In 1966 The Lion in Winter began Emanuel Azenberg's Broadway-producing career, and now he is one. The subsequent 35 seasons have silvered his mane substantially, but they have given him much to roar about: There have been 112 Tony Award nominations and 33 Tony Awards for his shows -- among them Children of a Lesser God, Sunday in the Park with George, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Ain't Misbehavin', Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Master Harold . . . and the boys, Joe Egg, Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and The Real Thing.
Plus, he has produced every Neil Simon play since The Sunshine Boys in 1972. There have been Tonys there, too -- and at least one Pulitzer (Lost in Yonkers). Their 22nd effort, 45 Seconds From Broadway, bowed last month at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
On this particular matinee morn, he is having coffee and an English at his unofficial office-away-from-office, the Cafe Edison, just off the lobby of the Hotel Edison. This is the setting of the new Simon -- true to its title, 45 seconds from Broadway and 129 steps from the Rodgers, where John Lee Beatty has duplicated it in all its unpretentious glory.
Azenberg and his co-producers, Ira Pittelman, John Nederlander, Scott Nederlander and Kevin McCollum, have populated the coffee shop onstage with one of the strongest and largest casts in some time: Lewis J. Stadlen, Marian Seldes, Louis Zorich, Rebecca Schull, David Margulies, Lynda Gravátt, Judith Blazer, Alix Korey, Kevin Carroll, Dennis Creaghan, Julie Lund and Bill Moor.
"It's a first-rate New York company of actors," Azenberg crows with delight. "When did we last see a straight play with 12 people onstage? There are 12 distinct characters on that stage -- dreamers, theatregoers, theatrefolk, out-of-towners." But he ducks specifics, with cause: "Ever since it got out that Neil has written a play about this place, everyone who eats here comes up and says, 'Am I in it?' I'll tell you who is in it: the people who run this coffee shop, Harry and Frances Edelstein. [In the play they're called Bernie and Zelda and played by Zorich and Schull.] These two people survived the Holocaust in Poland and plopped down in the middle of Broadway to feed all the lunatics here. They don't know about show business. Their job is to save your life, take care of you. You're hungry? 'Eat, eat. Eat more.'"
Azenberg observes this genial bustle of lifesaving and caretaking from a rarefied alcove closest to the 47th St. entrance -- sitting with the journalist du jour in the far right corner by the potted plants. Across from their table is the only padded booth in the area, where the elite meet to do deals that make theatre -- and theatre history; a picture of The Shubert Organization's late Bernard Jacobs hovers above it. "Phil Smith [the current Shubert prexy] and Bernie and I sat there for ten years. We must have done 50 deals -- easily -- right there." It's on permanent reserve for titans. "If Neil comes in, he sits there. Or Mike Nichols." Next to the booth is a table "where the guy who owns the hotel sits -- also a Holocaust survivor."
Then, he's off on a seated Cook's tour of the rest of the joint. "In the back," he says with a big, waving motion toward the 46th St. side, "are the magicians, showing each other the latest tricks." Next are the booths where "managers and agents sit mostly, making their deals." He gestures to the open-air section at the left on 47th St. "And the actors are over here." Somewhere in the mix is where August Wilson does his serious playwriting (and rewriting). "When he heard Neil was doing this play, he said, 'I shoulda done it.'" Of course, at this untheatrically early hour, the whole place is overrun with guests of the hotel, "civilians," tourists who have no idea they dine on such hallowed theatrical turf.
One fine day five years ago, Simon -- "sitting right where you are," Azenberg tells the reporter -- surveyed the spectacle in front of him and said, "This is a play." And he has been writing it, off and on, ever since.
"Neil always saw this as a great American story. It's a celebration of the theatre, a celebration of life and a celebration of these two people. This place, by its very existence, is an affirmation. The public wants to see affirmation. There's an audience out there -- you can see this from the response to The Producers -- that wants to go back to a Broadway when you used to walk out of the theatre and feel 'That was good.' You laughed at the comedy. The drama was emotional. This play seems to have all of those things in the equation. Jerry Zaks, our director, understands this, too. His parents survived the camps -- he knows who these people are. Their humanity is moving."
Postscript: Azenberg wants it known that he did not hang that famous nickname on the Cafe Edison. This distinction he passes along to Harvey Sabinson, the former publicist and head of The League of American Theatres and Producers. "While everybody else in those days rushed to the Russian Tea Room -- the chic place to go -- the regular folks came here, so Harvey called it the Polish Tea Room. It's not unchic to come to a coffee shop, you know. This is where the real part of you comes to have lunch."
-- By Harry Haun