A Life in the Theatre: Liz McCann

A Life in the Theatre: Liz McCann Stage Professionals Look Back at Decades of Devotion to Their Craft: Elizabeth Ireland McCann, producer.
Elizabeth I. McCann
Elizabeth I. McCann

Every once in a while," Edward Albee says, "a playwright will be lucky enough to run into a producer who is crazy — who is willing to take chances, who feels that a producer's responsibility is to find work you think really should be seen, to whom financial concern is not the main adventure — the main adventure is trying to get plays on."

The producer that Albee is talking about is Elizabeth I. McCann, who in 40 years on and Off-Broadway has co-produced an astounding array of hits, including The Elephant Man, Amadeus, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Morning's at Seven and Copenhagen — all Tony Award winners.

McCann has had a special relationship with Albee, as a producer of his Off-Broadway hit The Play About the Baby, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women and his Tony Award-winning The Goat or Who is Sylvia? Since 2001, she has also been managing producer of the Tony Awards.

Sitting in her West 44th Street office with her eight Tonys — from Dracula in 1978 to The Goat in 2002 — displayed on a shelf before her, the producer (whom everyone calls Liz) is fresh from the opening of the recent Beckett/Albee, four short works by the two master playwrights. She is reminiscing about how it all came to be.

"I didn't come from a theatregoing family," says McCann, who grew up on West 31st Street, less than a mile from the Great White Way. Her father was a subway motorman, her mother a housewife. "My parents went to the movies." She was in her teens before she ever saw live theatre. "My cousin decided to take me to see José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac. It was all very romantic — and I was hooked."

From then on, she went every time she could "save enough money for a $3 seat." She acted in plays at Manhattanville College, "but I had no clue of how I could get into the theatre." Then one day, she continues, "I picked up thepaper and saw that a group of kids from the University of Wisconsin were starting a theatre company in Greenwich Village. I thought I could get a job there. I couldn't. But I could be a gofer."

She worked as a production secretary and for bus and truck tours, earned alaw degree at Fordham, and in 1967 was hired by Broadway's theatre-owning Nederlanders as managing director. There she met Nelle Nugent, and in 1976 they formed a co-producing partnership that for a decade was the stuff of Broadway legend.

McCann's favorite is their 1980 revival of Morning's at Seven. "The sweetest is always the most unexpected. Never did we imagine it would be such a big hit." But also on her special list is anything by Albee. "Some days when we're on the phone I can't believe that's what I'm doing. I never dreamed I'd be working with a playwright of that caliber."

What is it about the stage that has so moved her? It's that it's live — a thought best expressed in a letter she found that was written more than a century ago by Henrik Ibsen. Theatre is "born for and bound to the moment," Ibsen wrote, and so is "immune to the gnawing of time's worm. And that is what life truly means: to live in memory. . . to rest in people's minds free of the mildew and rust of age."