One of Broadway's Most Powerful Women Talks Failure, the Future of Ticket Pricing and Making Theatre "Meaningful"

News   One of Broadway's Most Powerful Women Talks Failure, the Future of Ticket Pricing and Making Theatre "Meaningful" Tony Award-winning producer Daryl Roth, a champion of new work who has shepherded seven Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, reflects on her own successes, what she learned during the troubled times of Nick & Nora, representation for women in the arts and her hopes for the future of theatre as part of Playbill.com's Booking It series.
Daryl Roth
Daryl Roth

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Playbill.com spoke with Roth as part of our Booking It series, which asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists.

A veteran producer with eight Tony Awards to her name, Roth's theatrical projects encompass a wide scope of subjects representing a diverse array of talents, including Margaret Edson's Wit; Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive; Bill T. Jones' Fela!; the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical Caroline, or Change; Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics; Joan Didion's solo play The Year of Magical Thinking; Nora Ephron's final stage work, Lucky Guy; Jon Marans' The Temperamentals; Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart; and the Harvey Fierstein-Cyndi Lauper hit Kinky Boots – just to name a select few.

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Where did it all begin for you as a producer?
Daryl Roth: I started Off-Broadway where I produced for many many years, and in fact, still do because I love the opportunity to produce on Broadway and off. I started off by wrapping my hands around a small musical revue called Closer Than Ever, which was written by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire. It gave me a great opportunity to develop something. We started it at Williamstown [Theatre Festival], so I had that opportunity of actually developing something from the beginning. Then we came to the Cherry Lane Theatre and we ran for nine months. It gave me the opportunity to really have a hands-on experience because it was small. This was 1989. Things were very different then. A lot of the marketing and ideas came from within. We all put our heads together. Everything wasn't as specialized in those days. I had a wonderful experience. Then I went on to do a play called The Baby Dance by Jane Anderson. I went from a very beautiful, thoughtful and uplifting musical to a very intense and thoughtful play. It was a good experience, but it taught me what tenacity means. We have to stick with these projects that we choose to love. Sometimes it's very challenging and yet I love it. It's my passion. You have to love the thing you do because in theatre it's so difficult to get involved in a project and know that you'll be successful. You never know that. I feel close to failure every time I do a new project. You have to not let that stand in your way because if you just accept that that's part of producing — it's always a possibility — and stick with what's really important, which is how much you love what you do and the passion you have for the piece that you've chosen, then you can break through that and carry on.

Your first Broadway producing credit is Nick & Nora. That show's struggles have become part of Broadway lore.
DR: It was my first Broadway production. I was a very junior member. It goes back to Closer Than Ever. My experience working with Richard Maltby brought me to that project. He was working on Nick & Nora and so he asked if I'd like to meet the producing team. I came on as a junior associate producer. I learned so much from that. I loved it, by the way. I really loved it. It was something very interesting for me to observe from my vantage point; being relatively new and having a birds-eye view of seeing how creative people have to really work together and share a vision, otherwise, it just goes off track — which is what happened. Did that experience shape how you approach shows now as a producer?
DR: There are things I strive to include in every production, and I don't know if it came from a place of learning this along the way, or if it's just kind of who I am, but I try to make a family out of every production. I try to make people feel very well-respected and taken care of. I can see when I join other people, if I'm not one of the lead producers, I observe things that I might do differently. But I've always kept to my belief that the most important thing you can do is respect someone's craft, whether it's the writer, the director, the actor, the stagehand — every member of the company. That's the success I hope for.

<i>Kinky Boots</i> is one of the shows Roth is currently represented by on Broadway
Kinky Boots is one of the shows Roth is currently represented by on Broadway Photo by Matthew Murphy

When you were starting out, did you feel any resistance as a female producer? Do you face it now at all?
DR: I didn't feel resistance as a woman; I felt resistance as somebody who was new to the game. I had to really earn the respect of my colleagues. It wasn't because I was a woman, I never really felt that. That usually doesn't come into my thinking. I'm very gender blind, so I wouldn't assume that was the reason. What I think I did feel and very clearly, was, "Here I am a person coming into the business, without years and years of theatre experience." I think that was the challenge, and that's where I had to prove myself.

There some passionate debates right now about the lack of female representation in theatre — from playwrights to directors and songwriters. Does that steer any of your decision-making?
DR: I think there are opportunities for women playwrights, composers and directors, but I also think there can always be more opportunities. On It Shoulda Been You we have Barbara Anselmi, a magnificent composer. There aren't that many. Jeanine Tesori. I think there need to be more opportunities, but it also has to do with being good. It has to do with being talented and other producers being willing to produce women's work.

