When Rocco Landesman was growing up in St. Louis, his dad and his uncle owned the Crystal Palace, a cabaret theatre, and the young Rocco got to know some of its stars—Barbra Streisand, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Lenny Bruce.
"When I came to New York and began my career, I reminded Mike Nichols that I knew him when I was ten years old," Landesman says. "Mike didn't want to hear about it. It made him feel old."
These days, Landesman is president of Jujamcyn Theatres, which owns and runs five Broadway playhouses—the St. James, the Eugene O'Neill, the Al Hirschfeld, the Walter Kerr and the August Wilson. He has held that job for 19 years, and for even longer than that has been an active Broadway producer. So instead of just getting to know the stars, Landesman has for two decades helped create them.
These are just some of the hits Landesman has backed: the award-winning plays Doubt, Proof, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Angels in America, The Grapes of Wrath and The Piano Lesson; the Tony-winning musicals The Producers and Big River; the Tony-winning revivals of Guys and Dolls, Sweeney Todd, Nine and Kiss Me, Kate; the Tony-winning revival of Death of a Salesman; and this year, his August Wilson Theatre is home to the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, Jersey Boys. Last year, when Jujamcyn's chairman, James Binger, died, Landesman bought the five theatres.
"I think Jujamcyn has been a leader in innovation and in the changes that have come to Broadway," Landesman says. "One of the things I set out to do right away was to set up Jujamcyn along the model of a resident institutional theatre within the commercial arena. I brought in Jack Viertel as creative director and Jerry Zaks as resident director. Now all the Broadway theatre operators use that same model."
He has also signaled change by renaming three of his theatres for prominent figures of recent decades—the former Virginia for Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright; the former Ritz for Kerr, the renowned critic; and the former Martin Beck for Hirschfeld, the classic Broadway caricaturist.
In addition, Landesman says, "with premium pricing for the best seats, we've certainly changed forever the way Broadway theatre tickets are sold. It's been a major change in the way Broadway does business."
What is it that attracts Landesman to the theatre? "The fact that it's live," he says. "And by definition, anything that's live has a quality of unpredictability. You never know quite what's going to happen. And theatre often has the fastest turnaround of any of the art forms. Consider how long it can take to bring a movie to the screen, or to write a novel. You can often get an idea and have it onstage in months, not years. That's very seductive for someone with my metabolism."
What he also loves, he says, is "the risk factor. It's the same metabolic issue. Part of my enjoyment is not knowing whether you're going to win or lose. Theatre is as risky a venture as I can imagine outside of racing horses."
His love for theatre, of course, also traces back to the Crystal Palace and that St. Louis childhood. Landesman tried acting in high school and college, and went to the Yale School of Drama and earned a doctorate in criticism and dramatic literature. But "when it came an end to my time at drama school, I had no idea what I wanted to do," he says. "No clue. So I went to Robert Brustein, the dean, and said to him that he didn't have any junior faculty, so he should hire me to teach. And he did. I became an assistant professor."
Landesman left Yale in 1977 and, for a while, pretty much was out of the theatre. He chose two perfect vocations for someone who loves risk—the stock market and horse racing. He ran a string of racehorses and a small hedge fund.
But he kept an interest in the stage—his wife at the time, Heidi Ettinger, whom he had met at Yale, was a designer and producer. And together, they decided to produce Big River, the musical based on Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" that opened on Broadway in 1985. In 1987, they did Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. Both of which were booked into Jujamcyn theatres. Owned by Binger. Who also owned many racehorses.
"How Jim and I really got to know each other was at the race track," Landesman says. "And then one day in 1987 he took me to lunch on the East Side. The only shows he had in his theatres were my shows. Big River was playing, and Into the Woods was coming in. He asked me if I wanted to run his company. I said sure. I didn't hesitate. He asked me when I wanted to start. I said right after Labor Day. I never even asked what the salary would be. I knew it would be an exciting challenge."
Do any of his shows stand out as favorites? "I'm as proud of Caroline, or Change," the Tony Kushner–Jeanine Tesori musical, "as anything I've done," he says. "Big River was my first and will always be my favorite. And The Producers was the most fun—and the most lucrative."
These days Landesman doesn't own racehorses anymore—"but I still bet on them."
He loves his theatre job, he says, and plans to stay around for a while.
"I still enjoy the hurly-burly of the shows, and being involved in them," he says. "And owning theatres is great, especially for someone who is getting older. It's something I'll be able to do for quite a while. You don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm getting too old to be a theatre owner.'"