Marty Richards, Tony-Winning Broadway and Film Producer, Dies at 80

By Robert Simonson
26 Nov 2012

Marty Richards
Marty Richards
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Marty Richards, a stage and film producer who was among the backers of the Academy Award-winning 2002 film of the musical Chicago, and whose Broadway credits included Sweeney Todd, Crimes of the Heart and La Cage aux Folles, died Nov. 26. He was 80.

A flamboyant and effusive man who relished the good life, and had the money to bankroll it, Marty Richards was known as a great talker, a font of showbiz stories, and a thrower of opulent parties (Cy Coleman would perform alongside Neil Sedaka). He was also an open admirer of talent, his fascination with artists he respected never dimming. "I've always been terribly intimidated by Stephen Sondheim's genius, and I was afraid to approach him," he once said. "But he's the least stubborn composer. If you need another song, he just goes home and writes one and brings it back the next day."

As a producer, he could be tenacious. The Oscar for Chicago was hard-won. Mr. Richards began his quest to convert the Bob Fosse-directed Kander and Ebb musical, about a couple of merry Chicago murderesses who love the spotlight, into a film shortly after the show premiered on Broadway in 1975. Miramax optioned the movie rights to Chicago from Richards in 1991. Ten years later, the film was finally made. Mr. Richards was ever-present, arriving early in the morning every day of the shoot and leaving last, and fighting with the creators when he felt they were diverting from Fosse's original vision.

He was born Morton Richard Klein, the son of Sid Klein, a stockbroker, and Shirly Klein, a housewife, in The Bronx. His parents, noticing their son's fine voice, enrolled him in the Marie Moses School of Dance and Singing. His classmates included Donna Reed and Rita Moreno. When he was 10, he was cast in the 1944 musical comedy Mexican Hayride. His voice changed at age 13, however, and the opportunities dried up. Still, he persevered, singing in nightclubs under the name Martin Richards, while he studied architecture at NYU.



He soon quit school to pursue performing full-time, getting small parts in television shows and movies. In the early '60s, he made a career shift, becoming a casting director, working for Fox and Paramount, casting bit players in films shot in Manhattan.

He struck out on his own as a producer in 1972, raising the money for an Off-Broadway show called Dylan. The play won an Obie Award. The producers Robert Fryer and James Cresson were impressed and invited him to help out on Chicago. Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon didn't particularly like the over-eager newcomer. But when the show was delayed by Fosse's heart attack, and Mr. Richards kept the cast together by finding them temporary jobs, Fosse was appreciative. A friendship was born.

Around this time, Mr. Richards met Band-Aid heiress Mary Lea Johnson, daughter of Seward Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson empire. Johnson and her then husband, Victor D'Arc, were interested in investing in theatre and movie projects, and turned to Mr. Richards for help. Together, Johnson and Mr. Richards founded Producer Circle Co. in 1976. When Johnson divorced D'Arc, she stayed with Mr. Richards. Though she knew he was gay, they married in 1978, eventually living in separate apartments in the same building. The union, by all accounts a happy one, afforded him a luxurious lifestyle. As a wedding gift, she gave him a Southampton estate on the beach with a swimming pool and a tennis court. Johnson died in 1990.

The first hit show that Mr. Richards and Johnson co-produced was On the Twentieth Century. Mr. Richards subsequently won Tony Awards for The Norman Conquests, Sweeney Todd, La Cage aux Folles, The Will Rogers Follies, The Life and the 2005 Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles. Less successful were A Doll's Life, Rockabye Hamlet, Grind, Mayor, Goodbye Fidel and Roza.

Following the news of Mr. Richards' passing, director Harold Prince, who directed Sweeney Todd, A Doll's Life, Grind and Roza, told Playbill.com, "It seems I've known Marty Richards forever. He and Mary Lea were a wonderful producing team. They loved the projects on which they worked and managed them expertly. As for their friendship — priceless."

Chita Rivera's biographical Broadway show, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, was produced by Mr. Richards in 2005. She said in a statement this week, "With Marty gone, he has taken a piece of myself with him. What a privilege to have shared a part of his flamboyant history. Through Marty and his courageous eye and infallible taste, I have inherited gifts I had never imagined would come my way. I loved him dearly and will miss him every day of my life. I have lost a great friend."

Mr. Richards was also a generous philanthropist. He, along with his late wife, was instrumental in founding Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Meals on Wheels. He went on to establish the liver and kidney transplant unit at the NYU Medical Center which bears his wife's name. Mr. Richards also created the New York Center for Children to care for abused children and their families.

He is survived by his brother Bruce Klein, his niece Lisa Kirschner and nephew Sean Klein.  Other family survivors include Mrs. Elaine Johnson Wold, Diana Johnson Firestone, and J. Seward Johnson, Jr. 

Funeral services will be held at Frank Campbell Funeral Chapel at 1076 Madison Avenue.  Visitation hours will be Wednesday, Nov. 28 from 7-9 PM and Thursday, Nov. 29 from 2-4 PM and 7-9 PM.