STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: It's Miller Time -- Producing on a Shoestring

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: It's Miller Time -- Producing on a Shoestring Young producers tell me all the time. There's nothing out there to produce. It's too expensive. It can't be done without a dozen partners.

Young producers tell me all the time. There's nothing out there to produce. It's too expensive. It can't be done without a dozen partners.

Attend the tale of Mel Miller, who, back in the '50s, sure didn't expect to be theatrically producing after he was graduated from Bronx Science High School. Nevertheless, in the last year, he's put on the stage two vintage and underappreciated musicals, and, starting on June 16, will do a third: By the Beautiful Sea.

Miller looks like neither Broadway nor Hollywood's idea of a theatrical producer. He's pencil thin, from face to feet, and is no fashion plate. He has a nasal voice that would never be chosen for a luxury car national commercial. Yes, he went to any Ivy League school, but hardly Yale Drama: He was graduated from Columbia with a degree chemical engineering.

That led to a stint at Proctor and Gamble, before he got a job peddling computers for IBM, before he invented a tennis instructional device that didn't sell, before he started an automotive testing service that examined a car's exhaust system for hydrocarbons, before he conceived of an Internet coupon business with a partner who absconded with the funds.

Not the most usual or impressive resume for a producer. Not much of a theatrical pedigree, either. "My father died when I was three, and my mother knew bupkis about the theatre," he says frankly. (Miller never wants to be thought of as having the slightest pretense.) "Whenever I took my mother to the theatre, she always fell asleep." Like many producers, Miller did eventually get an MBA in business, but from Xavier in Ohio. That led to a job running focus groups for new projects -- for the next 22 years. He asked people on their reactions to products (Levis), companies (Charles Schwab), and institutions (Dime Savings Bank).

Finally, in 1998 -- "after knowing 300 questions to ask about bread" -- Miller found himself in his late 50s, and fully aware that he'd had enough jobs and bosses. Now it'd be Miller time. What did he really love?

Why, musicals, of course, from the time he saw Fiddler in 1964. "After that, I started buying all the soundtracks." (He means original cast albums. Miller is still, as you'll see, finding his way.)

Buoyed by the success of "Encores!," Miller thought that he too might try concert versions of musicals. "And so I started 'Musicals Tonight!'" he sings, to the tune of "Comedy Tonight."

Getting started wasn't easy. "I never heard of Tams-Witmark, or Music Theatre International," he says of the licensing houses. Instead, he went to his cache of cast albums, and looked at the most obscure that he liked. Like Let It Ride, Ray Livingston and Jay Evans' (and Abram S. Ginnes') adaptation of Three Men on a Horse that ran 68 performances in 1961-2.

"I made a lot of phone calls before somebody suggested I try the Dramatists Guild. They had the addresses to both Livingston and Evans. I didn't know if they were alive, or were still friends, but I wrote them, and they wrote back. On typewriters!

"They were the sweetest guys," he kvells. "They're in their 80s, living in California, have been partners since 1934, when they met at the University of California. They sent me the book, music, and lyrics."

Miller decided to do it -- but who'd direct? "I have to let other people do the work," he says, hands up, with a don't-look-at-me demeanor. "All I can do is write checks."

While Yalies rely on their school ties for connections, Miller's approach is decidedly more old world. "Well, my cousin's husband's best friend's father is Joe Stein. Is that right? Yeah -- my cousin's husband's best friend's father. Joe was working on a show called Miracles, and so was Tom Mills, a director he thought would be good for me." Miller even mentions that key pluses in hiring Mills was that "we both lived on the Upper West Side and could meet at a Starbucks near both our houses."

Miller also does well while just milling about, too. Once, when he was in a buffet line, he started talking about Let It Ride, and the person next to him told him about the New York Sheet Music Society.

Here's where we separate the men from the boys: When Miller hears of something, he doesn't forget it, but makes the phone calls. He joined the society, where he met Mark Hartman, who became his musical director.

A cast was rustled together, a June 1998 date was set, and Miller brought his marketing expertise to the fore. "Because Let It Ride wasn't a well-known show, I stressed that its authors wrote 'Tammy,' 'Mona Lisa,' 'Que Sera, Sera,' and 'Buttons and Bows.' Then I did guerrilla marketing, putting flyers on lampposts. I also put them in those places where other shows put their flyers -- and then found out there were services to handle just that type of advertising. They came around, took mine out, and threw them away."

Still, he sold half of the 99 seats at the Lamb's. Says the magnanimous Miller, "I lost $10,000, but it was a wonderful time and I had a transforming experience getting all these people together, and then watching it all come together. It was almost like Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker when she figured out what water meant."

He also enjoyed the smattering of star power. "Ray and Jay are friends with Robert Stack, so he came to see the show with them. In one song, 'I'll Learn Ya,' there's a lyric about Elliot Ness," he says, citing Stack's famous role on TV's "The Untouchables." "The crowd went wild. I love hearing the material go over, that immediate and stupendous audience reaction when they get the joke or love the song. One guy was laughing so hard I thought we'd have to give him mouth-to-mouth."

