Richard Winkler will gladly tell you: He saw the light in a darkened barn of a theatre out-of-town, world-premiering a musical based on an iconic film. Actually, he didn’t see it as much as he heard it—overheard it: a conversation where, in ten minutes flat, the director talked the producer out of a massive amount of money for a piece of scenery that “would fix the whole thing and save the show.” Of course, it didn’t.
"I remember sitting there, thinking, 'If these guys think they know what they’re doing, then I could be a producer,'" Winkler beamed, rather gleefully replaying his epiphany. "'I have better sense, better taste, better economic reasoning than either of them. I think I’ll see if I can become a producer.' That’s exactly how it happened."
The show was a disaster and folded fast. The director returned to the U.K., and the producer no longer produces at that theatre. But Winkler rose from those ashes and now has four Tony Awards dotting his mantelpiece for co-producing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Memphis, La Cage aux Folles and The Norman Conquests.
Finding I & You
Currently, he has three Main Stem shows going (Something Rotten!, King Charles III and China Doll), and on Jan. 27 he hits a new milestone, bowing—without a net or partners—as solo producer of Lauren Gunderson’s I & You at 59 East 59 Theatres.
In a way, this is a reasonably safe bet. The play, which won the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, has had an extensive (at least 20 productions) regional workout. The version Winkler is presenting here is a transfer, replete with director (Sean Daniels) and stars (Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White) of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre production done last fall in Boston. Even more important commercially, it is the first play to dip into that wellspring of sensitively crafted teen tearjerkers, which have populated the screen of late ("The Fault in Our Stars," "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," "If I Stay," "Paper Towns").
By any other name, I & You could get by as "Me and Walt and the Dying Girl." It’s a seemingly straightforward two-hander about a couple of 17-year-olds bonding over Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass" as they prepare an American Lit paper, posthaste, on the use of pronouns in his poem, “Song of Myself” (hence the title of the play).
The pair is poles apart. Caroline is homebound by a faulty liver and surrounded by a thick shield of sarcasm, which Anthony spends most of the play wearing down. Once that is accomplished and a connection is established, Gunderson lowers the boom and goes for a plot twist that is the theatrical equivalent of a triple somersault. It draws gasps from the audience, and grown men leave the play dabbing their eyes.
Winkler takes pride in such effects and credits his early training. "I was raised in Detroit by a mother who loved theatre. She took me to a lot. Her favorite was Shakespeare. She could recite all the sonnets. She took me to My Fair Lady and A Raisin in the Sun. That’s why I produced Disgraced—Raisin then is Disgraced today."
I & You was written by a relative of Winkler’s, somewhat—i.e., the wife of his stepmother's grandson. "I met Lauren at my father’s funeral. She told me she was going to have a play of hers produced at 59 East 59th Street called Bauer. I went to see it and thought it was nice. Eight months later, I woke up with the idea that 59 East 59th should really do another play of hers I had subsequently seen, I & You. I really liked it but thought it needed more fleshing out, which we did.
"Lauren just won the Lanford Wilson Award for Young Playwrights, which The Dramatist Guild gives. I think she’s poised to become one of our next major voices."
The Lure of the Spotlight
Winkler has something of a razzle-dazzle sheen himself. The dapper mustache and commanding silver mane give off a fleeting facsimile of movie star Sam Elliott. He has been known to lapse back into lighting design but never while he’s wearing his producer fedora. "Being a lighting designer is all about cues and counts and miniscule details, and, if I were to pay attention to the miniscule details, I couldn’t see the big picture in my head. I’d get lost in the minutiae. I don’t want to do that."
Mostly, his lighting work is reserved for Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars, where he just designed a production of A Christmas Story and where he's returning next month to do Mary Poppins. "It’s a big, gorgeous 2,600-seat roadhouse. I have 99 line sets. I have 850 dimmers. I get to be an artist there, and that’s what I really enjoy."
He doesn’t lament his sharp right turn in mid-career. "I was being fulfilled as a lighting designer. I loved being a lighting designer, but more than that, I loved being an artist. Being an artist is who I am in my soul. I’m 100 percent theatre to the core. I don’t care if it’s musical or comedy or drama. If it's good theatre, I want to be part of it."