PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Todd Haimes

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Todd Haimes It's been 17 years since a little known administrative figure at the Roundabout Theatre Company named Todd Haimes surprised all by being named the Off-Broadway troupe's new artistic director.
Todd Haimes
Todd Haimes Photo by Joan Marcus

In that time, the Roundabout has moved to Broadway's Criterion Center, opened a brand new Off-Broadway space called the Laura Pels Theatre, moved to a new Broadway home fashioned out of the old Selwyn Theatre on 42nd Street, created a second edition of the Pels Theatre out of the old American Place Theatre space (the Criterion Center was demolished for retail use), acquired Studio 54 as its third stage, sent its biggest non-musical hit Twelve Angry Men out on a self-produced tour, collected a bunch of Tonys and played host to a wide variety of film and television stars making rare detours into stage work. Haimes himself was once briefly wooed away in the late '90s to become artistic director of the soon-doomed Livent. More recently, he suffered a life-threatening bout with a rare type of cancer, a sarcoma of the jaw. Neither of these episodes, however, seemed to slow his service to the titanic Roundabout, which produces eight shows a year. Haimes met with Playbill.com in his office to discuss his life in the theatre, thus far.

Playbill.com: How do you see the Roundabout's position in the New York theatre right now? You've got three stages. You have the Twelve Angry Men national tour, the first one you've ever produced. What role do you play?
Todd Haimes: Because of my own insecurities and my feeling that disaster is somehow always around the corner, my answer is somewhat reserved. I guess, realistically, the theatre has done much better than I ever dreamed it ever would 15 years ago. We have 45,000 subscribers, which I never would have expected to have, let along sustain. If that's a measure of success, we are probably one of the premier institutional theatres in the city. And I think, in terms of doing revivals of plays and musicals, we may be the premier theatre that does that. So, I feel good about that. The good thing about my job is I get to work with all these incredible people on these incredible shows. Whereas a commercial producer might spend three years on one show, I do eight shows a year, so it's an incredible luxury. The flip side of that is I have to find eight shows a year. I have to find eight shows that are worthy of being done, eight shows where I can find the right cast and director, have a certain number of stars that will sell tickets, and worry about the reviews and worry about everything.

Playbill: You say the Roundabout is well known as a place that does revivals. In recent seasons, you've produced new plays. What kind of new play gets done at the Roundabout?
TH: We're not a theatre for emerging playwrights. First of all, my area of expertise is not nurturing emerging playwrights. Second of all, the theatre isn't set up for that, in the sense that we don't have a workshop structure to get the plays along. Finally, our smallest theatre is bigger than most other institutional theatres' biggest theatre. When you do a production in a theatre that size, I honestly think it puts a lot of pressure on the play. So a Roundabout new play would be one that is fully developed by the time we get it and worthy of being exposed at a million dollar level of production.

Playbill.com: So, you do new plays from a playwright who already has a career or, in the case of someone like Brian Friel, a full career.
TH: It's interesting. I think about this a lot. What I'm about to say can't be proven, but we did a play last year by a relatively unknown playwright [Noah Haidle], called Mr. Marmalade. I really thought it was really a great play. And he was an emerging playwright. The critical response was not encouraging. And I really thought, in retrospect, that we probably did the playwright a disservice; that had the play been done at a smaller institutional theatre where the expectations are different for a new playwright, that it would have gotten much more encouragement, though maybe not a better production.

Playbill.com: You mean that critics, when reviewing plays at that one-million-dollar level, as you said, expect the plays to be more perfect?
TH: I think the critics, as you go up the chain of theatres, whether consciously or unconsciously, expect more at each level of size. So, I don't know if we did that young playwright, whom I adore, the best service. Playbill.com: So you might hesitate before taking that chance again?
TH: Maybe before producing that kind of subject matter, which was extremely edgy, perhaps, for what people perceive as being a Roundabout play; maybe it's just not fair to that kind of play and the playwright, and the audience, to [produce] that.

