A Life in the Theatre: Emanuel Azenberg

By Mervyn Rothstein
24 Sep 2004

Emanuel Azenberg
Emanuel Azenberg

Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft

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Call him Manny.

Yes, his name is Emanuel Azenberg, but to just about everyone in the world of New York theatre, he’s Manny.

Manny is a producer, and in his more than 45 years on Broadway, he has presented nearly 60 plays and musicals, among them The Lion in Winter, Children of a Lesser God, The Real Thing and Sunday in the Park With George. Not to mention every Neil Simon play since 1972, including The Sunshine Boys, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost in Yonkers. His productions have won 41 Tony Awards and 134 nominations.



“I love Manny’s honesty,” Simon says. “Playwrights are very fragile. We don’t have to be pampered. We need to be talked to in a very honest and intelligent way. And Manny has always been able to do that with me.”

Manny was born in 1934 in the Bronx, the son of Joshua Charles Azenberg, the manager of a labor-Zionist organization, and Hannah Kleiman Azenberg. He grew up in a $77-a-month apartment on 156th Street near the Grand Concourse. He attended the Bronx High School of Science—and he first became interested in the theatre when he went to see John Garfield in 1948 in a play called Skipper Next to God by Jan de Hartog.

“My uncle was in it,” Manny recalls—his uncle, Wolfe Barzell, played a rabbi. “He started in the Yiddish theatre and moved uptown. And I met John Garfield. I went backstage. And I somehow must have thought, ‘If you can make a living doing this you don’t have to work.’”

But it wasn’t only because of his uncle. “Everybody in the Bronx went to the theatre,” Manny says, sitting in his office above the Neil Simon Theatre on West 52nd Street surrounded by photos of his family, friends and colleagues—Manny with his friend, former Senator Bill Bradley; Manny with Israeli politician Shimon Peres—and a sizable collection of original Hirschfeld drawings for many of Manny’s plays and musicals.

“The theatre is where you went when you went on a date,” he says. “Ticket prices were 90 cents and $1.20 and $1.80, and a heavy date on a Saturday night was $2.40. It was part of growing up in New York.”

He won a theatre award at Bronx Science, and after studying at New York University’s old University Heights campus and spending time in the Army as a first lieutenant in the infantry, he set out for Manhattan and the world of the stage. “When I came out of the Army, I thought if I could work in the theatre, not as an actor but as something, I could really enjoy it. It was the idea of actually enjoying the day.”

His first real Broadway job, he says, was as assistant company manager in 1959, at $60 a week, for The Legend of Lizzie, a play at the 54th Street Theatre about Lizzie Borden that starred Anne Meacham. “It ran for two nights,” he says. “And I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

Then he worked for legendary producer David Merrick for three-and-a-half years—on 22 Broadway shows—and for the equally legendary producer Alexander Cohen, before teaming up with Eugene Wolsk in 1966 to produce The Lion in Winter with Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, followed almost immediately by Mark Twain Tonight! with Hal Holbrook. In 1972, he produced his first Simon play, The Sunshine Boys. The next year he formed his own company, Iron Mountain Productions.

He first met Simon in 1963. “I played softball with Robert Redford on a play called Sunday in New York when I worked for Merrick,” Manny recalls, “and when Redford came to New York to do Barefoot in the Park we also had a softball team. I played shortstop and Redford played first base and Neil Simon played second base.”

Of all his shows, he has several favorites. “The ones I have a real feeling about include Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Real Thing, Side Show and Mark Twain Tonight! There’s a line in one of Neil’s plays where the grandfather turns to the two young writers and says, ‘Remember, it has to be about something.’ These plays were about something. I could almost recite passages from Mark Twain to this day. The Real Thing was more about relationships than all the psychology I’ve ever read. Brighton Beach Memoirs recalls everybody’s childhood and really made me laugh. And Side Show”—the 1997 musical about Siamese twins—“was something I should have not let my emotions get carried away on, but I did—its sensibility, and the pain of its failure.”

Nearly 20 years ago, Manny told The New York Times how he saw his role as a producer: “I am not a deep thinker. I am not a writer, though I recognize good ideas when I see them. I am there to service people. A producer creates an atmosphere—or tries to—that is genuinely comfortable, so the best creative work can take place. You try to keep peace, because there are so many disparate groups within the theatre.” He said he would produce a play only if it moved him. “First is the visceral reaction,” he said. “Then comes the intellectual reaction. Then there’s a fraudulent part of me that says, ‘Will this make me look good?’ Economics come only then.”

These days he puts it this way: “Remember, I come from a different time. In those days you actually just read the plays and said, ‘I’m going to do them.’ And you were judged by the material you chose to produce. And then there are the mechanics, administrative and managerial, of actually doing it. Which can be judged by the fact that so many of these shows actually paid off. And then there’s something else—the need to create an atmosphere of community and non-antagonism, with the stagehands, the musicians, the actors, so that the show maintains itself well.”

“You try to maintain that equilibrium of money and art,” he says, “which Broadway always was, way back in the Gershwin, Cole Porter, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams days. Nobody talked about the money, although that’s what they wanted. But art came out of it.”

Manny has also taught theatre at Duke for 20 years. He is 70 now, and he plans to keep on. “I always wanted to stop. And I suppose one reason I keep going is that in my fifties, I had three children, and I didn’t know that the cost of grammar school was $40 million,” he says with a laugh.

“Another reason, I suppose, is habit. But it’s really about what’s on the stage. There are still moments, walking backstage, when you go, ‘Yeah!’”