A Life in the Theatre: Producer Roger Berlind

A Life in the Theatre: Producer Roger Berlind Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft.
Roger Berlind
Roger Berlind

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"I've always been involved in the theatre — in high school, in college. In fact, I spent a year and a half, after I got out of the army, trying to be a songwriter," producer Roger Berlind says. "I love it because occasionally it's thrilling — emotionally involving, intellectually compelling or just plain funny."

Berlind has manifested that love in 50 shows, starting with the Richard Rodgers-Sheldon Harnick musical Rex in 1976.

His Broadway credits include the original productions of Amadeus, Nine, The Real Thing, The Rink, Steel Pier, Passion, City of Angels, Copenhagen, Proof and Doubt and the revivals of Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate. Thirteen have won Tony Awards as best in their category and two — Proof and Doubt — have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Berlind's attempt at songwriting failed, and he first achieved success in a very different career. "When it got very hungry out there, I had to go to work," he says, sitting in his Manhattan office. "So I went down to Wall Street. I had never had an economics course in college, and I had 26 or 28 interviews before anyone would hire me. But I finally got a job. And I did very well." On Wall Street, Berlind co-founded a major brokerage firm — Carter, Berlind & Weill. He was committed to the world of high finance. But in the mid-1970's, he decided to give the theatre world another try, and he moved from Wall Street to Broadway.

How does he choose the plays he wants to produce? "It's strictly a gut instinct," he says.

At that moment, his assistant enters and says there's an important phone call. Berlind apologizes, and takes the call — he has been trying to reach this person for a while.

The phone conversation over, he continues. (More about that call later.) "I can fall in love with a play or a musical because it has an emotional connection, or because it's intellectually challenging, or because I'm laughing so hard I can't get off the floor. Then I have to consider the economic implications of doing the show."

But he's most certainly not in it for the money. "This is not the best industry in the world if making money is your primary motive," he says. "But a show can make money, if your instincts are shared by audiences and critics."

One of his favorite productions, he says, "is a theatre in Princeton — and it can't be closed by the critics." A multimillion-dollar gift by Berlind helped build the Roger S. Berlind Theatre in Princeton, NJ. It is used by the McCarter Theatre and as the main stage for Princeton University, his alma mater.

Seven years ago, Berlind told an interviewer that he kept saying it was time to retire, but he kept finding things to do.

"I've been quitting for years," he says. "I'd love to be playing tennis and just reading, but I'm constantly seduced by new projects."

Which is where that phone call comes in. It was from John Patrick Shanley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Doubt. He was calling to talk to Berlind about a new play.