Playbill.com: Occasionally, a new play gets done at the American Airlines Theatre. How does that happen?
TM: My goal is to do that rarely. I think it's happened twice, once because we had a long relationship with Richard Greenberg and he really wanted that play [A Naked Girl on the Appian Way] to be done on Broadway. And the other time because it was right after 9/11, and whatever we were going to do we cancelled because everyone was in a total panic about going bankrupt. So we did this one-person show with Kevin Bacon, An Almost Holy Picture, which we normally wouldn't have done on Broadway. But I think primarily we're not going to do new plays on Broadway. I also think, quite honestly — and it sounds like I'm harping on the critics, which I guess you can't help but do in New York — I think it's really hard for a new American play to make its debut on Broadway. If you think back over the past few years about how many new American plays debuted on Broadway and got positive reviews, the only one I can think of is Rabbit Hole. The Goat did pretty well. Opening a new play on Broadway puts so much pressure on it, you're not really doing the playwright a favor. That's my two cents.

Playbill.com: Is it hard to find the right shows to fit the Studio 54 space?
TH: Most musicals fit there very well. The thing about Studio 54, a lot of people want to work there, because they think it's a cool space. A lot of directors want to work there. But the thing is, Studio 54 has a very strong point of view. It's not like just going into a generic Broadway theatre. It's this old Gothic space. There are shows that are enormously enhanced by the theatre, like Assassins; and then there's The Pajama Game, which I don't think would have been good for Studio 54. We could have done it there, but it's a light, frothy, jolly musical and Studio 54 is sort of Gothic. It's harder for plays. It's a huge space. The proscenium is huge. We wouldn't do every play there. We still have a completely flexible space, though the seats have been in there for a year and a half.

Playbill.com: Do you think the cabaret seating will ever come back?
TH: I don't know, but I do think that some other configuration will come back. When we put in those seats, we spent a great deal of money making sure they were removable, because we didn't want to get locked into traditional seating.

Playbill.com: I'm curious how a Roundabout season gets put together.
TH: So am I. [Laughs.]

Playbill.com: There was a recent article in the New York Times that said The Apple Tree was produced basically because Kristin Chenoweth was available. Was that accurate?
TH: Yes.

Playbill.com: Could you explain the impetus behind each show in the current season, beginning with Heartbreak House?
TH: Well, two reasons. One, this theatre has a long relationship with Shaw. We've done a lot of Shaw. Our audiences love it. But the real impetus at that time was that Philip Bosco came to me and said "I want to play that role [of Captain Shotover]," and I said, "Great." That was it. It was an easy decision.

Playbill.com: Prelude to a Kiss was added fairly recently. How did that come about?
TH: We were supposed to do Old Times, the Pinter play. We had it virtually cast… and then at the last minute one of the actors decided he didn't want to do it at the American Airlines Theatre. It was an artistic decision. So the production fell apart rather precipitously. That doesn't happen very often. It was traumatic. When something like that happens, there are four million plays you can produce instead. That's not the question. The question is how can you get the right director, the right actors to do them in a way that will be distinguished. We went to the list of directors we like to work with. At the top was Dan Sullivan. He happened to be available during that time slot. We started talking about plays. We looked at a list and he mentioned Prelude. It's as simple or complicated as that. We were very concerned about casting the old man in the play. When you're trying to cast actors who are in their 60s to play a lead in a Broadway play who can hold a stage and do a role like that, it's a short list. The first person we went to was John Mahoney. We were very lucky. He said yes. Had he not said yes, I don't know what would have happened.

Playbill.com: How about Suddenly Last Summer?
TH: It's a play I wanted to do. Sometimes these plays kick around for years. I always loved it. But the problem, again, is you have to get to extraordinary women to commit to those roles [of Mrs. Venable and Catharine Holly], and, at the same time, get a great director. Otherwise, why would you do it? I'm attracted to the plays that aren't done every four or five years. I understand we have to do things that are, quote-unquote, commercial, because we have to sell tickets and please subscribers. But in general I like to do the plays that, if the Roundabout didn't do them, they wouldn't be done. What happened was, we had this relationship with Carla Gugino and I always wanted to get her back. Then I got a call from Blythe Danner and she said we should have lunch. We made a date. There was no agenda, but I thought she would be great for that role. So when I went, I asked her if this was a play she'd be interested in doing. At the same time, I called Carla and had her read it. So it came together. Often the plays come from a director. In that case, it came from me.

