By Robert Simonson
17 Dec 2002
"It's kind of the end of the era," said Johnson, "but we've had a great run."
"They dominated casting on Broadway for 25 years and worked with the greatest producers and directors of our time," said Tara Rubin, who began her career at Johnson-Life.
Though Johnson-Liff has handled high-brow plays such as Tom Stoppard's Night and Day and Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions, it is best known for its connection to the mega-musicals of the 1980s. The company cast the New York productions all four of producer Cameron Mackintosh's mammoth hits: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. It was also charged will peopling Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Song and Dance, Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard. Before Cats, Mackintosh had never before produced in the U.S., and Johnson and Liff actively pursued his business after seeing the unique musical in London.
"They had the unique and enviable position of handling all those long-running shows that came over from the UK," said Rubin. "That kind of thing will probably never happen again."
Johnson-Liff's dominance in its field dimmed in recent years with the end of the British musical era and the closing of Cats and Miss Saigon. Les Miz is due to shutter in March, leaving the firm with only two major accounts, Phantom and The Producers.
Additionally, former Johnson-Liff associate Tara Rubin left the fold in April 2001 to form her own casting company. Rubin now represents Imaginary Friends, Flower Drum Song, Metamorphoses and Mamma Mia!.
Johnson-Liff's future prowess in the world of big Broadway musicals was seen with its first major client, 1975's The Wiz. Another long running entertainment, Ain't Misbehavin', followed in 1978. A spate of important plays, many produced Elizabeth McCann and Nell Nugent, came next: The Elephant Man, Morning's at Seven, Amadeus and The Dresser. Then came Dreamgirls in 1981. Cats arrived the next year, quickly followed by other long-lived British imports.
Johnson-Liff's major successes of the 1990s were Victor/Victoria, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate. Contact and The Producers were its final major casting assignments.
In the 1960s, Geoffrey Johnson worked out of producer David Merrick's office as a stage manager and casting director. He was also Noel Coward's U.S representative during the last years of the playwright's life. Johnson first met Vincent Liff when the latteró15 years Johnson's juniorówould visit his famous uncle, agent Biff Liff, at the Merrick office. Geoffrey and Vincent met again as employees at Otto & Windsor, one of the first independent theatrical casting agencies. Linda Otto and Geri Windsor, two former Merrick casting directors, ran the office. When the company's two partners decided to decamp for California, Liff convinced Johnson to open up their own office.
The story of the formation of Johnson-Liff was told this way in Back Stage, the trade weekly:
"The birth of Johnson-Liff can be attributed to two fortuitous phone calls: one for Geoff and one for Vinnie. Taken together, the calls changed the two men's lives and made their careers.
"'She was a very demanding lady,' Johnson says of his former boss, Geri Windsor, who headed the East Coast office, where he worked. 'I used to have these terrible telephone fights with her. One night, I had worked something like 10 hours that day on three television pilots, and three major names had turned down these pilots. And she asked, 'Why did they turn them down?' and I said, 'Because the [pilots] are not very good. Why would anybody with integrity want to do them?' So she said,'You can't talk about these pilots like that,' as if she'd written them, and she started yelling at me. I said... 'Geri, stop yelling or I'm going to hang up the phone and walk out of here.' She didn't stop yelling. Johnson walked out of Otto & Windsor's New York office and never went back. Liff, however, stayed on, and eventually ran the office... Then came a call from Porter Van Zandt.
"'At the time [general manager Van Zant] was handling the Broadway transfer of this little show called The Robber Bridegroom,' recalls Liff. 'He said, "We'd like you to cast it." And I said, "Well, let me call Geri and ask her if she'd be interested in having us do it." He said, "No, you're misunderstanding me. We want you to cast it." So then I really had to make some major decisions.... I felt that I wanted to be on a team with someone. And I was eager to have Geoff be that person. I think there was a part of Geoff at the time that thought I was this 25-year-old upstart. But I finally talked him into it.'"
The company's first receptionist was future Broadway producer Scott Rudin.
From the years 1986 to 1993, the firm was known as Johnson-Liff & Zerman, in recognition of colleague Andrew M. Zerman, who is still with the company.
"When we went into business, there were maybe two or three independent casting directors for theatre," remembered Johnson. "Now there are a lot out there and very good ones like Tara Rubin and Bernie Telsey."
Rubin will assume the Producers account, while Johnson Liff associate Jamibeth Margulies will continue with Les Miz and Phantom.