Elizabeth I. McCann, Longtime Tony-Winning Broadway Producer With a Taste for Drama, Dies at 90

Obituaries   Elizabeth I. McCann, Longtime Tony-Winning Broadway Producer With a Taste for Drama, Dies at 90
 
Ms. McCann was the recipient of nine Tony Awards throughout her lengthy producing career.
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Elizabeth I. McCann, the Tony-winning Broadway producer with a taste for serious dramas like The Elephant Man; ‘night, Mother; and Amadeus, and a presence in New York theatre circles for over five decades, died September 9 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx following a bout with cancer. She was 90 years old.

One of the first women to command a place at the table populated largely by male producers, Ms. McCann typically spoke her mind and was respected for the tenacity and integrity with which she pursued her profession.

Elizabeth I. McCann
Elizabeth I. McCann

Ms. McCann came to prominence in the 1970s when, partnering with Nell Nugent, she was part of the general management team of McCann and Nugent Productions. Together, they oversaw a series of significant productions, including The Robber Bridegroom, Otherwise Engaged, and The Gin Game. With Dracula, starring Frank Langella as the charismatic vampire, they ventured into producing and scored an enormous hit. The play won a Tony Award for Most Innovative Production of a Revival. Next came The Elephant Man, which, like Dracula, ran for more than two years.

The duo took chances. A revival of Morning’s at Seven, by the then-forgotten Depression-era playwright Paul Obsorn, proved a surprise critical and popular success in 1980. “The sweetest is always the most unexpected. Never did we imagine it would be such a big hit,” she said. Home, a play by Samm-Art Williams with an all-Black cast, ran half a year and won a Tony nomination.

With the three-year run of Amadeus, from 1980 to 1983, McCann and Nugent were at the peak of their producing powers. In the early '80s there was scarcely a hit drama that they didn’t have some connection to. They were among the producers of Nicholas Nickleby; were general managers of the Beth Henley play Crimes of the Heart and Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother (both Pulitzer Prize winners); and produced and general-managed Ron Harwood’s The Dresser, Bill C. Davis’ Mass Appeal, and C.P. Taylor’s Good. The Elephant Man, Amadeus, and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby all won the Tony Award for Best Play.

By 1986, Nell Nugent had ceased producing, but Ms. McCann did not stop. With Stepping Out in 1986, she produced with a host of other collaborators. The next year, she was one of the producers on the Tony-winning Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Liz McCann—as she was called by almost everyone in the theatre community—returned to the forefront of Broadway play producers in the early years of the 21st century when she found a new role as the patron of playwright Edward Albee. The playwright experienced a resurgence around the turn of the century, seeing commercial productions of his plays Three Tall Women, The Play About the Baby, and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (which won Ms. McCann her eighth Tony Award), as well as a revival of his classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and an evening of his shorter works, including Counting the Ways. Ms. McCann produced them all and remained devoted to the writer.

“Every once in a while,” Albee said, “a playwright will be lucky enough to run into a producer who is crazy—who is willing to take chances, who feels that a producer’s responsibility is to find work you think really should be seen, to whom financial concern is not the main adventure—the main adventure is trying to get plays on.”

Ms. McCann returned to the Tony Award dais as one of the producers of 2000’s Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. She continued to back challenging work such as Lisa Kron’s meta-play about sickness and family, Well, and Stew’s rock-charged coming-of-age musical, Passing Strange. She won her final Tony Award—her ninth—in 2009 for Best Revival of a Musical for the acclaimed production of Hair directed by Diane Paulus. Among Ms. McCann's most recent Broadway producing credits were the 2010 revival of Driving Miss Daisy, the 2014 revival of A Delicate Balance, the 2016 revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Paula Vogel's Indecent, which was nominated for the 2017 Tony for Best Play and won Tony Awards for its director, Rebecca Taichman and Best Lighting Design for Christopher Akerlind.

She most recently joined Robert Fox in producing Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, which closed on Broadway at the onset of the pandemic after playing 13 previews.

Elizabeth Ireland McCann grew up on West 31st Street, just shy of Hell’s Kitchen, and less than a mile from the Great White Way. Her father was a subway motorman, her mother a housewife. Neither attended the theatre. “My parents went to the movies,” she said.

She was in her teens before she ever saw live theatre. “My cousin decided to take me to see José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac,” she told Playbill. “It was all very romantic—and I was hooked.”

She acted in plays at Manhattanville College. One day she picked up the paper and saw that a group of young people from the University of Wisconsin were starting a theatre company in Greenwich Village. “I thought I could get a job there,” she recalled. “I couldn’t. But I could be a gofer.”

She worked as a production secretary and for bus and truck tours; earned a law degree at Fordham University; served from 1956-1968 as an associate at numerous theatrical management companies, including those of Robert Joffrey, Hal Prince, Saint-Subber and Maurice Evans; was an associate in the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison from 1965-1966; and in 1967 was hired by Broadway’s theatre-owning Nederlander family as a managing director. There she met Nell Nugent, and in 1976 they formed a partnership.

Throughout her career, Ms. McCann never shied away from a fight. When she didn’t like what the papers had to say, she let them know. “Generally, philosophically, the rules of the game are: I do a play and the critics review it,” she said at the close of the 2002 season. “I really felt there was a mindset in the media in New York this year that this was a rotten season. I did not see it as a rotten season. It was a fascinating season, a very mixed, eclectic sort of thing. I was tired of the industry not responding, saying, ‘Oh, I guess you’re right, it’s a rotten season.’ You’re always saying it’s a rotten season. I don’t think it’s a great season when The Producers wins 17 Tony Awards. I think it’s much more fun when you see it divided around among so many first-time people on Broadway. Taking on The Post was very much a matter of ‘Hey, can you please get this straight?’ ”

She was similarly tough with playwrights. Simon Gray, whose Butley Ms. McCann produced in 2006, wrote in his memoir that the producer called him one day and said, “Simon, it’s Liz McCann. Simon, I think you better get out your scissors and make some judicious cuts,” then hung up. That year, Ms. McCann slipped and broke her leg—but continued to oversee Butley from a wheelchair.

Ms. McCann was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2004.

Funeral arrangements are being made by Crestwood Funeral Home in Manhattan. A mass will take place at St. Paul the Apostle.