Nobody, not even Susan Stroman, was busier than Elizabeth Ireland McCann this past spring. The producer of three Broadway-bound plays—Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, Michele Lowe's The Smell of the Kill and a revival of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport—she filled her spare hours with a little job called managing producer of the Tony Awards telecast. So busy was McCann that she was forced to drop one of the plays (Rappaport) from her agenda. And the veteran producer found other ways stay in the public eye. She responded to the Times critic Bruce Weber's pan of The Smell of the Kill with a pointed ad in the reviewer's own paper. Her riposte to the theatre press' constant carping about the poor quality of the season came in the form of an aggressive letter to New York Post columnist Michael Riedel, who published the letter in his column. And just days after winning the Best Play Tony Award for The Goat, she again clashed with the Paper of Record when the broadsheet mistakenly printed an ad proclaiming Metamorphoses Tony's choice for top drama. Playbill On-Line's Robert Simonson spoke to McCann just before she embarked on a much-needed vacation.
Playbill On-Line: What have you learned from trying to produce three plays and the Tony Awards all in one spring?
Elizabeth McCann: It's not a good idea! It's not an ideal schedule from a point of view of sheer exhaustion. [We decided] not to do I'm Not Rappaport. We realized early that that was just foolish for a number of reasons—my schedule and the fact that there was just too much going on in New York in general. We just didn't think it was a good time to do another play and I think that's been borne out.
PBOL: How do you think the Tony Awards broadcast went?
EM: That's a tough one. Obviously, there are aspects of the broadcast that did not come out as well as we hoped they would. How to improve them for next year is the next problem we have to address.
PBOL: It seems the Tony broadcast is always greeted with a multitude of complaints, no matter how successful it is. Does it sometimes seem like a losing proposition to be involved with the show at all?
EM: The reason we're involved with it is we hope to minimize the complaints. There are a lot of headaches. On CBS, we have 90 minutes of airtime, not two hours, 90 minutes. And we're in a situation where CBS requires by contract a certain percentage of that time to be entertainment. Now, that is a very difficult set [of rules]; we're sort of boxed into a formula. We have 20 awards we have to give out. We have to deliver so much of the evening to entertainment. Historically, we have always done that by presenting the nominated musicals. By the time you get through with that, you've pretty well eaten your way through the time you have. There are so many musical numbers—this year, six—and then trying to squeeze in the plays to keep the dramatists happy. It's very difficult to do in that length of time, almost impossible. As it was this year, the plays got cut. They were scheduled to have a minute each. We ended up going with a short package, which was less than half a minute each, because everyone ran overtime—not just Elaine Stritch, I might add. Putting it together is very tough. I was reading a review this morning from somewhere that was critical of the [compilation] number Mamma Mia! did. Mamma Mia! decides which number it's going to do. We have influence on it. But that's it. We don't have control over the musical numbers. The most frustrating part of this job is how many variables there are.
PBOL: Switching over to your role of producer, The Goat won the Tony for Best Play. Is there going to be a change in how you market the show from now on?
EM: Of course, we'll be giving a lot of prominence to the fact that it won a Tony Award. The Tony is very significant to us because it's made the play acceptable. There was sort of a shift in the audience about five or six weeks ago when they really began to enjoy the play. It was about the time we started the Tuesday talkbacks. People began to just go in and enjoy the play, rather than go in with a notion of negativity. PBOL: Did you ever think of capitalizing on the show's controversial status in your advertising?
EM: No, because in our view that would be skewing what Edward [Albee] was trying to do. Edward was not trying to write a controversial play, or a shocking play. He was writing a play on the limits of love and the limits of tolerance. I'm fond of saying, if you're promoting Long Day's Journey Into Night, would you promote it as a play about your mother who's a drug addict? Edward was searching for a plot point that would challenge the audience and would seem to challenge the family unit.
PBOL: Is there going a national tour?
EM: It's very early to say. It's very hard to say with any play. It's tough to get a consecutive route, and very tough as a result to get actors who can maintain the [run] that you need. Most of the major cities now do not have theatres for plays, they have theatres for musicals. There are a handful of theatres, at best, that can take a play.
PBOL: More than most producers, you are not afraid of taking on the big dailies, The New York Times and the New York Post.
EM: Right. Generally, philosophically, the rules of the game are: I do a play and the critics review it. If you're talking about the Post [where McCann sent a letter, which Michael Riedel published in his column], I really felt there was a mindset in the media in New York this year that this was a rotten season. I did not see it as a rotten season. It was a fascinating season, a very mixed, eclectic sort of thing. I was tired of the industry not responding, saying, "Oh, I guess you're right, it's a rotten season." You're always saying it's a rotten season. I don't think it's a great season when The Producers wins 17 Tony Awards. I think it's much more fun when you see it divided around among so many first-time people on Broadway. Taking on The Post was very much a matter of "Hey, can you please get this straight?"
—By Robert Simonson