By Mervyn Rothstein
26 Oct 2007
When John Breglio was growing up on Long Island, he wanted more than anything to be in show business. Then he went to Harvard Law School. And for the last 36 years, the New York theatre world has been thrilled that he did.
Breglio is an entertainment lawyer, one of the most influential and successful in the business. He is a partner, and head of the entertainment department, at the prestigious law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. He has represented or been involved in the production of hundreds of plays and musicals, including A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, Fences, Proof, Doubt, La Cage aux Folles and Sunday in the Park With George. His clients have included some of the most famous names on the New York stage, among them Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, August Wilson, Marvin Hamlisch, Bernadette Peters — and Michael Bennett, who was also Breglio's good friend.
Recently, Breglio, the sole executor of Bennett's will, stepped out of his legal role and became a Broadway producer — of the current hit revival of A Chorus Line, Bennett's masterpiece.
And yet Breglio readily admits that when he entered Harvard Law, there was no way he could have foreseen how his career would turn out. "I had no intention of practicing law, of being a corporate or tax lawyer," Breglio recalls. "I had trained as a musician, studied piano, been involved in the theatre in public school and high school and as an undergraduate at Yale. I had figured I would be a director, or maybe a producer."
His childhood, first in Astoria, Queens, then in Garden City, on Long Island, had been "typically middle class" — his father was a mechanical engineer "who worked very hard his whole life." But his parents loved to sing — "they were very musical, and they loved musical theatre, which they introduced me to at a very early age."
His first Broadway show, at age ten, was Damn Yankees. "My parents were good Catholics. They never cursed at home. There was a controversy over whether they should take me to see Damn Yankees, whether it was something for a ten-year-old boy. But they decided they really wanted to see the show, so they took me."
That decision, he says, led to "the end of any hope that I would somehow escape this business. After I saw the show, I became obsessed with the performing arts. I wanted to do everything — act, sing, direct, play the piano." And he pretty much did. At Yale, he devoted much of his time to the college's Dramatic Association.
But when he graduated, in 1968, he "tried to do a self-assessment. I felt I really could not make a living as a performer or a director. I realized it could be a really brutal existence. It was the time of Vietnam. I didn't know what to do, so I decided to try law school. I thought it was a discipline I might like, even though I had no intention of working as a lawyer."
Then, one day, he opened The New York Times, "and there was an article on Paul, Weiss and entertainment lawyers. It was a profile of John Wharton — a founder of the firm and the dean of entertainment lawyers. I'd never heard of an entertainment lawyer. I thought, 'Maybe this is something I can do that would include my love of theatre and the arts.' I went for an interview, and in 1970 I became a summer intern. And it just seemed a natural fit. It was a revelation to me that I could actually practice law and help people, represent people, in the arts."
At that time, Paul, Weiss already had "an enormous practice in the arts. They had all the icons, all the names I had read about and revered my whole life — Joe Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Arthur Miller — and a lot of the great producers of the time, including Robert Whitehead, Morton Gottlieb and Roger Stevens. It was an enormously diverse practice. John Wharton was the architect of all the financing documents that are still used today."
Then Breglio met Michael Bennett. "He became my closest friend and best client. It was during Seesaw. And then came Chorus Line. And the rest is history."
Bennett, he says, "was one of the most captivating, almost mesmerizing, human beings I've ever met. He was someone who just looked right into your eyes. He had an innate sense of what made people tick, what drove them, what was interesting to them, what they loved in life. Michael thought in terms of family. People were father figures or brother figures. I was a little younger, so I became a brother figure. With all of his incredible, innate talents, he was insecure when it came to business. And somehow or other, we just clicked from the beginning."
Understanding people, Breglio says, "was Bennett's great talent as a director. He understood everybody. He could sense their Achilles' heel, or what they needed to accomplish for themselves, and he drove people to give performances beyond anything they thought they could ever do. He could also be brutal if he had to. He could be a tyrant."
It was, of course, the connection to Bennett that led Breglio to become a producer of last season's Chorus Line revival, which quickly became a critical and financial success. "In a way I had no choice but to produce the revival," Breglio says. "I'm Michael's executor, so he entrusted me with the show — with the admonition in his will that I should always confer with Bob Avian, his associate."
About six years ago, producers started calling Breglio, hoping to revive the musical. "But I felt it was premature. Then, about three years ago, I began to feel that the time was right. I wanted to take advantage of people who are still around like Bob Avian and Baayork Lee and Robin Wagner" — the original production's co-choreographer, Connie and scenic designer, respectively — "I didn't want to lose them if I waited any longer. And I particularly wanted to redo it for a whole new generation that didn't have any idea of what A Chorus Line was like."
And he decided that the only way to do it was to do it himself. "I and the creative people knew the show better than anyone else. If I handed it over to someone else and it didn't work, I would have blamed myself, asked myself why I had done that. But if I produced it myself and it didn't work, well, I could at least say I'd given it my best shot."
Among his proudest achievements, Breglio says, is the work he has done advising not-for-profit theatre companies and organizations, including the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Actors Fund of America, Manhattan Theatre Club, Second Stage, Playwrights Horizons, the Roundabout Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre of Chicago.
Not-for-profit theatres "are the mainstays for so many commercial producers, and certainly for playwrights," he says. "They're mutually dependent. The commercial and not-for-profit theatre could not survive without each other. I'm proud of the models I've developed over the last 30 years or so of the ways they can work together, with shows like Proof and Doubt — and A Chorus Line — that have started at the not-for-profits and become huge successes on Broadway, providing funds to keep the not-for-profits going."
He is also justifiably proud of the work he has done with creative artists like August Wilson — "who never had an agent; he just used me."
Breglio is also a former chairman of the Theatre Development Fund and serves on the boards of several not-for-profit corporations, including the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the Alliance for the Arts and the John Golden Fund.
So what's next for the 61-year-old lawyer and producer? "Producing Chorus Line was such a completely satisfying experience for me, and I'm smart enough to know that something like it is never going to happen again. So I'm not going to produce again just for the sake of producing. It's not going to be just a job. I want to search for a show, either a play or a musical — it doesn't have to be a musical — and see if I can find something that attracts me viscerally.
"If it as much as possible provides the excitement and the passion I felt with Chorus Line, then I'll produce it."