angeles moved him so much. (The closest he came was to describe their similar waistlines: 'Mesomorphs have to stick together.') But what he loved, he supported, and Passing Strange would never have gone to Broadway without him."

What comes through in all of the tributes is Schoenfeld's philosophy that nothing sold Broadway better than a great show and if audience members enjoyed themselves, they'd be back. As producer Elizabeth McCann said, "he believed in the theatre."

Over the past two years, I've seen 33 Broadway shows. I still love walking around Times Square, gazing up at the giant billboards and taking pictures of the marquees all lit up. I'm always excited when I come to Broadway and I always leave eager to return.


Dale said...

A great loss for the Great White Way. Coincidentally, A Chorus Line is playing here right now as part of the Mirvish subscription series.

Esther said...

I saw A Chorus Line in Boston in either 1977 or '78, I can't remember which. But it was the first Broadway show I ever saw. (Not to be confused with the first show I ever saw on Broadway.) And I'm really looking forward to seeing it again on tour next year. I was listening to the original Broadway cast recording not too long ago and it reminded me how poignant it was to listen these aspiring dancers talk about their lives.