Miller didn't want it to be over. So he went back to his albums, especially looking for those that sported the name of his cousin's husband's best friend's father -- a/k/a Joe Stein. He fondly remembered listening to Stan Daniel's score for So Long, 174th Street, the 1976 musical version of Enter Laughing that lasted 16 performances at the Harkness, a theatre that has since been razed and now is a wall on which you can simulate climbing a mountain. (I am not making this up.)

Says Miller, "Joe told me he only had one copy of the libretto, and I said, 'I'll copy it and bring it right back.' And I did."

Miller found it worth the price of photocopying. "It was a hoot, charming, and drop-dead funny. I'm not into high art," he immediately feels the need to say. "I'm into a Let's-have-a-good-time-tonight-Mabel show that puts smiles on our faces. No Tony winners."

By this point, Miller had enrolled in the Commercial Theatre Institute, the town's premier producer of producers, albeit in its one-weekend course. "I met someone there I hadn't seen since Fire Island 20 years ago. 'I'm putting on a show,' I told her, and she said, 'Do you have a casting agent?' 'Are you kidding?' I told her, 'I can't afford pencils.' 'How about pro bono?' she said. 'That I can afford.'"

So Miller was put in touch with Steve De Angelis, who's occasionally been known to do pro bono casting. He signed on. Soon KT Sullivan and Jana Robbins did, too.

Miller was close to hiring an actor to play the George S. Irving role when -- here's his happenstance luck again -- he met someone who had Irving's phone number. "I called him and said it'd be fine with me if he just came on, and did 'The Butler's Song,'" he says, citing the notorious number in which a gentleman's gentleman cites all the sexual activities his master is enjoying with Hollywood starlets. "I told him he wouldn't have to deal with any rehearsal, and could get a big round of applause, and go off. And he said, 'No, I want to do the whole thing.'"

This March, Irving did just that at the American Place Sub-Plot Theatre, at a schedule as atypical as his background: "Sunday night, Monday matinee and evening, Tuesday matinee and early evening," Miller adds with pride.

Mills again directed. "He has a feel," says Miller. "Sometimes performers want to be macho and discard the books. But Tom lets them know that that hurts you because that conveys to the audience a level of expectation that we can't possibly deliver, not with our few days of rehearsal time."

This time, he almost sold out. "And I only lost $5,000," he says brightly. "I know, because I ran the box office, too. I think we did better because people saw the flyer, and said, 'Carl Reiner and $12, how bad can it be?'"

Now a shrink might make something of the fact that both shows, which respectively starred early '50s sensation George Gobel and early '60s sensation Robert Morse, had lead characters who are nebbish-like, a trait that could be applied to Miller. What's more, the show Miller wanted to do next -- Schwartz- Fields-Abbott-and-Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- has the quintessential dreamer as its lead.

But once Miller was told that it's being rewritten for a possible future New York engagement, he dropped the dream and opted for the next best thing: The next best show on which Arthur Schwartz, Dorothy (and Herbert) Fields, and George Abbott collaborated: By the Beautiful Sea. That's one with a larger-than-life heroine, which Shirley Booth originated, and which KT Sullivan will now recreate.

As he readies the reading, Miller suddenly finds that a number of people know who he is. "A radio personality from Kalamazoo sent me a tape of Beggars Holiday, a Duke Ellington musical. Then Michael Kerker (Director of Musical Theatre for ASCAP) helped me to learn about another one he wrote called Jump for Joy. Then Bruce Yeko (who produces Original Cast Records) wants me to do another Ellington show, Pousse-Cafe. Maybe I'll do all three! I'll do Look Ma, I'm Dancin' next spring. Hugh Martin sent me all the sheet music."

And despite that boost from his cousin's husband's best friend's father, Miller may do King of Hearts with the original book that Steve Tesich gave it before Joe Stein took over. "Peter Link bought back the rights lock, stock, and barrel, and got together with Tesich and (original director) A. J. Antoon before they died. I'd love to have George S. Irving and Maria Karnilova as the duke and the duchess. Every time I've seen them they've been arm-and-arm, and I'd love to see that love on stage, even for a nano-second, and hear all the applause they'd get."

Miller never loses sight of the fact that he's in the labor-of-love business. "I'm not anti-new musical, but that's not what I want to do. Besides, the shows I want to do are new musicals to 99.44 percent of the people in the world. I'm so honored that these creative geniuses entrust their babies to me. Stan Daniels has eight Emmys (many from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), and here he is dealing with me."

Not only that: Mel Miller's flyers for Musicals Tonight are now distributed by the official flyer service, and stay in the slots in which they're put.

For times, tickets, and location for By the Beautiful Sea, call (212) 362-5620.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com