As we settle into our cushy theatre seats to watch a powerful, riveting spectacle unfold before our eyes, do we pause to ponder what transpired before the actors came to dance upon that stage?
We might conjure the image of the playwright, toiling over every word in the masterpiece; the director, struggling to realize the writer's vision while inspiring the actors to give their all; the musical director, prompting the music to tell a story of its own; and the lighting, scenic and costume designers, weaving an unforgettable milieu. But do we give a moment's thought to producers? For they are the forces that pull all of these diverse elements together to create a unified show. They are the risk-takers, the clairvoyants who recognize a show's potential, support it financially so that it may grow to its full capacity, and then present it to the public.
Speaking with producers Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum and Allan S. Gordon, one cannot help but feel ignited by their passion for theatre. Seller and McCollum comprise The Booking Office, which has produced groundbreaking works on Broadway and helped revive classics including Damn Yankees and Man of La Mancha. With Allan Gordon, they toured the country with the endearingly camp The Real Live Brady Bunch, which played in Boston at the Charles Playhouse. Jonathan Larson's Rent is their latest progeny, whom they have raised into a very healthy young adult. Since opening on Broadway in April, Rent has become the most honored musical since A Chorus Line, winning, among others, the Tony for Best Musical and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Jeffrey Seller was compelled to meet Jonathan Larson after experiencing his rock monologue tick, tick . . . BOOM! "I fell in love with his work because it moved me, and I could not get the songs out of my head," relates Seller. "I wrote him a letter the next day and said 'I have to do shows with you.' Larson revealed to Seller his desire to bring Puccini's La Boheme home to the Lower East Side. Several years later in 1994, the New York Theatre Workshop presented a staged production of Rent with Michael Greif as director (the helmsman of both the Broadway and Boston productions). Seller, McCollum and Gordon sat in the audience, "arrested by the music and the themes."
"I was going through a very difficult time in my life and to see this show about these people connecting in an age of isolation, against all odds, where love conquers all--it's redemptive. It represents everything I wanted to do in the theatre," said McCollum. "The three of us decided to do it together, just on a handshake. The deal was done." "There was no hesitation," confirmed Gordon. "We just fell in love with it. That may be simplistic, but that's what happened." According to Gordon, they had no competition when they approached Larson to produce the show. "Other people saw it and said it was no good." While negotiating to move Rent to Broadway, Joe Nederlander of the Nederlander Organization (whose flagship theatre is Rent's current Broadway address) stated incredulously, "We've been in business for 70 years. We have never, ever had anything like Rent. How did you get it and I didn't?" Gordon responded "I saw it. And then I [made the offer] the same day." Nederlander said his organization could not operate that way. "We'd say 'It's too long, it's too short, it's too loud, it's too tall, it's too fat, it's too thin, it's too something.' And we'd never make a decision...That's why theatre needs new people, new blood, new ideas."
It was never anticipated that Jonathan Larson's revolutionary work would also be his last. The morning of Rent's first preview off-Broadway, the producers were informed of Jonathan's death during the night (the cause was later revealed as an aortic aneurysm).
"We were just devastated. We were comatose. We went through all the justifications and denials. 'This is just a joke, he's going to turn up tonight, he just wanted to see if we cared,'" said McCollum, in a voice thick with sorrow. "We took a walk to Bryant Park, and noticed that people were still out in the park . . . buying coffee, reading books and walking around. And we looked at each other and said 'It's going to continue. The actors are there. Michael Greif is there. Jim Nicola is there. It's so tragic he's not here, but we're going to continue.'" 'No day but today . . .'
Ensconced in the care of its surrogate parents, Rent continues to develop, perhaps even beyond the expectations of its creator. One of the most important decisions the producers faced during Rent's young life was where to foster its siblings. Who would be blessed with the show's first out-of-New York experience? As an alumnus of Harvard (where his son now follows his father's lead) and as a figure tightly networked with Boston's computer industry (he launched Data General, as well as "10-15 other companies on Route 128"), Allan Gordon felt a strong pull from New York's sophisticated neighbor to the north. "My ties are there, so I have always wanted to [take a production] there."
