"As far back as I can remember, I've had a passion for musical theatre," Ira Weitzman says. "You could say it's a calling that came from inside and told me I had to be near musicals. It started when my parents played a lot of original cast albums for me. And I took to them like a duck to water."
That childhood ardor has led Weitzman to a more-than-30-year career in not-for-profit theatre on and Off-Broadway. As director of musical theatre at Playwrights Horizons and now as associate producer of musicals at Lincoln Center Theater, he has worked behind the scenes on many hit musicals, among them, the original productions of Contact; The Light in the Piazza; William Finn and James Lapine's Falsettos trilogy; Stephen Sondheim and Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion; Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins, and Lincoln Center's current smash-hit revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.
Weitzman is the ultimate backstage presence, someone whose influence is essential but of whom audiences are totally unaware. "I never wanted to be in a musical," he says. "I always wanted to be involved in producing them. I probably have too much anxiety to be a performer. I wanted to be behind the scenes. I wanted to be working with talented people, with the most creative people, helping to facilitate things, helping a group to function as a collaborative team with one goal — the goal of creating a show."
Weitzman was born in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. "I was already a New York City boy. I didn't go to a lot of Broadway shows when I was very young, but my mother believed in exposing me to all the arts. I was always going to concerts, The Nutcracker, children's theatre and taking all kinds of lessons. The first musical I recall seeing as a child was Young Abe Lincoln, directed by Jay Harnick, in the first season of what became Theatreworks USA. It was terrific. I can still sing you the entire score." And then there were those original cast albums. "My parents played them over and over. One of the first I fell in love with as a kid was South Pacific," — which, he says, is prophetic, since that's the show he has been involved with this year. "It is such a profound show with an extraordinary score."
Weitzman went to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and studied the cello. And although he never wanted a professional career as a musician, it was the cello that, in its way, influenced and informed his future and his career. "Before I was 18, I played in every student orchestra in New York and in every major hall. And I learned by being in an orchestra that the power of the group was greater than the power of any individual, even the most talented. That's one of the tenets of musical theatre collaboration. And part of my job is fostering strong collaborations and helping them to function well."
His first theatre job, in 1977, was at Playwrights Horizons with its founding director, Robert Moss. "I moved out of my parents' house when I was 17 and I did my apprenticeship at Playwrights. My pay was minuscule, and Bob let me roam freely, discovering myself in the process. And I found a place where I could work on musicals."
About a year later, Weitzman talked with André Bishop, the company's literary manager (who would become its artistic director in 1981). "I approached André with the idea of adding musical theatre to the activities at Playwrights Horizons, and he was extremely open to it from the word go. I invented a job for myself — in collaboration with André we would develop and foster new talent and new projects in musical theatre."
Their first musical, in 1979, came from a then-unknown composer named William Finn. It was In Trousers, the first part of the Falsettos trilogy. "We felt like there was a void to be filled at the time, that there was no outlet for a younger, emerging writer to be produced. Playwrights Horizons' mission to support work of new American playwrights was already established, and the work was expanded to include not only playwrights but composers, lyricists and librettists." After Bishop took over as artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater in 1992, Weitzman moved with him.
And just what does an associate producer of musicals do? "A large part of my job is fostering a creative atmosphere," he says. And just how does he do that? "By being a keen observer of people. I am very hands-on, but not in a threatening way. I attend rehearsals, I attend all auditions, I participate in preproduction. Exactly what I do varies from show to show, but I am around as often as possible when people are working. I see what kind of personality each group has. So when problems arise, I can deal with them directly. It's essential to have insight into what is going on to support a collaborative team."
And the future? "I set a goal for myself very early on, when I thought this job up and slipped myself into it - to find at least one new musical every season that made me excited enough to work on it, and that I hoped would make the audience excited. I've accomplished that goal for more than 30 years - and in recent years it has sometimes been more than one a season. So I would like to be able to continue to do new musicals, and help new writers to emerge into a career, and always have a musical every season I'm excited about."