A Life in the Theatre: Producer Paul Libin

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Producer Paul Libin Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft.
Paul Libin
Paul Libin

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"I awake each morning eager to start the day, and I love going to work," Paul Libin says. "I love what I do."

What Libin does is work in the theatre—and he has been doing it for more than 50 years.

For more than a quarter century, he was the producing director of Circle in the Square, collaborating with its artistic director, Theodore Mann, to bring the best of the classics to Broadway and Off-Broadway. They presented O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shakespeare, Wilde, Molière and Chekhov with stars like George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, James Earl Jones, Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, Rex Harrison, Joanne Woodward, Richard Chamberlain, Maureen Stapleton, Rip Torn, Brian Bedford, Al Pacino, Irene Papas, Nathan Lane, Annette Bening, Mike Nichols, John Malkovich, Julie Christie, Jason Robards, Matthew Broderick and Philip Bosco.

Since 1990, he has been producing director for Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns five Broadway houses, working with its president, Rocco Landesman, to bring to Broadway shows like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America and Proof, Love! Valour! Compassion!, August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and the acclaimed revival of Death of a Salesman. For more than 30 years, he was also the president of the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers. And now he is the president of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, president of the Circle in the Square Theatre School, adjunct professor at his alma mater, Columbia University School of the Arts, and, with Theodore Mann, owns the Circle in the Square Theatre.

Not bad for a kid from Chicago, the son of Russian immigrants, who began college at the University of Illinois at Chicago majoring in political science. And then, one night, he went to the theatre. It was Death of a Salesman. And it changed his life.

"It was the road company, and Thomas Mitchell was playing Willy Loman at the Erlanger Theatre," Libin recalls, sitting in his Jujamcyn office at the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street, behind the marquee for The Producers. "It was a double date. When the performance was over, I was speechless. My friend Sheldon went to get his father’s car, and while we were waiting outside the theatre, Thomas Mitchell came out of the Erlanger’s backstage alleyway. The brim on his hat was pulled down, and I said, ‘Oh my God, Willy Loman is alive!’ And I thought right away, that’s what I want to do. I went home and told my parents that the course of my life is going to change—I want to be an actor. And they backed me."

He applied to transfer to Columbia University in New York, and he was accepted in the School of Dramatic Arts. He spent the summers of 1951, 1952 and 1953 in summer stock—but he found that the life of a budding actor could be frustrating. Then he was drafted into the army.

"At Fort Hood in Texas, I had this idea. I asked to see the commanding general. And when I saw him I told him that all five theatres on the base showed the same movie, and by Tuesday or Wednesday there was nothing to do. I said I wanted to take one of the theatres and turn it into a stage. I told him I had been a producer and director in New York—which of course I hadn’t been. And he said it was a good idea. The next day I started a theatre group, and we did a production of Detective Story. And I thought, ‘This is fun.’"

After the military, he returned to Columbia to finish his BFA degree, and "a wonderful professor named Eddie Kook, who gave a course on lighting, picked up the phone" and called to recommend him to Jo Mielziner—the producer, director and scenic and lighting designer—"who had a studio at the Dakota. Mielziner was producing the musical Happy Hunting, starring Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamas. I told Mielziner I wanted to be involved in production, and he said, ‘When would you like to start?’ I became a production assistant the day of the interview. I never even discussed what I would be paid."

Libin eventually became a stage manager for the musical. And then he decided he wanted to produce. His first production was an Off Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, at a former ballroom in the Martinique Hotel on West 32nd Street that he decided to turn into a theatre.

"I knew our group had to persuade Arthur Miller to let us do the play in a space that wasn’t a theatre yet, and we had to persuade the landlord to let us convert it into a theatre. Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe then, and I was hoping he would bring her to the theatre so I could impress the landlord."

The day came, and Miller arrived—with Marilyn. "When the landlord walked in, she was standing to the side, and he didn’t see her. So I introduced him to Miller, and then I led him to turn around and said, ‘I’d like you to meet his wife.’ I thought the landlord would die right there."

And, of course, the ballroom was Libin’s, to shape into a theatre.

Libin continued to produce at the Martinique. In 1963 Theodore Mann of Circle in the Square asked him about using the Martinique for a production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.

"I said, ‘Why don’t we do it together?’ And we did." For just about anyone who saw the production, directed by William Ball, it remains, more than 40 years later, embedded in memory as one of the best productions of anything ever in New York. And it began a relationship that brought so many more great plays to New York audiences. "We started doing plays together," Libin says. "We became partners. We never had a piece of paper between us, but we did everything: Broadway, Off-Broadway and the road."

In late 1988, Libin read an article that Rocco Landesman of Jujamcyn Theaters had written in The New York Times criticizing Lincoln Center Theater. Libin wrote a letter to the editor challenging Landesman, but only one paragraph was printed.

"The next time I saw Rocco he said he wanted to read the entire letter. I told him he didn’t, but he insisted. And, after he read it, he told me he did not agree with me, but respected my opinion. From that moment on we had a more familiar rapport. And, about a year and a half later he called me and asked me to dinner. He told me that he had seen the production of Six Characters at the Martinique when he was a high school kid from St. Louis. And he said he was going to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse—he wanted me to come work with him."

Libin was uncertain. "Rocco kept after me, and then one day he arrived unannounced in my office at Circle in the Square and said I either had to come with him or help him find someone like me. So I said, ‘I’m with you.’"

At Jujamcyn Theaters, as producing director, Libin is also the vice president of the company. He is involved in the overall operation of the theatres; he has overseen the restoration of four of Jujamcyn’s playhouses; he negotiates all its contracts; and he is involved in producing the plays. "I also see and recommend plays," he says. "Some have been very successful, like Love! Valour! Compassion! and Proof."

How can he sum up the last half-century? "The life force of theatre is so exciting," he says. "The whole experience just makes you want to keep collaborating every day."

But one of the best takes on his career, he says, was provided by the novelist E.L. Doctorow, a Columbia classmate who spoke at a fete honoring Libin several years ago.

"‘He’s done a good job,’" Libin recalls Doctorow saying about him. "‘He got his kids through college. And he’s still here.’"

The other take is Libin’s own: "I could never have had my exciting career without my love and partner of 48 years, Florence, my wife. She got the kids through college."

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