Friends Remember Broadway Producer Randall Wreghitt as a Businessman With Heart

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16 Sep 2011

Randall L. Wreghitt
Randall L. Wreghitt
Aubrey Reuben

Randall L. Wreghitt, a dreamer and a believer who made theatre on Broadway under the generic title of Producer, had more friends than George Bailey, judging from the turnout that filed into and filled the Shubert Theatre Sept. 15 to celebrate this life well spent.

And, like that amiable Midwesterner that Jimmy Stewart played in "It's a Wonderful Life," Wreghitt made friends effortlessly, invisibly if you will, merely by touching lives in the chaotic process of producing for the New York stage. This was a world of iron wills and concrete, but he blithely negotiated his way through it with a broad smile and a countrified savoir faire that disarmed and charmed the jaded locals.

This was his Iowa roots talking, making great inroads with the sophisticated, cement set. He was born Sept. 20, 1955, in Mason City — what Meredith Willson would later rechristen River City — and his affable winning ways worked wonders in the big city.

"Oh, there's nothing halfway / About the Iowa way to treat you . . .," Karen Ziemba musically reminded the memorial gathering, using the opening lines of "Iowa Stubborn" to lead into "Till There Was You" from Willson's The Music Man.

The power of Iowan persuasion, if not seduction, was sprinkled liberally throughout the house in the tangible form of friends he'd made at virtually every stop in his life: from his rustic Midwestern childhood, to Iowa State University where he graduated in 1978, to Spencer, IA, where he was briefly a newspaper reporter, to Minneapolis where he had two theatre staff jobs. A life-long fan "of anything Disney," he hit his serious career stride in Orlando as Disney World's senior marketing representative.



It wasn't enough, so he ran off and joined the circus — the Big Apple Circus to do marketing. This got him to New York, and Off-Broadway soon followed with The Food Chain, Three Tall Women, The Waverly Gallery, Zombie Prom, As Bees in Honey Drown and The Boys in the Band.

In his dozen years on the case, he amassed 14 Broadway credits. He introduced Martin McDonagh to Broadway and got three of his plays into the Tony running (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West and The Lieutenant of Inishmore). He also got Tony consideration for original musicals (Grey Gardens and Little Women) and dramatic revivals (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Real Thing and Electra).

But what he really won was friends along the way, and conspicuous cases-in-point stepped up to the microphone to give testimony and tell favorite Wreghitt stories.

First to testify was Tovah Feldshuh. "Every mike I get to is made for Gulliver — why, God, why?" she groused, struggling to lower the mike to her level. Then: "I'm thrilled and saddened to be with you today, but thrilled and saddened, after all, is so Jewish."

Feldshuh gave a Tony-nominated performance of Golda Meir for Wreghitt in William Gibson's Golda's Balcony, and it logged up 493 performances at the Helen Hayes Theatre. "Being around Randall Wreghitt professionally was a joy — and led, of course, to a social relationship," she relayed. "He was so deeply skilled as a person of friendship — a person who simply loved being around other people of like mind and kind heart. Indeed, he was marvelously well bred. You could always count on Randall in any social situation. And I think those kinds of friends — particularly in our profession — are much needed relief for us. It's a kind of feeling of safety in a civilized man — a whole plate of cultured nobility. That was our Randall."

Sutton Foster, another of his Tony contenders (playing Jo March in his musicalization of Little Women), appeared on film at the memorial and sang Noel Coward's folk-like paean to hope, "Come the Wild, Wild Weather."

"Randall was an incredible producer and friend," she said. "He was always joyful and happy — always had a smile on his face, no matter what — which is kind of hard to come by with producers. I will miss him. So will the entire theatre community."

Bob Stillman delivered his song from Grey Gardens, "Drift Away," and Maureen McGovern re-created her big 11 o'clock number from Little Women, "Days of Plenty." Other Little Women represented were Megan McGinnis ("A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" from the Disney "Cinderella") and Sydney Turner ("Astonishing," which concluded Little Women's first-act).

McCarter Theatre's artistic director, Emily Mann, met Wreghitt a decade ago after he attended a McCarter show, and, when she admitted she admired his productions, he startled her by saying, "It's all your fault. It's because of you I'm in the theatre at all." He happened to see her production of Execution of Justice at the Guthrie in Minneapolis with his high-school class, and the die was cast from then on.

"He was one of the few producers in the Broadway community who loved to dream," Mann contended. "He was a businessman who was, mostly, all heart."

Orin Wolf, who was mentored by Wreghitt, and a gaggle of friends who constituted "The Thursday Night Gang" that he created and presided over on a weekly basis offered up some amusing and insightful reminiscences about their leader.

Elizabeth Williams, frequently a co-producer with Wreghitt on shows, read a letter from Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, DC. "Not long ago I started making a list about what I miss most about New York and the things I would do when I returned from government posting," Landesman wrote. "Very high on that list was resuming my lunches with Randall at The Delta Grill. I always looked forward to them. Just as The Delta Grill was not the typical Broadway hangout, Randall wasn't your typical Broadway producer. He embodied a few — let's not call them contradictions, let's refer to them as unusual juxtapositions: A gay guy who arrives not from the Upper West Side but the rural middle west. A man who produces Grey Gardens and Pure Country. A dreamer and a marketer. An incurable optimist in a business with a rather discouragingly low success ratio. I long ago gave up trying to reconcile this into a coherent whole, and I just went with the force that was Randall Wreghitt. The Delta Grill will never be the same again. Nor will Broadway. Nor will we."

In 1996, Wreghitt received The Robert Whitehead Award for outstanding achievement in commercial theatre producing. And both of Whitehead's sons stepped forth to attest to the Wreghitt friendship that followed this award.

Sam Whitehead recalled the hilarious steakhouse safaris that Wreghitt led him on in deepest, darkest Manhattan, from a Smith and Wollensky 20 floors above Broadway to an Aussie Outback on Fifth Avenue. "I admire his ability to transform any situation, be it high bow, low brow, or no brow," he confessed in conclusion. "He was loyal, original, warm, funny, fierce. And I miss him."

Brother Charlie Whitehead seconded that. "Given how vibrant a person Randall was, I will never get used to referring to him in the past tense. I don't want to say 'Randall was . . .' because in my heart and in the hearts of everyone here, 'Randall is.'"

The longest and strongest ovation of the afternoon went to a nonpro — Wreghitt's younger sister, Sheri, a mechanical engineer who dispensed her anecdotes and appreciations with aplomb of a seasoned character actress. One delightful riff had to do with her brother picking The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Grey Gardens to do on Broadway, both with bizarro mother-daughter relationships.

Matt Cavenaugh of Grey Gardens and his wife, Jenny Powers of Little Women, ended the tribute with "Some Other Time" from On The Town.

"If he were standing here in front of us today," Cavenaugh said, "I have no doubt he'd encourage us to appreciate the simple, yet sage, advice of the lyric by Comden and Green — that '24 hours does go so fast' and 'time is precious stuff.'"

Addressing Wreghitt, Powers added, "You did leave your mark on us. You gave so many of us the wings to fly. You gave so many of us opportunities of a lifetime. You made our dreams our reality, and, above all, we thank you for letting us work hard and play hard and laugh hard and dream dream dream and believe believe believe."

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Wreghitt died May 18 following complications from long-term exposure to carbon monoxide. He was 55. Read more about his life.