Isn't it also about visibility and access for women who are in the early and mid-career stage?
DR: I think that it's harder for women to find the support, but I think there are a number of talented women in every field, whether we're talking about writers, directors, lyricists, composers. It's always a fight. I was honored this year by the Lilly Awards, which is a wonderful organization, and they're doing so much to make women's work more visible. Look, I like to think it's a bit of a responsibility of a woman producer to keep high on her list the work of other women. I feel that's part of a bigger picture and a bigger story. I would like to feel that I've done that. I've produced the work of Margaret Edson,who wrote Wit, and Jeanine Tesori for Caroline, or Change. But for me, it's about producing plays and musicals that have a strong women's story. It might resonate in the story. Edward Albee writing Three Tall Women or David Auburn writing Proof; it's a male writing about a female character that is life changing. I think it's all wrapped up together.

When you encounter new work or new talent, what excites you?
DR: Usually it's the story. If I read a play or go to a reading, it's about, "How does it affect me emotionally? What is it doing to me? What am I feeling?" Most of my choices are instinctive. I rely on my instinct, and I hope that then if it's something that affects me deeply, then it might also affect other people. It's also about the stories I want to tell. I feel that there's a thread through my work that has a lot to do with accepting oneself and accepting others. Proof was really about that. It was a way for a young woman who was interested in science and math to feel accepted. People didn't even feel that she could do it.

Then you look at The Normal Heart. A lot of plays I do have to do with gender and accepting oneself for who they are. I thank my son Jordan [Roth] for that, because really my whole theatre career has been interwoven with trying to use my position as a producer to put plays and musicals too, like Kinky Boots and It Shoulda Been You, to put things before people's eyes so that they can think about something that may need some further explaining or might need some understanding. I look for that always.

It's a very strong theme throughout your projects.
DR: It's been a mainstay in my work. It's been one of the things that I'm most proud of, and I say that with all humility. I am the most proud of that. Doing The Normal Heart was a way to engage people, to infuriate them a bit, which was obviously Larry Kramer's objective. But when I produced it, 25 years after the original, it was about understanding what went on before, whose shoulders they stand on and what is their current responsibility. And it did engage people that way. I always have a philanthropic component to anything I do. We were able to bring in other organizations — AMFAR for one — to get people activated, and then give people in the audience the opportunity to personally respond to the play and to then go do something in the world. This sounds a little trite, but I mean it sincerely: Theatre is a mirror to society and when we do something, we hold up a mirror to society. If we can look at that, respond to it and actually do something about it, I think that's one of the best things theatre can do for us. I feel that choosing plays that can do that is something I look for. Even plays like Love, Loss and What I Wore, which might seem a little frivolous, but it's all about women. We partnered with Dress for Success because it was about, "What do these memories of clothing and accessories mean to women?" And then we thought about the bigger picture, "What about women who have nothing?" So it was a very interesting way.

A scene from <i>It Shoulda Been You</i>
A scene from It Shoulda Been You Photo by Joan Marcus

Theatre enlightens people. I see this with Kinky Boots all the time. People come to the theatre and they're not quite sure what they're going to get. They get a wonderful story, they get a lot of fabulous music, dancing, singing, glitter and glam. But what they really get, deep in their heart, they leave that theatre thinking about accepting themselves, thinking about accepting other people. It's really glorious when you think about the layers of emotion that happen when people come to the theatre.

I'm doing a play now, a one-person play called The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. It's the story of this young gay man who went missing. We never meet Leonard, but James Lecesne is such an amazing storyteller. He plays all the people in the little town where Leonard lived and it's about how Leonard's life — his brightness, really — changed all these other people. We hear it through their voices, through their stories. That can happen to us. You meet someone and you might think they're not for you. You don't understand them, you don't want to understand them, but they affect you. They affect your life. You're also a proud mom of an out-and-proud gay son, who is married and has a wonderful family. How much did your relationship with Jordan influence the work you chose to put on stage?
DR: 100 percent. 100 percent. I really wanted to do stories that would help people understand people who are gay, the world that they live in and make it easier, make it more acceptable. I wanted to get people thinking about what they maybe don't want to think about, or don't know enough about. It totally influenced my choices. My relationship with my son is amazing. I'm the luckiest mother in the world. Jordan grew up with me starting my career. In 1988, when we went to Williamstown with Closer Than Ever, he came with me. That was like our summer camp. I'm so proud of where he is in the world of theatre, and just as a person, I'm so proud of him at this moment. I always sign my notes to Jordan, "Ever Proud."

