"Can I have a glass of red wine?" called Paul Libin from a corner booth at Sardi's second-floor bar. He said it loud enough for the entire room to hear, let alone the bartender, who was about 50 feet away, and smiled at the request. Anyone who knows Libin isn't going to begrudge him this shortcut to service. He's a familiar-enough face on Broadway. He long ago earned the right to shed shyness in Sardi's, or any other watering hole of like theatrical pedigree.
Libin has had a caricature on Sardi's walls for many years. It's down in the main dining room — a sign of how he rates in the Broadway world. (Many stars and power brokers of yesteryear are buried in little-visited rooms on the upper floors of the building.) Libin is executive vice president of Jujamcyn Theatres, which owns five Broadway houses. Prior to joining that organization in 1990, he was producing director of Circle in the Square for 27 years. With Ted Mann, he presented hundreds of shows at the nonprofit's house on East 50th Street. And prior to that, he was an Off-Broadway force — not just at Circle in the Square, but as a producer of various other Off-Broadway attractions. Along the way, he's put in time as a director, lighting designer, technical director, stage manager, managing director, company manager and general manager.
This means that a lot of people know Paul Libin, and Paul Libin knows a lot of people. During our 90-minute conversation, he paused frequently to acknowledge various theatre professionals who had just entered the room. Sometimes he sees producer Emanuel Azenberg in this restaurant. "We point at each other and say, 'The Last of the Mohicans,'" said Libin.
Azenberg (who was the subject of Playbill.com's first Second Floor of Sardi's feature) is one one of the few people in New York theatre with a resume and memory bank to rival Libin's. The Libin roots go back to the early 1950s, when he moved to town with dreams of becoming an actor. He saw George C. Scott, Jason Robards and James Dean on stage before they were George C. Scott, Jason Robards and James Dean. He's seen all three of Broadway's J. Pierrepont Finches. He saw the first, Robert Morse, before he was Finch. "I was at a party around 1956 when Bobby Morse jumped on a piano and started singing," he recalled. "He had such amazing energy." Libin didn't actually get to meet Morse until this year, at the 2011 Tony Awards ceremony. He expressed his admiration for the actor and reminded him of his impromptu piano performance. "I think there was a glimmer of recognition there," said Libin.
By Broadway standards, Libin is a modest man. He'll downplay his experience, saying there are others with just as much, naming such theatre lifers as Jimmy Nederlander Sr., Phil Smith of the Shubert Organization and Bernie Gersten of Lincoln Center Theater. And he has no interest in writing his memoirs. But occasionally he'll step up and take credit where credit is due. At the time of our talk, the Broadway League, the trade organization of theatre producers, was hammering out a new contract with Actors' Equity. "I think I've probably negotiated more Equity contracts than anyone alive," he said, and then named a long list of now-forgotten Equity officers whom he'd faced across the negotiating table. I'd be surprised if anyone disputed the claim.
The theatre bug bit Libin, suddenly and unexpectedly, during a performance of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman at Chicago's Erlanger Theatre. Thomas Mitchell was playing Willy Loman. Libin was on a double date. "I was dumbfounded by what I saw on stage," he recalled. Then came intermission, when he discovered his date wasn't nearly as moved. "I was appalled," he remembered, "that they could be discussing anything other than what we had just seen on stage!" His date's standing fell sharply. They never went out again.
On the way out of the theatre, he glimpsed Mitchell, hat jammed low over his eyes, attempting a quiet exit through the stage door. "Willy Loman is alive," he said. Mitchell looked up, then walked away. Libin thought to himself, "I want to do that."
His parents weren't exactly enthused with their son's career choice. But neither were they opposed. It was something, after all. Libin grew up in the then-tough neighborhood of Humboldt Park, where the constant threat of gangs caused him and his fellow Jewish teens to form their own posse for protection. "We'd go around and ask people, 'Do you know where's there's a Jewish delicatessen?' If they said yes, we'd beat them. That was our test for anti-Semitism — 'How do you know it's a Jewish deli?!' If they said no, they didn't know where one was, we left them alone."
But when he saw one of his buddies robbing a victim after a beating, he knew things were heading in the wrong direction. He left for New York and studied acting at Columbia University. (Libin retained a bit of his street-fighting cred as a theatre man. He is one of the few people in the theatre to have decked the famously volcanic George C. Scott — an act that earned him the giddy congratulations of Shubert president Bernard Jacobs.)
A second play by Miller played a second pivotal role in Libin's career. As his acting career was not catching fire, he ventured into stage management and, eventually, producing. (To this day, Libin has held on to his Equity card, and pays his dues to the union every year.) One day, he walked past the Hotel Martinique on Broadway and Sixth Avenue and saw a sign advertising a space for lease. He looked it over and thought it might work as a theatre. The owner wasn't exactly excited about the idea, but said he'd think it over. The play Libin had in mind was The Crucible. He called Miller's agent and was told that playwright would have to approve the space. Miller showed up with his then wife, Marilyn Monroe.
"I thought, this might help me," recalled Libin. "The owner was a tough character. I introduced him to Miller; I don't think he had any idea who he was." Then Libin played his trump. "I said, 'And this is his wife.' His jaw just dropped. His hands went limp." Miller liked Libin's idea for the production. It wasn't long before the owner was pleading, "So, when are we going to make that deal?" "I think he was hoping he'd see Marilyn again at the opening."
The show featured Ann Wedgeworth and Barbara Barrie, then unknown. Libin has seen his share of stars-in-the-making over the years. Still, he doesn't think he has the ability to spot a star right off. A great actor, though — that he can recognize.
"When I got to New York," he told, "I went to see a production of Yerma at the old Circle in the Square space." The stars were Miriam Green and Sydney Stevens, but he became transfixed by the actress played the bit part of an old lady. "I was from this world of summer stock when young people had to pretend to be old, putting silver in their hair and affecting stooped walks. I looked at this actress and thought, 'This is why I came to New York. Real actors playing their age.'"
He dug up some information on the actress who played the old crone. Geraldine Page was her name. She was 27.
"That's a good actor," said Libin. "When I first saw George C. Scott or Colleen Dewhurst, I didn't think, he or she's going to be a star. I thought, there's an actor who's always going to work."
Actors have, on occasion, ensured that Libin continues to work. During his many years running the Circle in the Square, he was famous in the industry for pulling the ever-cash-strapped company's fat out of the fire again and again. Once he did so by getting Paul Newman to co-sign on a multi-thousand-dollar loan.
Libin eventually paid the loan back. That day, proud of his achievement, he excitedly called Newman to say he had important news. Newman was busy filming "The Verdict" in Long Island City, and said to come on over. When they met, Libin proudly handed Newman a copy of the paid-in-full document. "He glanced at me with those great eyes," said Libin. "'What's this?' he asked. I told him I'd paid back the loan he co-signed. He said, 'You know, I've signed a lot of these over the years. I never got back one of these things.'"
Newman wasn't exactly a stage stalwart; his Broadway appearances can be counted on one hand. But Libin has such a repertoire of stories that he easily draws on a second Newman yarn. It goes like this. One day, when Joanne Woodward was acting in a Circle production of Candida, her famous husband visited the theatre. Word reached Libin in his office, and he quickly hustled over to greet the great man. He found Newman in conversation with his wife, Florence. The producer walked over and broke in on the confab.
Later, his wife gave him a piece of advice. "She told me, 'Next time you see me alone with Paul Newman—don't you dare interrupt us!'"