PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Emanuel Azenberg

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Emanuel Azenberg There is no truth to the rumor that Tony Award-winner Emanuel Azenberg is retiring, though he admits he's getting tired.
Emanuel Azenberg
Emanuel Azenberg Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The Broadway producer and general manager who earned Tonys for Ain't Misbehavin', Children of a Lesser God, The Real Thing, Biloxi Blues, Lost in Yonkers and Private Lives — and was nommed in 2003 for La Bohème and Movin' Out — still has his hands in a number of projects.

His office hasn't closed. How could it? He still has shows out there, including the new national tour of Movin' Out, which launched Jan. 27 in Detroit, where during the week of Jan. 26 he met with local theatre students as part of his accepting The Apple Award. The honor, for lifetime achievement in the theatre, is bestowed by the Nederlander family (which has its roots in Detroit) and Wayne State University, the respected Detroit institution that runs major undergrad and graduate theatre programs.

Being around students is nothing new for the 70-year-old Azenberg. He has taught a popular theatre seminar at Duke University for 20 years, and his classes at Yale and NYU have been equally hailed. His major assignment in class is to rip the first page off new plays and tell the students to read and assess them.

Given today's Broadway economics, it's easy to wonder if "new plays" will be part of the landscape. When Azenberg spoke to Playbill On-Line in fall 2003, there was only one non-musical play on Broadway (Take Me Out, which has since closed).

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Your classes sound like an effort to create new generations of more involved theatregoers. You really rip the covers off plays and hand them out?
Manny Azenberg: I ripped off covers of all the new plays and I said, "Give me a visceral response that's not a bulls--- response." By the end of the semester they were unafraid. The writing at first was the way you would go to the theatre, [saying] "wow" or "yuck." That's the visceral response. Now, find a decent literary way to write that truth without making reference to "The White Whale." I would give them [Tom] Stoppard plays: They had to write "I didn't understand it" rather than "I hated it." What comes out is personal responses. PBOL: Are the classes popular?
MA: Twenty kids [in a class], no more. We have to turn them away. [They read] three plays a week and write a one-page paper on each of the plays. One of the things that does happen is if you posture long enough the posturing becomes your reality. What comes out of their mouths is created instead of real. You know that students write they love Chekhov because they better, but no one has experienced it. They learn to trust their own opinion; and it's not a sin to not like something. It's also not a sin to say, "I don't know what this play was about." Listen to other people. They got something else that you didn't get. This is about being an adult. It's no different [than] when you were younger and you listened to Mozart and [felt] nothing, and 20 years later, you said, "Wow, that's pretty good." Well, what happened? Some things have to ripen.

PBOL: Are these students theatre majors?
MA: They are from all parts of the university. The better ones are the ones that are not from the theatre.

PBOL: Your Playbill bio says that Movin' Out is your 59th show as a producer.
MA: I don't think so. Something like 62. Somebody wrote that, so I don't know.

PBOL: Will there be more Manny Azenberg shows in the future?
MA: I am limited by the changes in the industry. Not this year [2003] but next year [2004] there are some things that we have planned...

PBOL: There will always be scripts on your nightstand.
MA: I think so. I think I will be extremely selective. One, because you have to, and two, I really don't have to do anything I don't want to. [In 2003], doing Movin' Out and Bohème were legitimate choices.

PBOL: Is your office closed?
MA: No. I know there was a rumor that went around. I'm in the office. There are about six people working here. They can't break the habit, but I am paying them, too, so....

PBOL: In 1972, when you were first associated as a producer of Neil Simon plays, did you foresee what would become of the American play, struggling for a place on Broadway?
MA: We went into the month of September [2003] with one play on Broadway — one! It's not an accident. We're losing the quality playwrights, they write for screens now. It's not a fertile ground for playwrights, the economics are terrible. If you have a play that costs $2-1/2 million it makes no economic sense. Is the slack being taken up by the nonprofits? To a certain extent, yes. I think the fundamental that everyone is missing — nobody wants to really talk about it and it's always been the case — is that Broadway was always the confluence of money and art. That's where O'Neill did his plays, that's where Miller, Williams, Inge, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gershwin — all of those people were on Broadway. All of those people wanted to make money: The fundamental American system. They didn't talk about it, but they did.

PBOL: What Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't seem to do is plug in the star of the moment, from film or TV, when they replaced their original casts.
MA: No they didn't do that.

PBOL: They took amazing new talent that nobody had heard of and they would become stars. It's a little depressing to see print ads and the untested screen stars who are brought into shows...
MA: Of course!