Playbill.com: The other two plays at the Pels come from overseas, Patrick Marber's Howard Katz and Brian Friel's The Home Place.
TH: Howard Katz started at least three years ago. Patrick Marber called and said, "I just did this play of mine called Howard Katz and I directed it and I think I did it a disservice as a director. Would you be interested in doing it if I didn't direct it?" I read it. I liked it. We both decided we had to get the right actor and the right director. Howard Katz is a huge role. Marber suggested Doug Hughes, but we decided we had to go after the actor first. Six months later, he said "I think the best person to play this would be Alfred Molina." I said, "I think he's great." We asked Fred about it. He said, "I'd love to do it, but I'm doing Fiddler on the Roof. If you can hold it for me, I'll commit to doing it." And so we waited for Fred and he said, "I'll commit to January 2007." It's really been three and a half years.

Playbill.com: And you're doing Brian Friel at a time when he is riding very high in New York.
TH: Yeah, he is. It was frustrating before when we were working with these great writers like Pinter and Friel and they'd ask us to do their new play, and we'd say "We don't do new plays." It just seemed stupid. Then the first Laura Pels opened at the Criterion, and we opened it with a new Pinter play. Home Place was an easy decision. Brian's agent sent the play to me. I liked it. I love [director] Joe Dowling.

Playbill.com: I'm just guessing that you're doing 110 in the Shade because Audra McDonald wanted to play Lizzie.
TH: Lonny Price was really the driving force on this. About two years ago he said, "Would you be interested in doing a reading of 110 in the Shade with Audra?" I said I'd like to hear the play. We had done The Rainmaker, but I wasn't that familiar with 110 in the Shade. So, we did a reading and I said yes, I wanted to do it, and it became a question of when Audra could commit, and she could commit to this spring. So, again, that's been planned for a couple years.

Playbill.com: What is the one Roundabout success that most surprised you, the one you never thought would be a hit?
TH: There are two that come to mind, one recent and once not so recent. The recent one was Twelve Angry Men. That is 100 percent Scott Ellis. I read the play and thought, "Well, it's nice, but it's a little creaky." We did a reading in front of an audience and it went much better than I expected. But I still thought, frankly, our subscribers would like it, the critics would call it old-fashioned and be slightly negative about it and it would run its 12 weeks. Firstly, I was completely wrong in judging how strong the play was, and secondly, Scott Ellis did an absolutely brilliant job directing that play. It turned out to be a huge success, critically as well as audience-wise. It's turned into our biggest non-musical hit ever. I did not see that.

Playbill.com: When it's done touring, is there any chance it might come back to New York for an encore run?
TH: Somebody suggested that. It would be weird. I don't know. We couldn't send it back to our subscribers, because they've already seen it…

The other show that surprised me goes back a long way. I had this sort of dream of doing musicals, ones that aren't likely to be revived. At the time, the reception we got from a lot of artists whose services we would need was: Roundabout didn't do musicals, so why should we let you revive our musical? In retrospect, we probably didn't know what we were doing. Producing a musical is much more complicated that producing a play. The first musical we did was She Loves Me. We had announced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And then Jerry Zaks decided he wanted to do it with a big star on Broadway, so it got unannounced. We were in this situation where I had convinced the board that we were going to do our first musical, and we had no musical. I had met this guy named Scott Ellis who had directed the Kander and Ebb revue And the World Goes Round that was such a big hit. He had met with me six months earlier and pitched She Loves Me. A lot of people hold She Loves Me in their mind as this little jewel of a musical. I didn't. I'd never seen it, I'd never read it. By the time I listened to it, I thought, "Well, that's really nice," but I wanted to do something splashier so we were going to do Forum. So when Forum fell apart, I called Scott Ellis! [Laughs.] We put it together fairly quickly. We ended up spending a great deal more than we expected, because we didn't know what we were doing and didn't budget correctly. That was at a time when the theatre was still financially precarious. Frankly, if She Loves Me had been a disaster, not only would we never have done another musical, but it would have been extremely traumatic for the theatre financially. And Scott did a perfect production. It was seminal in the evolution of the theatre.

Playbill.com: You recently had to contend with a serious risk to your health. Has that changed the way you do your job in any way.
TH: No. I thought it would. I remember sitting in the hospital room, thinking "If I get through this, I am not going to let the stupid little stuff drive me crazy. I'm not going to let The New York Times review drive me insane and put me into a depression. I'm not going to let all these things that are basically, in the broad scheme of life, not very relevant torture me." I remember thinking that, I remember feeling that. And it took me about three months back at the job before I was just back to the same old thing. And I'm not proud of that. You're supposed to have these life-changing experiences when you're facing death. Something positive should come out of that experience. But it didn't, in terms of work. I can't help it. It's such a personal business.

(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at rsimonson@playbill.com.)

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