When the fledgling Manhattan Theatre Club hired Lynne Meadow in 1972, it gained an enduring artistic leader. But Zabar's lost a fine young cheesemonger.
"My only other job at the time was working in the cheese department at Zabar's," said Meadow over a soft drink at Sardi's recently. "Charles Busch teases me. He says, 'Can you imagine what the cheese department would look like today if you hadn't taken the job?'"
But she did take the job, though only after her mentor, Nikos Psacharapoulos, founder of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, turned it down.
"The people at MTC were talking to Nikos about running it," said Meadow. "He got into extensive conversations. Ultimately, he decided he wouldn't run it because there was no money. I directed a play at the MTC. I was interviewed by them to become the artistic director. I thought it would be smart to see a budget. I looked at the budget. Math wasn't required at Bryn Mawr at that time. I got to the bottom of the page. I said, 'Gentlemen I see you have $75,000. Why do you have parentheses around the number?' They said, 'That's because it's a deficit.' They still hired me." The contract was for three months. This fall, she begins her 40th year with the company — the longest reign of any current artistic leader in New York theatre. "It feels like a minute ago," she said.
Meadow grew up in New Haven, CT. Her parents would go into New York on Thursdays and see shows. "I'd just get to look at the programs," she recalled. That changed on her 13th birthday. "Some kids had a bat mitzvah when they turned 13. I went to Sardi's."
Her mother took Lynne and her sister to a matinee of a musical called Destry Rides Again and then to dinner at Sardi's. But even back then, she was developing her skills as a tastemaker. "My mother and sisters said, 'So, Lynnie, what did you think?' I said, 'It was terrible.' And my sister said, 'Lynnie, how can you say that?! Mommy took us on the train and took us to this matinee and here we are at Sardi's!' I said, 'I had a great time, but the show was just terrible.'"
She attended Bryn Mawr College as a French major and spent her junior year in France. ("I do more than muddle through" in French, she said.) She then went to Yale School of Drama, the only female director in her class. She took a leave of absence after two years to journey to France again, where she worked in the theatre. When she returned, she was asked to be Psacharapoulos' assistant at Williamstown. Her second year there, she ran the apprentice program. Finally, she told Nikos "I'm going back to Yale." He said, "You should go to New York."
"So, I'm technically still on a leave of absence from Yale," joked Meadow.
Unlike many artistic directors in New York, Meadow is one who takes the second half of her title literally. Meaning: she directs. This season, she will stage the Broadway premiere of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, starring Cynthia Nixon. Incredible as it may seem, Meadow never saw the play, about a poetry professor in her struggle with cancer, during its long, acclaimed run Off-Broadway in the late 1990s.
"It was something I didn't want to see at the time," she said. "I had gone through a battle with breast cancer. I survived and thrived." Not having taken in the play now has a peculiar advantage for her, as she has no preconceptions on how it should be done. "Someone said, 'How are you going to make it different?" I said, "I don't know, because I didn't see it.'"
Meadow continued, "One of the great things about the Friedman Theatre" — MTC's Broadway address — "is we can do great plays that never made it to Broadway." She mentioned Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen, Craig Lucas' Reckless and Richard Greenberg's The American Plan, all Friedman shows. "MTC on Broadway has to be different from other theatres on Broadway. We're an institutional theatre. We're a subsidized theatre. Because we have limited engagements, we have the opportunity to do things other people can't do. What I feel the obligation to do is something that's not traditional Broadway fare."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Meadow doesn't always choose the plays she directs. Often, they choose her. Or, rather, an actor who wants to do them chooses her. This was true as far back as Ashes by David Rudkin, an early hit for MTC in the 1970s. "Brian Murray and Roberta Maxwell really wanted to do it," remembered Meadow. So she did it. "I did The Tale of the Allergist's Wife because I knew Charles Busch and Charles said, 'Will you do my play?'" Meadow said she would if they found the right person for the lead. They did: Linda Lavin. The same year MTC did Allergist's Wife, they produced Proof, a play by an unknown named David Auburn. "The script department said to me, we would like to commission a writer named David Auburn. I said, 'I'd like to read his work.' They gave me Proof. I read it, and said, 'What's wrong with this play? Let's do this.'" The play went on to a two-year Broadway run, a tour, a film and a Pulitzer Prize.
Auburn returns to MTC and the Broadway stage this season for the first time since Proof. It's been a wait of more than a decade, during which Auburn has written a few films, a one-act or two, done some adaptations and taken up directing.
"To have that kind of acclaim, your first time out of the box…," pondered Meadow. "I think David was careful. I think he's a careful, thoughtful man. I'm not sure he felt he had to come back with something to prove something. I think he wanted to write what he wanted to write."
The play, The Columnist, is about a powerful mid-20th-century journalist with a secret. John Lithgow will play the title role. It's Lithgow's MTC debut, and it is a long time in coming. Meadow first asked him to do an MTC play back in 1972, when the director began hearing about a brilliant young actor doing some good work downtown. "He was busy at the time," said Meadow. "I told him recently, 'I've been stalking you since 1973.' I've asked him to do a lot of roles over the years."
A few seasons ago, Meadow did something she hadn't done since the early 1970s — spend some time away from the theatre. She took a sabbatical from MTC. The original plan was to visit other theatres around the country and see what they were up to; artistic directors rarely get the chance to see work beyond their own stages. But she ended up not seeing a single play. "What I needed was to think of other things. I read a lot of novels. I read a lot about India. I took a trip to India. I opened up my spirit to other things. It's such tunnel vision in the theatre." Still, she seems to be glad to be back in that tunnel. "I think I'm a lifer," she admitted. "I don't think I'm going to sit in Miami and play Mahjong."