PBOL: Why are you different? Why do you and some others have such good taste?
MA: Because you grew up in the theatre. Everybody who aspired to going into the theatre, everyone on the management side or the press side, wanted to be connected to the theatre. When the general managers of Death of a Salesman saw it for the first time, they wept. We're now attracting another group of people: Entrepreneurs, corporations, but with a diminished sensibility or aesthetic. It's not just another business for people's ego. Producers actually have, at the least, a catalytic sensibility. When Tom Stoppard talks to you, you better have something going on inside. It's a little depressing and it gets a little lonely.

PBOL: There's little reason for playwrights to keep writing plays if they can't find a place to play, or if they aren't compensated.
MA: If plays didn't cost $2 million! There are some wonderful playwrights. [Donald] Margulies' plays should be done. There's a young playwright named Daniel Goldfarb, there's Richard Greenberg! All of these young guys should be able to make a living writing what they're writing. If not, they're gonna look for a screenplay.

PBOL: But will economics change?
MA: Will they change? It needs a revolution. I had an article printed recently about this: A need for a real National Theatre right in the middle of Broadway, using Broadway economics. And we achieved it! Just as an example, we did The Iceman Cometh: 15 weeks and it made well over $3 million and we divided up the money — the cast, understudies. There's enough money to be made. You don't have to charge $100. There can be enough money. I hate to use the word, but a little bit of socialism would be helpful.

PBOL: How can it happen?
MA: Well, if the [New York] Times would own up to [the fact that] $100,000 a page [for] an ad is not appropriate, that would be fine. If the theatre owners would own up to the fact that they're making money...if the unions would acknowledge...if the managements would be less self involved. It requires an across-the-board effort. How is this achievable? If Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey and Pacino say, "I think we should have a National Theatre," it would happen in about a week. It comes from the artists, not from management.

PBOL: And these would be limited runs that would not necessarily go on to a wider future but might...
MA: Exactly. Not necessarily, but might. If I say to you, you can make that kind of money in 15 weeks. If we only made $2 million and that gets divided up everybody could make a living.

PBOL: How do you feel about the apparent trend of productions with people sitting and reading scripts?
MA: [Laughing.] Leave me alone! I went to see Jumpers in London with Simon Russell Beale and I wanted to turn to everybody and say, "Hey, look, see, watch this guy." It's a difficult play made accessible, the place was packed, we all had a great time. You put the right people in the thing, and all of the sudden, bango! I used to go to the theatre and come out as if my life was going to be changed. That thrill of something. I haven't had that much, if at all, lately. Occasionally, you get, wow — that visceral response. Simon Russell Beale does it for me because his choices are breathtaking.

PBOL: How connected to resident theatre around the nation are you? Do you go see stuff around the country?
MA: No. I have some friends at South Coast Rep and I go to Lincoln Center. I'll go see an actor on occasion, who I know or who I'm told is really good, but I don't really want to see everything anymore — it's wearing me out.

PBOL: Did you ever think there would be a day when Neil Simon couldn't get on Broadway? Your association with him continues.
MA: Yeah, we talk three times a week. Whether he's capable of writing hits is irrelevant. That which we used to do, automatically, you can't do anymore. If Neil Simon wrote a play, we did it on Broadway. Let me give you one statistic: You were around when A Chorus Line opened. The top ticket price was $15, and an ad in the New York Times was $15,000. It's now $104,000 and the top ticket price is $100. That's what's happened in 28 years. That which was accessible to everybody at $15 is not accessible to everybody. Where do you advertise? You advertise in the Times. Those economics, you can't run away from. When you read that Nick Hytner charges $15 now [at the Royal National Theatre in London], for $15 we would see everything at the National! We'd go see Richard III for the 75th time!

PBOL: When you were a kid, how much was a theatre ticket in the balcony?
MA: Ninety cents, $1.10...a heavy date was $2.40, a major date was $3.60. But if you look it up, when Death of a Salesman opened, the gross potential was $24,000 for the week, now you have a play grossing $700,000. It's obscene.

PBOL: Do you remember the first show you saw on Broadway?
MA: Skipper Next to God [1948], with John Garfield, I think. My uncle was in it. Can't be the first one, but it may have been. It's the one that I remember. It's the one that registers because I went backstage to meet John Garfield, who was like Marlon Brando from my generation — a street kid from New York. On his dressing room door, I remember, it said "Julie" on it. His real name was Julius Garfinkle. I went back to the Bronx neighborhood saying, "I met John Garfield!"