Jeffrey Richards was born on Broadway — his mother, Helen Stern Richards, was a press agent, company manager and general manager whose credits included West Side Story, Purlie and Shenandoah.
"The first show she took me to might have been Peter Pan starring Mary Martin," Richards recalls. "Maybe there was one show before it, but watching Mary Martin fly is pretty special when you're very young."
Richards has spent most of his life in the theatre — a total of 34 years, first as a Broadway and Off-Broadway press agent, and since the 1990s as a Broadway and Off-Broadway producer.
His credits as a press agent read like a list of some of the best of the American stage, including a passel of Pulitzer Prize–winning plays: David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle, Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly, Horton Foote's The Young Man From Atlanta. And then there's also Deathtrap, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, On Your Toes, Me and My Girl, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, I'm Not Rappaport and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. His résumé as a co-producer includes last season's Tony-winning best musical, Spring Awakening; the Tony-winning revivals of The Pajama Game and Glengarry Glen Ross; the revival of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio; Radio Golf; Gore Vidal's The Best Man; and, this season, David Mamet's November, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming and Tracy Letts' August: Osage County.
In college, Richards planned to become a journalist, working on the student newspaper at Wesleyan and attending Columbia Journalism School. But he was offered a job in public relations, and wound up working on the 1973 revival of The Pajama Game.
"Then, in 1976, I decided to open my own office," Richards recalls. "I had a show I felt couldn't miss. It had a score by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and it starred Nicol Williamson, Penny Fuller and Glenn Close, before she was Glenn Close. But then it wound up living up to the sound of its title." It was the musical Rex, and it closed after 48 performances.
Richards didn't give up. The next year, he landed Mummenschanz, "which was supposed to run three weeks and ran three years." And then he got what he terms his biggest break.
"It was the first weekend of November 1977. Alfred De Liagre — he was called 'The Last Gentleman Producer' — called and asked me to look at a script. He said if I decided I liked it he would take a chance on me. It turned out to be an extraordinary page-turner. I said I liked it. So he told his co-producer that he would take a chance on me." That co-producer was Roger L. Stevens, and the play was Deathtrap by Ira Levin, which opened in February 1978 and ran for 1,793 performances.
After nearly two decades as a press agent, Richards decided he wanted to be a producer. "It was 1992, and I went over to London to see a production — The Woman in Black — that someone wanted to bring to Broadway," Richards recalls. "It didn't happen. While I was there, Stanley Brechner, who ran the American Jewish Theatre, asked me to see a play called The Adolf Hitler Revue. A man with a mustache took my ticket. He went upstairs, turned on the soundtrack of The Producers and went marching around a room, pointing at a map and saying he was going to invade Poland and Czechoslovakia. I knew that was something that would not be very popular at the American Jewish Theatre in New York. After the show I was wandering down the block — and it was a block that changed my life."
Richards noticed that many young people were standing outside a theatre, apparently at the intermission of a play. "I thought I had not seen so many young people outside a theatre in a long time. I asked someone what was going on, and he said they were seeing a very funny show — The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."
The production included Troilus and Cressida in an "interpretive dance, performance-art version" and the history plays as a football game in which a crown is passed around — "the quarterback gives it to the hunchback."
After checking it out, Richards went back to the States and talked to producers he was working with, "but nobody seemed very interested in it." Then, in 1993, he read that the play was being done at Princeton, but only for a weekend. So he went down with two producers to see it. He fell in love with it again, but his colleagues said they couldn't produce it. "And they all said, 'Why don't you do it? You love it so much. Why don't you try to produce it?'"
"And," Richards continues, "a little bit of encouragement went a long way." The show opened Off-Broadway in 1995, with Richards co-producing with a Wesleyan classmate, Richard Gross. "It was a great learning experience," Richards says. "I liked it so much, and I always have a soft spot for it."
Over the last dozen years, Richards has co-produced 20 shows — almost all of them plays rather than musicals — often with many partners; his "main producing partner," Jerry Frankel, has been involved with him on the last eight.
"I love the language and the ideas of straight plays," Richards says. "And I want to keep on doing more of them."