For young people just starting out, who love theatre but aren't performers, can you share some of the creative aspects of producing that you enjoy?
DR: I never wanted to be an actor. I always felt that my strengths would be putting things together. So if that were one definition of being a producer, then I think that was the suitable path for me. I've always been a very visual person and so the parts of developing a show that I really feel connected to are the visuals. I'm very involved in commenting on scenic and costume design and lighting design. I'm very excited about that; less so about the business aspect. [Laughs.] Obviously we have to have a left brain and a right brain working at the same time as a producer, but I think my path was not conventional. I didn't work grow up in the world of theatre. I didn't work in a manager's office or a producer's office. So the advice that I often give to young people is if you love theatre and you really feel that you could find a place for yourself, figure out what it is that you're most excited about. There are so many great opportunities to work within the larger world of theatre. It's not on stage for everyone. There are so many opportunities in the design, business, management, creative, advertising — it's endless if you think about it. If you just want to put yourself in the world, there are a lot of opportunities far and beyond performance.

Daryl and Jordan Roth
Daryl and Jordan Roth Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

You've produced a great deal of new work alongside revivals. How do you gauge when the timing is right to bring a show back?
DR: I think that The Normal Heart is a good example because the timing was right for that to be revived. There was a whole new generation of people who needed to hear that story. I'm about to do a revival of Sylvia, and to me that's a timeless story. I'm a huge animal lover, dogs particularly. It's so heartwarming and so beautiful about how a dog can change your life. That's a revival I'm excited about, not so much because it's time has come, but because it's a timeless story. I'm not as excited about revivals as a general rule, it has to be something that is so meaningful to me. I would rather take the risk on new work. That's where I get the big thrill. To find a new writer, to be able to support the work of someone new; that "new" story is what I'm interested in. But, if it's a worthy revival, I'm there.

I realize that a lot of projects come to you, but where do you go to seek out new work?
DR: I like to follow new writers whose work I've seen and loved, and then I follow them along. Usually they're in the non-profit world in the beginning. I go to readings often if I'm invited. I often see what's going on with The Vineyard and MCC. I have a relationship with a number of the non-profits, and I like to see what's going on. I'm interested in who's at New Dramatists. There are a number of ways that plays come to me. Sometimes they come to me from directors who have found something they want to develop, and they come to me, or it may come from a playwright whose work I have done before. I'm happy about that because it means that everybody had a good experience and it means they want to do it again. [Laughs.]

What advice would you give for writers who are just starting out? What are the best channels to develop work and have your work seen?
DR: I think the festivals are good for people — even if they have only pieces of their work — to get started. I think it's good to make their work known in the regional theatres and the non-profit theatres so that they can be in a safe haven to develop their work. There are so many steps that a musical has to take, and I think it is important to go to a very nurturing and safe place to begin. The BMI workshops are great. It is challenging, I'm not saying it's easy to get started — it's just not. But I think looking for those places that will nurture your work is the most important thing. Find theatre labs and regional theatres that are dedicated to new work.

What is your hope for the future of theatre?
DR: There's one idea that I wish would happen and I've tried to make happen on plays where it was appropriate. I'd like to see the business community come together and underwrite tickets for people that can't afford tickets; whether it be students or elderly. I'd like there to be a big program where there is a way of joining hands so that financial institutions, businesses, banks, even personal foundations and family foundations, would underwrite tickets. I did that for a show I did called Through the Night, a beautiful one-man show about empowering inner-city kids to stay with education and go on to college, so there was a natural hook for me to try to connect, and we did that. The same is true of other plays that have a particular theme and would be appealing to these various organizations and businesses that want to do something good and don't know how. I'd like to see that in an organized fashion, because I go at it play by play, but that would be something great.

It's being done in various capacities at some Off-Broadway non-profits. Is that model possible for commercial Broadway theatre?
DR: It is possible. I think it just has to be organized in a way that everybody knows that there's an opportunity for them and that they can do something good. It would be good for the theatres, for the productions and for the people. I just started reaching out to our police and fire departments to invite them to come see our shows because it's an opportunity to build bridges. People often can't come to theatre because it's a financial deterrent. If they're invited, and there are ways to help make that happen, it would broaden the appeal. It would give people the opportunities that everyone should have. I'm not arguing against ticket prices, I understand why tickets cost what they do and there are many ways people can get discounted tickets. But if there was one, sweeping, benevolent program that was organized in this way... Let's say we get Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan to underwrite tickets and then we could be bridging gaps. On the creative side, what I would like to see happen, is for theatre to be really thoughtful in ways that give people the opportunity to think about bigger issues. I love theatre to be meaningful. I don't mean that it has to be intense, or boring, or dark. I don't mean that at all, but I think the subjects that producers choose can really open up people's hearts and minds. I've tried to do that in my own little way here. But I really wish that people would think about that. I know everybody thinks, "What's going to be commercial?" And I get that. I don't mean to sound like my heads in the sand. That component needs to be in there. Obviously, we can't raise money from investors if we don't give them that hope. But I also would like it if people would think about producing things that really enhance somebody's life, makes them think about things, makes them better people and makes them respond in some way in the real world. Engage them in something so that it's not just about being in the theatre from 8 to 10, but when you leave the theatre, what do you take with you in your heart? What do you leave with and then what do you do with that?

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