A Life in the Theatre

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft: Peter Neufeld
Peter Neufeld
Peter Neufeld

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For more than 20 years Peter Neufeld was a successful Broadway general manager and producer. You may have heard of some of his shows: Annie, Evita, Cats, Crazy For You, Sweeney Todd. Then, on July 1, 1993, his producing partner, R. Tyler Gatchell Jr., died of a heart attack at age 50 heading out to Kennedy Airport for a vacation in Paris.

“It changed my life,” Neufeld recalls, the emotion of memory filling his voice. “Part of the change was voluntary and part pragmatic. I had been working on a lot of shows that got bad reviews and closed, and Tyler had been working on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows, which got good reviews and ran, and I wasn’t sure I would be getting a lot of work. But it was also work I didn’t want to do any longer. I was feeling burned out.” It was only with the support of colleagues Wendy Orshan and Ron Gubin, says Neufeld, that he got through that difficult time.

“About the same time, a friend had become infected with the H.I.V. virus. Because of his illness, I decided to go to work in the AIDS community.”

Neufeld has been there ever since. He spent about a year volunteering for Miracle House, the New York AIDS Coalition, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “Then I started to put in more and more time volunteering at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS,” he says, “and after six months I was put on staff.” For the last ten years, Neufeld has worked for the nation’s leading industry-based, not-for-profit AIDS fund raising and grant-making organization. BC/EFA has raised and distributed over $80 million since 1988 for critically needed services for people with AIDS, HIV or HIV-related illnesses. The beneficiaries are many, including The Actors’ Fund of America’s AIDS Initiative and Women’s Health Initiative, as well as over 400 AIDS and family service organizations across the country.

Neufeld’s first task for BC/EFA was to prepare a database of more than 2,300 celebrities that the organization could call on for help. “Then I evolved probably the most extensive list, more than 2,300 names, of people in the arts who have died of AIDS: TV cameramen, fashion photographers, actors, chorus kids—everybody.”

These days his duties include the annual Flea Market and Grand Auction in September, for which he and actor Thom Christopher persuade 75 or so actors to sit at the celebrity table and sign autographs for the cause. He also works on the annual Broadway Bears event, getting actors and actresses to put their signatures on the auction’s teddy bears; and he coordinates the civilian volunteers for the annual Gypsy of the Year and Easter Bonnet competitions.

All of which is not exactly what the 67-year-old native of Brooklyn—he grew up at the corner of Ocean and Church Avenues—and alumnus of Erasmus Hall High School imagined he would be doing when he decided one fine day in 1943 that the theatre should be his life.

“I was six or seven,” he recalls, “and my mother took me to see the original production of Oklahoma! I thought I was going to a movie, and I thought that when the curtain went up I would see a movie screen. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw live actors on a stage. But even before I saw the performers, the overture—the violins, the strings, the brass, the melody—grabbed me. I identified with and fell in love with the theatre that day.” As a teenager, he worked in summer stock on Long Island. He majored in theatre at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. And then he returned to New York. His very first theatre job in Manhattan was arranged through Arthur and Barbara Gelb, the co-authors of a classic biography of Eugene O’Neill. Arthur Gelb is also a former theatre critic and a former managing editor of The New York Times.

“My aunt taught their children in kindergarten,” Neufeld recalls, “and the Gelbs adored her. They told her that if there was ever anything they could do for her, just ask—and she said that as a matter of fact, there was. She asked them to talk to her nephew about a career in the theatre, because she felt I was about to kill myself because I couldn’t get work. They got me an interview with Ted Mann at Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village, and he gave me a job closing up the theatre at night.”

Then, after a brief stint in the Reserves, Neufeld worked for a time in television and advertising, trying to appease family members who disapproved of his career choice. “But I was unhappy with all of it,” he says. “I was 27, and I was hired as assistant manager of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, which was still under construction. From that point, the rest of my life has been in the theatre.”

After a while, he got a job with the Broadway producers Eugene Wolsk and Emanuel Azenberg, in whose office he met Gatchell. He and Gatchell went out on their own in 1969, and together they managed or produced more than 100 shows, many of them on Broadway. Their first hit was No, No, Nanette in 1971.

“When Tyler and I first met, we didn’t like each other at all,” Neufeld recalls. “The feeling was very mutual. But a friend said that we’d be perfect as a partnership, so we got together. And it shocked both of us. We didn’t approve of each other until we got to know each other. We were together for 24 years, and we were very lucky. The ballpark figure is that 10 percent of shows are hits, and we had 10 hits.”

His favorite experiences, however, had nothing to do with whether a show was a hit, he says. “There was a play called Precious Sons, with Ed Harris and Judith Ivey, and then there was the time I was company manager of the Los Angeles company of A Chorus Line. I’ve discovered over the years that a show being a hit doesn’t mean it’s your happiest time. It’s the people you’re working with, the relationships you have, that matter. That’s where the pleasure and satisfaction come from. Very few people I know have become happy because they’ve had a hit. When I worked on Chorus Line, the whole company expected that success would answer all the problems in life. But all a contract gives you is salary and billing. The rest of life, you have to take care of yourself.”

In December 1989, Neufeld says, he made a critical decision that took care of an important part of his life. “I came out of the closet,” he says. “I was 53, and I admitted that I was gay. It relieved me of a lot of pressure. I was in Washington, working on the initial sequel to Annie, Annie 2, and I went to a gay bar. Someone I knew from my daily life walked in—I knew he was gay but he didn’t know I was. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘Now’s the time to do it.’ So I told 132 friends individually that I was gay, and I announced it in Variety and in my college newspaper. I figured that would pretty much cover the territory.”

Looking back on his life, Neufeld says he continues to be thrilled at his years connected with the stage—both as a general manager and producer and with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids.

“I needed the theatre very badly,” he says. “Without it, I just felt incomplete. And frankly, I feel closer to the heart of the theatre doing what I do now than I did when I worked directly in it. I really believe in the community of the theatre. And the way people have been volunteering and giving their time and energies to this cause for more than 15 years makes me feel terrific.”

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