PLAYBILL.COM’S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ira Weitzman

PLAYBILL.COM’S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Ira Weitzman Don't recognize the name Ira Weitzman? If you're at all interested in the American musical theatre, you should.
Ira Weitzman with William Finn
Ira Weitzman with William Finn (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

For 30 years, as first the director of musical theatre at Playwrights Horizons and then as associate producer of musicals at Lincoln Center Theater, Weitzman has had a hand in some of the most important new musicals to come out of the nonprofit theatre. Among them: the Falsettos trilogy, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Once on This Island, Assassins, My Favorite Year, Hello Again, Passion, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Violet, A New Brain, Parade, Marie Christine, Contact, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin and A Man of No Importance. And that's saying nothing about the slew of notable revivals he's nurtured along, the most recent being South Pacific. The self-described "ultimate behind-the-scenes guy" talked to Playbill.com about his life in musicals.

Playbill.com: Give me a brief description of what your position at Lincoln Center Theater entails.
Ira Weitzman: I'm basically responsible for all the day-to-day artistic producing of all the musicals at Lincoln Center in collaborations with Andre Bishop, our artistic director.

Playbill.com: Do you work with the creators?
IW: Oh, yes. My job sort of encompasses everything. It sort of changes from show to show, depending on what the shows need. I'm usually involved in every aspect of the show's production, from sometimes initiating projects. I'm always involved in casting, putting together the creative team, supporting the development of the show.

Playbill.com: So when the show is coming into being, you're with it every step of the way?
IW: I try to be.

Playbill.com: Do you make recommendations to Bishop of projects that you think are worth his consideration?
IW: Absolutely. We have been working together now for about 30 years. Playbill.com: Because you were with him at Playwrights Horizons before he went on to Lincoln Center.
IW: Yes. I love collaboration. I think it's what draws me to musical theatre, other than the actual shows themselves. Andre and I have been very good collaborators.

Playbill.com: Did he bring you on at Playwrights Horizons because he wanted to start doing musicals at that theatre?
IW: I came to Playwrights Horizons as Bob Moss' assistant, who was the founder and first artistic director. I spent a year as his assistant, and as I looked around at the work we were doing at Playwrights, there was a sort of vacuum where musicals could go. There was no musical theatre activity. I went to work there in 1977. Looking around at Broadway, there was very little support of new musicals, and very little work being done by new writers and artists. Recognizing that vacuum, I thought Playwrights Horizons could fill it. I went to Andre and suggested that we could start doing musical theatre, not really knowing what that meant at all. I knew what a musical was, but how to produce it was not something I knew early on. Andre and I had the exact same background. We were both raised in New York and exposed to a lot of musicals and we shared a love of the great musical stars — Mary and Ethel.

Playbill.com: What was the first musical at Playwrights Horizons?
IW: The first musical that I helped to put together was In Trousers by William Finn, which became the first in a trilogy of musicals that became Falsettos. That was an auspicious beginning. It defined not just the kind of work we were going to do — which was literate, adult, sophisticated — but also how we would work on musicals. We kind of tiptoed into it at first. I was given a late-night slot after the show in the upstairs Studio Theatre, the 11 o'clock slot. Rehearsal time in the middle of the night. Billy Finn and his troupe rehearsed from midnight to 4 AM. Bill, at the time, though he had not had any shows produced yet, was very demanding of support. And rightfully so. He asked to be treated as we treated playwrights of straight plays, to be given appropriate rehearsal time, that the pianos be tuned. Those demands defined for us a way to begin to support musical theatre. It was very significant.

Playbill.com: Did your and Andre's opinion of which musicals to choose change when you went to Lincoln Center?
IW: I think it changed a little bit, insofar as Lincoln Center's facilities are configured larger that those at Playwrights. The very early work we did at Playwrights was new work by young writers — Bill Finn was one, Michael John LaChiusa was another, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty — that we debuted. At Lincoln Center we had to address an audience with different expectations. We were allowed to continue relationships that we had started at Playwrights. It was very important for us to not make commitments just to individual projects, but to make commitments to artists over the course of a career.

Playbill.com: Yes, you've been very loyal to many artists over the years.
IW: That was quite by design. Andre had already developed that kind of commitment to playwrights, and I helped him establish a commitment to musicals theatre artists.

Playbill.com: Looking at your resume, it's quite astounding how many of the significant new musicals to have come out of the nonprofit theatre with which you've been involved. Do you ever think about that and get a little overwhelmed?

IW: About four or five years ago, I first wrote a fairly comprehensive bio and resume, where I listed many of the shows. That was the first time I'd been able to look at "my list," so to speak. That was not overwhelming at all, because, of course, I had lived through it and live to tell. But I have to say that I was impressed myself that we had such a strong track record. One of the things that was important to us was to develop projects that we could actually produce. Even back then in the late '70s and early '80s, there was a sense that there was a lot of development going on and not that much production. So these shows have added up over the years. The majority of the shows we've developed, we've ended up producing. We've been so methodical. The artists themselves have been very productive.

Playbill.com: What is your background? Did you go to a conservatory? Are you a writer or a musician yourself?
IW: I'm not a writer. I started out as a musician. I was born and raised in Manhattan. I went to New York City public schools when they still taught arts in the schools. I went to the High School of Music and Art, which is the sister school to the "Fame" school. I was a cellist for many years. I played in every student orchestra in every concert hall before I was 18. And though I never thought I was going to be a professional musician, I knew music would play a part in my life.

Playbill.com: Do you get a lot of unsolicited material at Lincoln Center?
IW: There's a fair amount. I read as much as I can, because I like to be familiar with what's out in the field. But I have to be honest. I can't even name a project that came over the transom unsolicited [that Lincoln Center produced]. We're usually involved in projects from scratch, more often than not. Someone comes to us with an idea. Not to take away from the great artists working today, but musical theatre is one of those fields where everybody from your dentist to your manager has written a musical. God forbid that you have an appointment with somebody and you tell them what you do. Sometimes my greatest fear is telling people what I do and having them say, "Well, my son has written a musical. Will you read it?"

Playbill.com: What kind of mistakes do you think young musical writers are making these days?
IW: I think the biggest mistake is probably working on a piece for so many years that it becomes a preoccupation. Sometimes it's good, if a project has not gotten off the ground after a sufficient amount of development, to put it in a drawer and maybe come back to it later, or let go of it altogether. There are occasions that a script will come across my desk now that I may have read 25 or 30 years ago. I'm always a little astounded, and I always feel a bit of empathy for the writer.

Playbill.com: Can you name a musical that you've seen and thought, "That should have been a Lincoln Center musical. I wish we would have done that"?
IW: I'm happy to say that's a pretty rare occurrence. The show that Ive respected the most over the past couple of years that probably would have made a good Lincoln Center show was Adding Machine, which I think was a beautiful show. Certainly not for everyone. I thought how great an example to all of us that it was able to have a viable commercial run in New York, albeit I'm sure they had hoped for a longer one. I was very encouraged by it. I knew Adding Machine when it was done. Ultimately, we didn't do it because we had so many projects lined up to do. Sometimes there's an embarrassment of riches. It's starts to mean, much to my disappointment, that we can't do everything we'd like to do.