"I love the visceral aspect of theatre," Joey Parnes says, "of a moment in time that disappears as soon as you experience it." But even more, "there's the sense of making theatre in a community, where you can't do anything that isn't collaborative — the creation of a family, the joy of doing something with a group, all together."
Parnes, a general manager and executive producer, has been part of New York's theatre family for over 30 years. Shows he has worked on include the original Dreamgirls and La Cage aux Folles; Grand Hotel; Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk; Copenhagen; Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and the 2005 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
He was coordinating producer of the Tony Awards from 2001 to 2008 and executive producer at the Public Theater from 1994 to 1996. He became the Public's interim executive director this February and was executive producer for its Broadway co-productions of Passing Strange, The Merchant of Venice, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Hair.
He worked for 13 years with one Broadway producing and general managing giant, Marvin A. Krauss, and a decade with another, Elizabeth I. McCann. It all started, Parnes says, "with wanting to perform." He grew up on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and made his first stage appearance at the Fieldston School in his native borough. "My first show was in seventh grade — Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore. I acted a lot there, but I also organized Fieldston's Musical Comedy Society to produce shows. I found that as much as I enjoyed being in them, I also enjoyed putting them together."
The same was true at Yale, where he became president of Dramat, the school's Dramatic Association. His first New York job was as an assistant to producer Sherwin Goldman, who was preparing the 1979 Broadway revival of The Most Happy Fella.
Not long after, Parnes began working with Krauss. "I started as an assistant company manager, then worked my way up to company manager, associate general manager and general manager. Much of the time I was working on productions of Dreamgirls."
He considers Dreamgirls a favorite, "because I was on a low enough level that I didn't understand all the problems. So for me it was enough that Michael Bennett was directing this amazing musical and I was part of it."
A recent highly gratifying experience was getting the 2009 revival of Hair to Broadway from its beginnings in Central Park. It was at first difficult to raise money, he says, and "I had to manage to keep the show moving forward while we were working out the financial problems. It was hair-raising. But it ended up very rewarding. It did really well, recouped its investment quickly and won the Tony" for Best Musical Revival. The show returned to Broadway in July for a brief stint through Sept. 10 at the St. James Theatre.
Parnes, 56, is currently working on bringing to Broadway next spring the London hit End of the Rainbow, a show about the life of Judy Garland.
Ultimately, he says, he would "like to have an idea for a show I want to produce and take it from literally that moment to fruition." Until now, "I've been helping make it happen, in one stage or another."
Does he regret giving up acting to focus on things like money-raising, budgets, contracts, economic models and show development? "I made the right choice. I find other ways to perform. Every Passover I dress up as a rabbi from Chelm and riff on some lesson from the seder. And to be totally frank, when I negotiate with some agents, some of that is acting too."