A Life in the Theatre: Michael David

A Life in the Theatre: Michael David Jersey Boys producer Michael David celebrates more than 40 years in the theatre, from Michigan to Yale to Off-Broadway and on.

Michael David
Michael David Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown

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For producer Michael David, the joy is in "putting it together."

"Each Broadway show," he says, "is an artificially conceived family; a carefully hand-picked group of wandering, disparate, independent souls joined together to land a big idea. I love that process, those people, the risk, the action. You all know it can go so very wrong. And every once in a while what comes together is bigger than anything you ever imagined. And you're a part of it."

David, the president of Dodger Properties, was recently part of putting together a show that turned out to be bigger than anything anyone could have imagined — Jersey Boys, the Tony Award–winning megahit that has been running to sold-out audiences at the August Wilson Theatre for three and a half years. But success is nothing new for him. He has been working in the theatre for more than 40 years, and has produced more than 40 Broadway shows.

His huge list of Broadway credits with the Dodgers includes The Who's Tommy, Big River, Into the Woods (the original 1987 production and the 2002 revival), Prelude to a Kiss, The Secret Garden, Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet, the 2001 revival of 42nd Street, Urinetown, Titanic, Jelly's Last Jam, and the '90s revivals of Guys and Dolls, The King and I, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Music Man. David says that he "kind of backed into" his life in the theatre, and that it all began with a love of music fostered by the Episcopal church in his childhood home of Grosse Pointe, MI. "If it was possible to be a professional boy chorister at eight years old, I was," he says. "We rehearsed four times a week. We got paid. I was immersed in not simply the wonderful music but also the divine theatricality of the High Episcopal Church. It was seminal for me in terms of loving music, and appreciating its context as I got older."

After a summer job at age 14 in an aluminum extruding plant — "to learn what it's like" — a family friend arranged the next year for him to be a stagehand intern at Local 38 in Detroit. "Every summer through my undergraduate years I worked in theatre. My first job, at 15, was at the Gaiety Burlesque in Detroit. I worked at the Ford Auditorium, the Fisher Theatre, I was Florence Henderson's dresser, I worked every Oldsmobile car show. Just being backstage — I did everything: followspot operator, the rail, dresser, prop guy, whatever they sent the kid in to do — I got the bug."

Still, he was a Latin and Greek major at Albion College in Michigan — "because I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I never imagined that you could live a responsible life in the theatre. The idea that one would do that for a living never entered my mind."

He participated in extracurricular theatre at college, but in his senior year, rather than seek professional work in theatre, he joined the Peace Corps. He was all set to go off and teach English in Afghanistan. "And then my girlfriend and I got pregnant. And you couldn't go to Afghanistan with a 20-year-old pregnant 'wife.' So our plans changed."

It was 1965, and he was in his early 20s. He had a couple of mentors in Albion's theatre department, and he ended up at Yale Drama School to study set design. "If you were having a child, you got married, of course — that's what good Episcopalians did — and if you went to Yale that made some of it O.K.

"Yale was where I really got hooked on theatre." He studied design for two years, then before his final semesters spent a year teaching at a small, historically African-American college in the South. When he returned to Yale, the renowned educator and critic Robert Brustein had become dean at the drama school and had started a program in theatre administration.

"I was allowed to audit the classes, and I ended up doing more of those classes than anything else." He met Herman Krawitz, then the assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and Harvey Sabinson, the legendary Broadway press agent, "and we took a liking to one another."

While at Yale, David and a colleague raised money to start a theatre in a warehouse in an African-American neighborhood in New Haven, where for a year and a half between classes they produced shows with Yale students and neighborhood residents. "And I guess that's where I discovered I liked putting it together."

Then a job opening came up in New York, "at what was then the Chelsea Theatre Center in Manhattan, at Church of the Holy Apostles. They had been invited to go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music by its head, Harvey Lichtenstein, and they needed someone to run it. And Harvey Sabinson and Herman Krawitz recommended me. I got the job."

The first year at Chelsea was the 1969–70 season; David remained for ten years as executive director, working with Robert Kalfin, the artistic director. They put on shows in Brooklyn and transferred some to Broadway: a revival of Candide, directed by Harold Prince, in 1974; Yentl, with Tovah Feldshuh, in 1975; Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Happy End, with Meryl Streep, in 1977. In 1974, the year of Candide, the Chelsea Theatre Center won a special Tony Award.

In the late '70s, Kalfin and David split, and the Dodgers were born. "The Dodgers were the guys who stayed with me at BAM" — the director Des McAnuff, the producers Rocco Landesman and Ed Strong, the illustrator Doug Johnson and the production specialist Sherman Warner. "We liked each other. We would produce things we would want to see, in a manner that wouldn't embarrass our children, we declared. This loose amalgam of six guys from 30 years ago have continued to work together in various combinations to this day: Ed and I produced Jersey Boys, which Des directed and is performed in Rocco's theatre. It's been great."

At first it was "hand to mouth," and Lichtenstein supported them. Then Joseph Papp, who "had seen some of our stuff," invited them to the Public Theater, where they stayed for three years. "That summer on seasonal unemployement, Des and Sherman did Henry IV in the Park and the rest of us found this little musical at the Cattleman Restaurant called Pump Boys and Dinettes, which we put in the Colonnades Theatre across from the Public. People came. Better than begging for money, we moved it to Broadway." It was February of 1982; the Dodgers had their first Broadway show, and it would run for a year and a half. Their next Broadway production, Big River, won the Best Musical Tony in 1985.

Now, after a quarter century on and off Broadway, with many hits and some misses, and with the huge success of Jersey Boys, David and the Dodgers are "in the rare and enviable and most appreciated position of being able to do what we want," he says. "That's great. We've been in the other place too."

His current goal, he says, "is to fulfill our responsibility to Jersey Boys and its extended family" — both in New York and in productions elsewhere.

But he is ever open to new ideas. "We don't need to do something new to put food on our table. But if someone or something rings our bell, we're in a position to help. Shepherding is a thing we like to do too." And, of course, putting it together.