Emanuel Azenberg remembers the first time actor Albert Finney stepped into Sardi's. He tells the story while sitting at the second-floor bar of that theatre-district restaurant, drinking a vodka and tonic with "more tonic than vodka." The second floor of Sardi's, removed from the hubbub of the main dining room, is a quiet and more casual roost where show folk talk shop, make deals or wind down before or after shows. Like the rest of the venue, its walls are lined with the eatery's famous framed caricature portraits, but the space feels somehow separate and secret. With its view of the Shubert Theatre, it seemed a perfect, classic setting for Playbill.com's new recurring interview series that dips into the lives and lifestyles of theatre people. But back to Finney: It was 1963 and the actor was starring in John Osborne's Luther at the St. James Theatre, a couple doors down West 44th Street.
"It was his first time in America," recalled Azenberg, who is known to all as Manny. Say "Manny" around Broadway and people will understand who you're talking about. "He looked like he was driving a cab." Also there at the time, as always, was syndicated theatre columnist Leonard Lyons, who made Sardi's his home office for decades. "Lyons used to walk around the restaurant getting anecdotes. Finney was stunned. He said 'You mean, he makes a living doing that?!' We said yes. Lyons' stuff was harmless, they were nice anecdotes." The two men then went to Downey's, a bar on Eighth Avenue, for more refreshment. "And there was Lyons again! By this time, Finney is half loaded. He was stupified. 'They pay him for that?'"
Azenberg, 76, has been a producer for 44 years. He's been in the theatre — first as a company manager, and frequently as a general manager — for longer than that. He's still here because "they pay him for that."
"It's better than working," he said dryly. He says everything dryly, and with a certain quiet gravitas. "Guys who work for Con Edison, that's a job. I knew what work was from the Army." Azenberg — who prefers beer — knew plenty of drinkers back then. He worked as company manager on the flop 1964 staging of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. Tennessee Williams wrote it and Tallulah Bankhead was the star. A show with just one of those personalities would be an adventure. Who was harder to handle? "That's a whole other interview," he said. "Tennessee drank, he was silly. Tallulah was a lunatic. Tallulah was a caricature of herself — which was maybe even appropriate for that role." Told that the play is being revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company next season, he responded: "Good luck."
On both Luther and Milk Train, Azenberg was working for infamous producer David Merrick. Azenberg, in fact, may be the only theatre person yet alive to say he worked for both Merrick and his longtime arch rival, producer Alexander H. Cohen. "It was not possible to work for them at same time," he remarked with a smile.
So which, when all is said and done, was best at his job? Azenberg hesitates, as if considering briefly whether it were possible for either man to revisit him from the grave. But after a moment, he speaks frankly, as he almost always does. "Merrick was by far," he said. "He was ruthless, a killer. He had taste. He knew. He also knew it wasn't about him. All that publicity was nonsense. If you take Gower Champion and Tony Richardson out of the Merrick equation, there's no David Merrick. It's never about the producers. It's always about the talent. Whatever Richardson wanted to do, Merrick did." Such straighforward remarks make Azenberg a refreshing rarity among today's spin-prone producers.
Merrick had nine shows on Broadway once in the 1960s, the former company manager points out. He then mentions that he, himself, had six running simultaneously in the 1980s. Azenberg has slowed down since then. He had only three productions this past season, and none went well, at least commercially. His doubling of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound shuttered last fall, just after Brighton opened and before Broadway had a chance to bow. And a revival of Ragtime closed in eight weeks.
"That gave me a jolt," he said. "And then you look at other shows that find an audience. Low rent, trashy. And you realize there's an audience for those. I thought Ragtime was good and it was about something. And it couldn't break even. What am I going to do? Produce something that I don't like?"
No. That's not why he got into the business. "If you went into the management side of the theatre, you went for theatre reasons," he explained. "Not for management reasons. You could have gone into real estate. You would have made more money." Azenberg is essentially a hopeful person; one can't work in theatre for as long as he has and not be. (His regular threats of imminent retirement never seem to pan out.) But he knows the theatre world he adopted as his own in the 1940s and 1950s is no longer in evidence, and he mourns the fact. "I was around for a heyday," he said. "And it isn't here anymore. We went as if to a church or synagogue, and when it was good you walked out ready to change the world. I don't see much of that anymore. The audience we have now is different. At the prices we charge, it's a theme-park sort of thing — 'I better have a good time.' There were no M&Ms."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Emanuel Azenberg is a New York animal. He was born in the High Bridge area of the Bronx, on 165th Street, on Jan. 22, 1934, and managed to stay there all through his schooling. He went to Bronx High School of Science, where he briefly flirted with becoming an actor, and then to NYU's liberal arts school when it was still in the Universitiy Heights neighborhood. "You dated girls in Brooklyn if you lived in the Bronx. You took the subway. You left on a Tuesday for a Friday date. You would meet a Brooklyn girl in the summer." He has a street named after him somewhere in that northerly borough, he said.
He didn't settle on the theatre out of the blue. There was an uncle, Wolfe Barzell, who was on the Yiddish stage, and managed to graduate to the big time uptown. Uncle Wolfe was in the first Broadway play he ever saw, Skipper Next to God, in 1948. He played a rabbi. A third generation of Azenbergs is already in the arts, albeit not in the theatre. Of the producer's five children, three of the four daughters are in dance (eldest, Karen Azenberg, is a director and choreographer and president of SDC — the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers) and the son is a classical musician. He's doing his best to understand their worlds. "I'm working my way into Mahler," he joked. "There are things that are obvious and you go, 'That was good.' When you see Baryshnikov, you know you've seen something. But when they turn to you and say, 'Oh, he has beautiful feet,' I have no idea what they're talking about. There's another language." What he likes best about his children: "None of them feel entitled."
Azenberg lives a little north of The Bronx, now, in Connecticut. Always athletic, he still plays tennis twice a week. (He met his most constant colleague over the years, playwright Neil Simon, during a softball game in the 1960s.) He also gardens, but goes at it with the mind of a producer. Flowers and berry bushes, yes. Vegetables, no. "We don't have enough sun for vegetables," he explained. "I figured out that if I grew tomatoes, it would cost me about $15 a tomato, if you put in the hours and the fertilizer."
Gardening has other rewards besides fruit. "That work doesn't call you up at three in the morning to complain."
Azenberg is frequently referred to as an éminence grise of the theatre now. There are few around who are both still active and have been producing as long as he has. He has a set, self-deprecating response for this — "Certainly, 'grise.'" He said he doesn't particulary like the status. "You're patronized a little. It's not comfortable being patronized. You have to find a balance between thinking you know everything, and knowing that there's a part of the world that is currently passing me by." As for retiring, "I think I'm pretty close to it." But.... "If something came along that I liked. I have an idea for something." Soon after, he said his goodbye, and bounded down Sardi's stairs like someone who was late for a meeting.