“Theatre is the only thing I’ve ever been interested in,” Peter Lawrence says, sitting in the Shubert Theatre between matinee and evening performances of Spamalot. “I grew up in a family of lawyers, so I’m the black sheep—I’m the only one who isn’t a lawyer. I’ve done pretty much everything in the theatre. I thought when I was in college that I would teach theatre—and then I made the mistake of meeting some professional actors.”
In his more than 30 years in the theatre, 28 of them on Broadway, Lawrence has had many titles and many roles, all backstage: associate director, production stage manager, production supervisor, associate producer, production manager, stage manager, director of national tours.
His credits include Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, Hurlyburly; the revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy; and Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, Rumors, Lost in Yonkers and Jake’s Women. And now the mega-hit musical Spamalot, for which he is both associate director and production stage manager.
Why the theatre? “I believe that the theatre taps people, that it simply selects them. I don’t know why. Somehow the theatre just reaches out and says, ‘You. You. You.’ I used to do a lot of Neil Simon plays, and when I was doing Lost in Yonkers we had kids in the show, 10, 11, 12 years old. And I would ask them and their parents how they happened to get into the theatre, because none of them were from a theatrical background. And almost without exception the kids would say that they had been sitting in front of the television one day, and they said to their parents, ‘I can do that.’”
Somehow, Lawrence says, “the theatre lets you know you’re welcome. And once you’re welcome in the theatre, it’s the best life you can have. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have been tapped by the theatre. I have a much more interesting life than a kid from a farm town in Ohio should have ever had.” That small town he was born and grew up in is called Galion, population 10,000. “It’s the only town in the world with that name. That’s the only thing remarkable about the place.”
He started college at the College of Wooster in Ohio, planning to be a lawyer, but it soon dawned on him that he was doing what his family expected, that he really wasn’t interested in the legal profession and that he had been excited by theatre since he was in kindergarten.
So he switched and became a theatre major and went to Ohio State. After college, he started teaching theatre history, stagecraft and lighting—“I thought it would be more practical to teach”—at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. “It’s the oldest college west of the Allegheny Mountains. Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis went there.”
But then one year he worked in summer stock with professional actors—“and nothing was ever the same for me. I decided that I had to eventually move to New York. So I got a master’s in theatre at the University of Hawaii, and then I moved to New York. I’ve been here ever since.”
He worked on his first Broadway show in 1977: An Almost Perfect Person, starring Colleen Dewhurst and directed by Zoe Caldwell. “It tried out in stock. When we were coming to Broadway, the producer insisted on using her own stage manager. But Zoe and Colleen said they would not do the show on Broadway without me. And as a result, because of Zoe and Colleen, I have a career.”
He attributes much of his success, and much of his luck, to that kind of loyalty. “Those two women were really loyal. It’s my history in the theatre to have loyalty work on my behalf. Mike Nichols and I went to see the recent revival of Hurlyburly and we remembered that that was our first show together, 21 years ago. I’ve done seven shows with Mike. I’ve worked a lot for Manny Azenberg, Cameron Mackintosh. I’m a really fortunate guy to have worked with such loyal people.”
Just what does a production stage manager and an associate director do? “The tasks are different before and after a show opens. Before it opens, I’m responsible for technical things, to make sure that everything possible is done to coordinate the efforts of the director and the various designers and the schedule so that we make our first performance, so that the stage is safe, so that the actors know what they’re doing in the environment on the stage—not the effect it has, which is the designers’ or the director’s job, but how to get from point A to point B.”
Once the show is open, “I switch hats and try to think like the director—like Mike Nichols, for Spamalot—to try to keep the show as alive and as fresh as everyone would want it to be. People are paying $110 to see the show, and at the end of the first year or the tenth year, the audience has to believe that what they are seeing is fresh and alive. They’re paying the same amount of money as someone did on opening night. So my job is to make sure that Mike’s ideas are delivered eight shows a week.”
Of all the shows he has worked on, does any one stand out as his favorite? “Isn’t it always the one you’re working on now? We can’t do what we do unless we fall in love. We’re here to fall in love. I was doing the revival of Man of La Mancha a couple of years ago. Jonathan Kent was directing. I was the associate director. Brian Stokes Mitchell was the star. We were in the rehearsal hall, and Stokes walked out and was singing ‘The Impossible Dream.’ He had this new take on it, and I was so moved by what he was doing that I burst into tears. Jonathan said, ‘Come on, you’re supposed to be objective.’ But I looked at him and said, ‘I’m here to fall in love.’ I think we’re in this business to fall in love. That’s why we do this. I’m 61 years old, and I get to fall in love all the time.”
Is there anything in the theatre he’d like to do that he hasn’t already done? “It’s always been a regret of mine that there are some people I didn’t get to work with. I wish I’d worked with Michael Bennett. I’ve worked with Tom Stoppard, Mike Nichols, Gene Saks, Sam Mendes. I’ve worked with some great, great people. But I’d like to do more shows, because there are always more great people out there to work with.”