He's been called, not always affectionately, the most important man in commercial theatre. As Chairman of the Shubert Organization, Gerald Schoenfeld has been at the helm of a producing team and theatre chain that includes some of the oldest and most beloved houses on the Street: the Ambassador, the Lyceum, the Winter Garden, the Majestic, the Cort, the Ethel Barrymore, etc. etc. and so forth. The Shubert Organization is the largest theater owner on the Great White Way. In addition to producing plays, the organization owns 16 Broadway theatres and owns, leases, and manages theatres outside New York (National Theatre in Washington, DC; Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles; Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia) and boasts other real estate holdings such as New York's Sardi Building. Founded in 1973, the Shubert Organization's roots can be traced back to the late 19th century when brothers Levi, Samuel, and Jacob Shubert launched their theatre empire. Schoenfeld went into the Shubert fold in 1950, teamed with Bernie Jacobs a few years later to run the organization, and shows no signs of slowing down five decades hence. He's on the Board of the Times Square Business Improvement District, serves as Vice President of the League of American Theatres and Producers, and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the Musical Theatre Writing department at NYU/Tisch. The winner of an Actors' Fund medal, Schoenfeld isn't without his critics. When residents of the Clinton and Hell's Kitchen district worried about the quality of life in Times Square if "air rights" were sold above the buildings on Eighth Avenue, the Shubert Org (as well as the Nederlanders, Jujamcyn and numerous Broadway luminaries) proved a powerful lobbyist for selling those rights. The request was granted in 1998, then overturned in 1999 and then, a year ago, upheld by the New York State appellate court. The high cost of theatregoing, the higher cost of theatre producing, and the kinds of shows that now make it to Broadway have also caused theatre professionals and attendees to grumble about the powers that be, but after fifty years in the business (and forty years running the business), Schoenfeld is, as the song goes, "still here," enduring the pervasiveness of television, the lure of the internet, wars overseas, economic recessions and the overall precariousness of life upon — and behind — the wicked stage. Some of that life is lavishly set forth in a new book, "The Shuberts Present: 100 Years of American Theater," published by Harry N. Abrams and written/compiled by the staff of the Shubert Archive. Schoenfeld penned the book's introduction and spent a half hour chatting with Playbill On Line about what's new — and old — in the world of the Shuberts.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: What, if anything, would you have done differently at Shubert Organization in the past four decades?
Gerald Schoenfeld: Done differently? I don't know if I'd have done things differently. I don't have a crystal ball. I'm proud that we were the first computerized ticketing service (Tele-Charge) and that we introduced of credit cards to the business. We're the only ones who've built a new theatre solely with private funds — the Shubert in L.A., which is sorrowfully being demolished after 30 years to make way for office buildings. I'm proud to be able to sustain these old theatres, renovate them and adapt them so they function in today's world. And I'm most proud of my role in the Midtown Citizens Committee, fundamental for the renovation of Times Square. As for shows, the highpoints include Dreamgirls, Amadeus, Cats, Ain't Misbehavin', Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Sunday in the Park with George, and, even recently, Dirty Blonde. I'm also very proud of our last show, Dance of Death.
PBOL: So the organization has been able to grow and change with the times?
GS: I think the company is innovative and forward looking. The business has changed in a sense that the people in it today have not established the kinds of reputations that producers of yesteryear did; for instance, David Merrick, who had some allure. The older traditions are not necessarily applicable to today, nor are the people in the business knowledgeable enough about those traditions. People who are commentators about the business have not had the kind of educational background or been exposed to art and culture as part of a school curriculum, as people were a generation or more ago, because culture has been eliminated from the curriculum. The people running TV and media aren't making it a part of programming; their support for art and culture as opposed to movies, is minimal. I'm not suggesting people today are any less dedicated to doing good work. Not at all. But they're in an environment that's different from what it used to be. When there was greater support for the theatre. When stars stayed with the theatre and weren't running off to Hollywood or television. And we had writers of talent for the theatre. The collaborations that used to exist, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Kander and Ebb.
PBOL: And the budgets have gone sky high.
GS: This business is funded on full price tickets. With discounting of tickets to the extent it's done today, the economics have to be reexamined. You can't predicate receipts or recoupments on full price-tickets. We are in a changing business today. The era of the mega-hit has ended. One thing about the mega-hit was it had no stars. Secondly, a goodly number came jet-propelled from London — Cats, Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera. Today's mega-hits cost a fortune to produce. If they open with stars, there's a problem with replacement. You have to build up inertia to go on tour and throughout the world and build up that kind of status. Will they have international receptivity? Shows dependent upon a score of renown will have an advantage, even if the book is not as strong as the score. If there is a powerful story in the musical, then the music, though important, may not have the same requirement as it would in another situation. The promotion is very important, as indeed are the critical reviews. Many of the mega-hits did not get great notices.
PBOL: It's become something of an industry joke that the list of the producers for the upcoming revival of The Crucible is almost as long as the play. Any thoughts on the new trend in "above-the-line" billing?
GS: It's a factor of the economics of this business. In movies, you get XYZ Pictures in association with ABC, Old Line, New World, Capitol Production present a John Jones-Henry Schmidt film, and so on. It's really somewhat absurd. Having people listed as producers whose contribution to the creative process is minimal is understandable; they're making an investment. But there has to be distinction between the creative process. We are an equal financer without partners in every show we do. And the Nederlanders and Jujamcyn put up substantial moneys in shows as well. PBOL: You're currently building a brand-new, Off-Broadway theatre in midtown. How's that going?
GS: We're hoping it will be ready in September. The interior is mostly finished, but the fitting out of the theatre has to be completed. It's a proscenium, 499 seats.
PBOL: What's it called?
GS: No name yet; that's due in two months. And it will open with a new play by a leading American playwright.
PBOL: Rumors have been floating about that the Belasco Theatre may be on the market. Any truth?
GS: Of course we're holding onto it. Why shouldn't we hold on to it? We're in the business of preserving and maintaining theatres. This summer, maybe Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune will come there, but we're also talking to other candidates looking for a theatre.
PBOL: Speaking of shows hoping to come in to Broadway, the Shuberts have gotten strongly behind a French musical, Le Passe Muraille, which is looking to come to New York soon. What's the latest?
GS: The show is based on a French short story [by Marcel Ayme] about a man who could walk through walls. It's adapted by Jeremy Sams with music by Michel LeGrand, who did the music for the movie "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." We're hoping James Lapine will direct, but the time frame depends on his schedule [after Into the Woods]. It may be late spring or early fall. We'll probably change the name, maybe for a character's name in the play. It's a small musical, estimated in the $3-3.5 million range, but estimates are only that, made before negotiating all the deals.
— By David Lefkowitz