Theatre Community Honors Impresario Gerald Schoenfeld

Theatre Community Honors Impresario Gerald Schoenfeld Hugh Jackman, Richard Griffiths, Betty Buckley, Donna Murphy and Helen Mirren were just a few who remembered, in song or story, the late Shubert Organization Chairman Gerald Schoenfeld.
Gerald Schoenfeld
Gerald Schoenfeld

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Gerald Schoenfeld, the late Chairman of the Shubert Organization, who died on Nov. 25, 2008, at the age of 84, packed them into a Shubert theatre one more time Feb. 9. So many members of the theatre community attended a memorial at the Majestic Theatre that such luminaries as Vanessa Redgrave, her daughter Natasha Richardson, her son-in-law Liam Neeson, Kevin Kline and New York Times columnist Frank Rich had to seek seating in the theatre's mezzanine.

The two-hour ceremony was hosted by actor Hugh Jackman, whose hit show, The Boy From Oz, played at the Shubert house, the Imperial Theatre. After first positioning an Avenue Q-style puppet likeness of Schoenfeld in a chair stage left, Jackson recalled that, for the former executive, the theatre "wasn't just the stars, which, frankly, for him, could be a bit of a pain in the neck. The theatre was the people who worked in it day in and day out: the ushers, the stagehands, the box- office workers. He knew all of them by name."

The event celebrated not only Schoenfeld — who ruled the powerful Shubert Organization for 35 years, many with the late Bernard Jacobs — but the shows he loved. The sometimes "hard-as-nails" man of business also had many a cause célèbre, among them the musicals Chess and Amour. Neither did well on Broadway, but Schoenfeld never lost his faith in them. Melissa Errico, an original star of Amour, was on hand to sing "Somebody" from that musical, while Brian d'Arcy James sang "Anthem" from Chess. Also representing the latter show were two of its creators, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, and the co-producer of the 1988 Broadway run, Robert Fox. All three remembered Schoenfeld's devotion to the success of the show, despite the many disappointments of the rocky New York run.

"He brought enthusiasm, wisdom and fun to a business that sorely needed it," said Fox. Ulvaeus remembered Schoenfeld as a man for whom "a handshake was enough. That is so rare. I have not encountered it since." Expressing regret that the theatre owner never got to see the vindicating revival of Chess he so hoped to produce, the songwriter said he hoped "the success of Mamma Mia! is my way of thanking Jerry for his support of Chess." Mayor Michael Bloomberg recalled the "forceful personality" of the man who, he said, had "the best parking spot in the city." (That would be on Shubert Alley.) Schoenfeld, said Bloomberg, often let him know in no uncertain terms how important Broadway was to New York City. And his requests were often hard to turn down. "I don't know how many times I heard him argue that there ought to be a right-turn signal off 44th Street and Broadway. If there ever is one, it may be the only turn signal in the city to be named after a person."

"Right now," continued the Mayor, "Jerry is busy creating new shows with Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. And he's arguing with God about air rights. And God knows he won't hear the end of it."

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the not-for-profit Public Theater, quoted one of Schoenfeld's favorite sayings, "There's no profit like non-profit." But he admitted that the Shubert Chairman had helped the Public a great deal over the years, not least of all when he helped bring the theatre's production of A Chorus Line to Broadway and, most recently, when he ushered the unconventional Stew show Passing Strange to Times Square.

Eustis recalled Schoenfeld, arguing for a script change in Passing Strange, saying, "No great show can end with a funeral." "Of course he was wrong," said Eustis. "All great shows end with a funeral. Or with a memorial. And certainly Jerry had a great run."

Marvin Hamlisch also reminisced about A Chorus Line, remembering being ordered by Joseph Papp to go to Schoenfeld's office and inspire him to give the Public enough money to save the show by playing a song from the score. Hamlisch recalled sitting at a decrepit piano deeply in need of a tuning. He played one chord, and the instrument collapsed to the floor. "That chord must have been enough," he said, "because Jerry gave us the money."

Broadway memorials usually boast a multitude of stars, but the Majestic event was more star-studded than most. Among the speakers were actors Richard Griffiths, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg and Priscilla Lopez; director James Lapine; composers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Hamlisch; and producer Bill Haber. There were also many performances. Donna Murphy sang "Farewell Letter" from Passion; Claudia Shear delivered the title song from her play with music, Dirty Blonde; Betty Buckley belted "Memory" from Cats; Lopez sang "What I Did for Love" from A Chorus Line; Stew and Heidi Rodewald sang "Keys" from Passing Strange; and Jackman gave voice to "Once Before I Go" from The Boy From Oz.

There was also one surprise performance. A film clip shown at the end of the event featured a sprightly hopeful who looked a lot like Schoenfeld. He delivered a spirited rendition of "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy. The name "Jerry" flashed across his beaming face.

Gerald Schoenfeld and wife Pat
Gerald Schoenfeld and wife Pat Photo by Aubrey Reuben