A Wing Man, Steeped in Theatre

Special Features   A Wing Man, Steeped in Theatre Ted Chapin is the new chairman of the American Theatre Wing, but he's no newcomer.
Ted Chapin
Ted Chapin Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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"We're sitting here under six original costume sketches from South Pacific — what's not to like?"

Yes, it's good to be president and executive director of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin is telling the press he has assembled on the warehouse floor where all the R&H goodies are stashed. He gestures to one sketch in particular on the conference-room wall. "Who knew there was a nun in South Pacific? It was when they went to Bali Ha'i, but she is cut from most productions."

Chapin's knowledge and passion for theatre is dominated by, but not confined to, musicals. Last June, he was appointed chairman of the board of the American Theatre Wing, and he brings to that job a similar enthusiasm for all things theatrical. This is not his first time at the chairman rodeo, either. He has also chaired the Advisory Committee for New York City Center's Encores! series and the meetings of the Tony Administration Committee. He continues to serve on the board of Goodspeed Musicals, Connecticut College and City Center.

It's the sort of theatrical trajectory one might expect from the son of the late Schuyler Chapin, who, as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City during the Giuliani administration, proved to be a stalwart and unflagging champion of the arts. Ted may have started as a gofer, but, as today's chairman of the board he has gone — as Oscar Hammerstein II might say — "about as fur as he c'n go." Even gofering had a glory for Chapin. His college project as a production assistant got him backstage access to the original Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical Follies and, after those memories had marinated 30 years, a book about the experience, "Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies," which spoke volumes for his love of theatre.

"I'm a believer in not having a grand plan," he says from the top of R&H and ATW. "I believe in getting into a situation and looking around and keeping your mind going and open to new things, just moving forward and try to sense what's going on.

"I never thought I would run anything. I never thought, 'Oh, gee, I'd like to be the boss.' When those jobs started to be offered to me, I remember turning to my father and saying, 'I want to talk to somebody who is a boss,' because I never planned for this, so he sent me to George Weissman, who at the time was chief executive officer at Philip Morris. I had a great meeting with him. He basically gave me two pieces of advice: No. 1: Somebody's put you there, so trust that the people who have put you there feel that you're there for a reason, and No. 2: Trust your instincts. Don't go crazy, but trust yourself. It was good to hear. That allowed me to say, 'I'll run R&H. The families own it, and it's a 50/50 partnership. I think the smartest thing the families did was to hire somebody as a fulcrum, to create the position of having a person working equally for the Rodgers and the Hammersteins."

He says he earned this slot partly through family connections. "After her father died, Mary Rodgers was invited to a conversation at her mother's house about what to do with the R&H office. They talked about a bunch of possible people, and apparently Mary said, 'I know, I know It should be Betty and Schuyler's son, Ted.' I was running the Musical Theatre Lab at the time, and Mary called me, and that seemed like a very interesting idea."

At age 58, after 28 years on the job, the idea still interests him. "I had no gray hair when I got here," he says, laughing. "No two days have ever been alike. Because I don't have a job description, I've kinda made it up as I've gone along — with the support of the families. If there's anything I think my job is, it's to keep the Rodgers and Hammerstein copyrights alive and well — and it's also about managing them creatively."

Isabelle Stevenson, who was ATW president for 33 years, brought Chapin into the Wing fold when she asked him to help moderate its "Working in the Theatre" seminars, which are telecast on the CUNY station — and he continues to do them to this day. But, at the time, it was a window he'd never opened before. "I told her, 'Yes, I'll try. I've never done this before. I'll sink or swim alone.'"

Not only did Ted Chapin not sink, he is now chairman of the board, with high hopes for what's ahead: "I would like the Wing to be more responsive in the future to the general needs of the theatre world. It's a big notion, but the Wing has always been responsive that way. In fact, in the old days, the Wing seemed to be there by itself. There weren't any other organizations around, helping and supporting. It would be helpful if the Wing could be the go-to place for information and support for theatre."

There are, he points out, projects that the Wing still takes on — like The Jonathan Larson Grant for young writers of musical theatre and SpringboardNYC which allows college graduates a couple of intense weeks in New York working with theatre professionals.

At Christmas, the Wing plays Santa, making grants to the nonprofits at a luncheon at Sardi's. The long line of recipients, he says, "starts at Lincoln Center and goes to Roundabout and then proceeds to SoHo."

He explains, "When there's money, that's a great thing to do because it's spreading the good word around that some money — although it's modest — is being sent to theatres to keep them active. Also, the theatre community loves gatherings. They love the opportunity for a small Off-Off Broadway theatre company to sit at a table with Bernie Gersten [of Lincoln Center Theater] and talk shop. That's one thing I'd love to do with this luncheon — make it more of a community-sharing experience."

This profile appears in the Playbill for the 2009 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.