But as with every decision the producers make, "nothing happens without unanimous agreement." Boston's history and reputation as a supportive theatre town were persuasive. According to Seller, "You want to open your show in a town that embraces theatre, that goes to theatre and that gets really excited about theatre and Boston has always been one of those towns."
They are especially pleased about the more than 250,000 undergraduate students. Rent speaks the language of younger generations for whom seeing their fear and their pain, their joy and their dreams acted out onstage is empowering.
"Rent has taken back the musical for young people who have felt out of touch with musicals, who didn't think musicals had anything to do with their lives," explained Seller. "And suddenly, here is a show that has everything to do with their lives."
Unlike the messages espoused at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, Rent manages not to alienate older generations. Its issues are universal--we all relate to the need to form bonds of love and friendship; struggling to remain true to ourselves in the face of hardship; and a fear of death, nightmarishly real for millions of people living with AIDS.
"It is a vignette of life... It's not saying 'Come join it,' or 'Isn't this disgusting?' or 'Isn't it wonderful?' It's not seductive like that," Gordon explains. "The show really is Jonathan. The love, the community, the cooperative spirit . . . he wrote what he is. He wasn't someone in an ivory tower. He lived all of these things. That's why the loss is painful for people."
And while we all don't live in Bohemia, we have encountered its inhabitants. "The audiences genuinely fall in love with the characters. [They] are people that we know, with their lovable traits, their irritating traits, and we can relate to different parts of all of them," said Seller.
Relating to the worlds that are created on a stage has never been a problem for these producers. Though he studied political science at the University of Michigan, Seller always knew he would work in theatre. "From a very young age, I would feel the goose bumps go up my spine when I sat in a seat and watched the beginning of a play." And the thrill is even greater now that he has a hand in making that happen for others. "I love being at the back of an audience when that curtain goes down, and participating with the audience in this live theatrical event that enriches the soul, that makes people feel good to be around other people."
McCollum worked at Disney Studios after completing graduate work at the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program at U.S.C., but he too yearned for the immediacy of theatre. "I missed people showing up every day to make it work," said McCollum. "When you get [a film] 'in the can', it's done."
He currently shares his boundless energy with the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul, MN. "It gives me a good balance. Yes, I'm producing Rent, but I'm also president and C.E.O. of the Ordway, which is probably the finest performing arts facility in America."
At the Ordway, centered in a supportive community, he offers writers a fertile environment in which to experiment with their craft and create new works. "Theatre is really a research and development business, but people have approached it from a manufacturing sensibility...What I loved about Jonathan is that he was willing to create work and constantly look at it and take notes and really collaborate with producers and directors. Yes, at times it was frustrating for him, but he listened to people. And this is rare to find."
Gordon grew up in New York, where he was "dragged around to the theatres" by his mother and father. "Theatre was always an inclination of mine, but I ended up starting life as a lawyer." His work in law led him into the arenas of venture capital, finance, real estate and computers, and ultimately he was able to become involved with the film industry and theatre--his "first love." While Gordon continues his involvement with Wall Street, litigation and "putting companies together," he is "running on all eight cylinders" as he tends to the needs of this theatrical company.
"It is slowly developing into an organization." A team of business managers and legal and financial experts aid "the business side of Rent. We didn't write the show, but we did produce it, and we did move it, and we did sustain it."
This new organization is inundated with requests for joint ventures and productions of Rent, and is currently negotiating with several North American, European and Australian venues. Conversations about a movie have been initiated as well. But as Rent comes into its own, its producers have not forgotten that the message they are heralding belongs to Larson. McCollum states, "It's hard to celebrate the success without thinking of the tragedy of Jonathan . . . I will always be tremendously humbled and grateful for the gift and the legacy that Jonathan left us to shepherd through the century."
-- By Sarah Elliott