So far this season, they have brought to the stage the acclaimed Journey's End, while Boyett alone has lent a hand with Lincoln Center Center's titanic undertaking, The Coast of Utopia. Meanwhile, their new revival of Inherit the Wind is in previews, while the new musical LoveMusik, the London import Coram Boy and the new Terrence McNally play, Deuce (Boyett alone again), are in rehearsals. Meanwhile, in the fall they will will bring the London productions of Sunday in the Park With George and Seafarer, as well as the recently uncovered Mark Twain play Is He Dead?. While Boyett and Haber back many sorts of plays, they are best known for their special relationship with the National Theatre. To date, they have transferred four National plays to Broadway: Jumpers, Democracy, The Pillowman and the colossal, Tony-winning smash The History Boys. The fifth is Coram Boy, which opens on Broadway May 2. The press-shy and party-shy Boyett spoke to Playbill.com about life as a producer in London, in New York and in the rehearsal room.
Playbill.com: This must be your busiest season to date.
Bob Boyett: I think it is, yes. I hadn't planned it that way, but you don't totally control how things come in. We're doing Journey's End; we're doing Inherit the Wind, Coram Boy; I'm doing Deuce; we're doing Seafarer from the National; we're doing Sunday in the Park With George at the Roundabout; and we're doing Is He Dead?, which is the Mark Twain play.
Playbill.com: What is the timetable on the Twain play?
BB: That we're going to go into rehearsal with it in September and open at the end of October. Michael Blakemore's directing that. This script was found by a Twain scholar in California, a professor at Stanford, and she contacted a journalist in Washington that she happened to know who happened to know me. She said, "I don't know any producers in the theatre and I just made this discovery in the back of a filing cabinet" — still in his hand-writing, by the way. And she said, "I'd like to get in touch with someone who won't rip me off." And the journalist made an introduction.
Playbill.com: Is it a large or small play?
BB: Well, in Twain's original, he has made notes in the margin to the effect of "This may not be necessary" or he would say, "You may not need this." Originally he had 21 or 22 characters in the whole piece. We've reduced it to about 17. It's very funny. I took it to David Ives. I've worked with David on a number of things, and he's done a great job on it.
Playbill.com: Let's talk about your relationship to the National Theatre. Do you see every National show?
BB: I almost do. There are one or two that are impossible for me to see. We have such a close dialogue that they keep me up to date with everything they're planning to do in the future. So, I have read everything long before they put it in to rehearsal, and I make a plan with them for everything I'm going to see. I find my preference is to see everything. They do such a great job on so many levels there that, even if it's something I won't do as a commercial transfer, I want to see it as an avid theatregoer. Playbill.com: How often are you in London?
BB: I'm in London about every eight weeks for 10 days or so. The problem with the National is you really have to go over a two-week span because they are in repertory. You can't go to London for one week and see everything at the National. But I love London and I love going to that theatre.
Playbill.com: How do you and Bill Haber decide which National plays to bring over to Broadway?
BB: Well, first of all we've read them and we've discussed each thing. We see them before we make a final decision. But I can't think of a single thing we've had a disagreement on. We've always agreed. The very first thing we brought over, which was Jumpers, we both fell in love with it and we thought it was just so worthy. We didn't think it would necessarily have a very long Broadway run. But we were just so knocked out by the production. So we decided, "Look, that show, we're not going to make a decision based on whether it will recoup or not." We pretty much told all our investors that. Although, if there is something that we obviously think is not going to work in any way on Broadway, we then try to get it set up somewhere else. For instance, we have recommended certain things to BAM because we felt it was better suited to a short run.
Playbill.com: On some National transfers, you've chosen to bring over the original British cast, and on others you've recast with American actors. How do you make that call?
BB: Again, I don't think there's a clear prototype, except that there are some shows that we feel are so brilliantly done and there is an interest on the part of the actors or director to bring the show over intact. For instance, with The History Boys, both [playwright] Alan Bennett and [director] Nicholas Hytner felt very strongly that it should come with that cast, and we did also. And we were very fortunate to get Equity to approve that. We have to negotiate all of these things with Equity, and because we also do plays and musicals in London, we can often work out an exchange with them. But, in the case of The Pillowman, I felt that that show was castable here. I remember it being a strong cast in London, but I also felt Billy Crudup would be so great in that lead role.
Playbill.com: How are you going to handle The Seafarer?
BB: We're hoping to bring that cast. It turns out that most of that cast have green cards or have some ability to work here. I think we'll have to work out one exchange or two.
Playbill.com: Each of your first few transfers—Jumpers, Democracy and The Pillowman—did successively better, critically and commercially. But The History Boys really broke out in a way they hadn't and was a tremendous success. Do you think the way you would have proceeded with the National deal would have been different if History Boys had failed?
BB: No. We made an original three-year deal with them and we keep renewing it every year. I can't foresee any circumstances where we would not continued to do that, for several reasons. One, consistently, they have, under Nick Hytner, had a very strong output of outstanding shows. And we have a great working relationship with them. They chose us, we didn't choose them. Many people think we went over to London and sought them out. Actually, they did a search and started out with a list of 12 or 14 producers and did interviews and it was really their decision to make this arrangement with us. I had known Nick Hytner before and I had tremendous respect for him. But I don't think anyone could have predicted how successful he would be [as artistic director of the National]. He has worked hard to raise the level of appeal of the show. He has presented a more diverse array of plays.
Playbill.com: You do a lot of shows besides the National shows. Does the way you work on those shows differ from the way you devote yourself to the National plays?
BB: I have such a wide variety of approaches. I think from my background the things that appeal to me in the creative area — and I consider myself a creative producer, I'm not so much interested in the business or the social aspect of producing — but my joy is sitting in the room with writers and director and being in the darkened theatre while the show is getting put together. That's what I really enjoy. I come from a background where development of creative material was the lifeblood of the television and other things I have worked in. I really don't think I have one main source [of material]. I have had tremendous success, I think, working with the nonprofit and regional theatres. There are four or five of them that I have, from day one, had a very positive relationship with, and have enhanced productions, some of which moved on to commercial productions. Some didn't; I feel so strongly in the creative package that I want them to succeed with it. That's one avenue [for finding plays]. Another avenue is to develop things from scratch, because I think they are a good idea. Another source is what I'd call "over the transom" plays. Is He Dead? is sort of a transom play; it fell into my lap. I don't like unsolicited material, but I've had positive relationships with the major literary agents for many years. So, material comes in through agents. My whole drive is the people and process. Therefore, I have had the good fortune to repeat my working experience with so many creative artists like writers and directors who I've worked on with multiple projects over the years.
Playbill.com: What is the division of labor between you and Mr. Haber? Does he prefer the business side more?
BB: I would say he does more of the business side. He's not as much into the creative process. It depends on the project though. He's been very involved on Inherit the Wind; he's put that whole project together himself. His background is that of an agent. He's the one that returns every phone call every day, returns every e-mail every day. I'm not so good about that. I'm the one who can sit patiently three or four hours in a room trying to dissect a script. He tends to want to come in, say what he wants to say for three or four minutes, and then leave. He doesn't want to sit and stew in the process. And I love stewing in the process. [Laughs.] He's also great at all the social aspects and really enjoys that. And I have to say that's a big difference, because I really don't enjoy that. I don't love the parties and opening night galas. I love sitting in the theatre and watching it and love seeing people enjoying it. But I like going home.