Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the 29-year-old mind behind programming at New York City's hottest nightclub, 54 Below, came on board about two years ago — a year after the venue opened in June 2012. Since then, she's booked artists ranging from Jeremy Jordan (the popular, Tony-nominated Newsie) to Jane Lynch (the Golden Globe-winning star of "Glee") and Jeff Daniels (the Tony-nominated actor who also ran HBO's "Newsroom") with tons of theatrical luminaries in between.
"A lot of what I've done is [form] a bridge between the two things I'm most passionate about, which are new musicals, new work and underappreciated musicals — my two passions," said Tepper. "On the new musical front, a lot of what I've done at the club is just bringing writers to present new work."
With new work screaming to be heard — by writers ranging from three-namers such as Ryan Scott Oliver to Jason Robert Brown — Tepper plans to produce a new series debuting in 2016 entitled New Musicals at 54: A Showcase of Our Own (a reference to Merrily We Roll Along because, as Tepper said, "I can't do a concert or a show without it being a Merrily reference").
Concerts in the new series will be held every Tuesday in January, February and March. "The idea is to present ten new musicals that haven't been produced in New York, yet that are things you might have seen an out-of-town tryout of or a workshop of," said Tepper, adding that it will showcase "exciting new work — whether it is a behind-the-scenes look at how the show is developing with cut songs and writers performing or whether it's a straight concert presentation of the show with actors performing consistent roles."
She added, "I'm going to take a hands-on producing role in making each of the shows happen — working with the writers, figuring out what is going to be most beneficial for the show and for the writers as far as getting it staged in New York and doing a theatrical presentation of it, inviting people, casting it and budgeting it. It's a huge undertaking, and I really want to do it in a way that's exciting for audiences and also serves the writers in the shows."
Committed to bringing new work to the 54 Below stage in 2016 are Adam Gwon (Ordinary Days), Kirsten Childs (The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin), Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody), Joe Iconis (Be More Chill), Georgia Stitt (The Danger Year), Michael R. Jackson (Hello X) and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (First Date), among others.
Since the club opened, 54 Below has not only provided a space for headliners such as Patti LuPone and Barbara Cook, but it has also been a birthing ground for new musicals. Songwriters such as Oliver, Iconis, Drew Gasparini, Will Van Dyke, Katie Thompson, Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, Jonathan Reid Gealt and many more (including those on Playbill's "Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know" lists) have all showcased material for the first time at the club.
In order to be "Broadway's Living Room" (54 Below's mission statement), Tepper is scheduling these rising talents alongside big Broadway names — and she'll do whatever it takes to get them on the underground stage, even if it means booking their show on 9th Avenue.
"I wanted to have Will Swenson at 54 Below," Tepper explained. "The moment that the ball started rolling was [when] I was walking down 9th Avenue at 2 AM with [director] Max Friedman, and Will Swenson was walking down 9th Avenue at 2 AM with Caissie Levy. Max was directing a production of Murder Ballad, and I am friends with Caissie. I know Will, and we all just started talking about Murder Ballad and 54 Below, and Will and I started talking about, 'What if he did a concert?' I was like, 'That would be so amazing. It's one of my dreams to make that happen,' and the next day it was happening because we had that conversation, and also the next day, Max had advice from Caissie Levy about Murder Ballad. It was just an amazing, only-in-New York moment. But, there have been a lot of those.
"I booked shows at Ryan Scott Oliver and Matt Murphy's wedding. It's become a joke now [that] when I go to a major wedding/industry event/personal event, like somebody's birthday, people ask, 'Are you gong to book as many shows as Ryan Scott Oliver and Matt Murphy's wedding?'" (For the record, Tepper booked Julia Mattison's Ruby Manger cabaret and Andrew Kober's Koberet, both of whom sat at the same table with Tepper at the wedding.)
In terms of programming and scheduling, 54 Below aims to place legends and luminaries in their 7 PM time slot with rising Broadway stars starting at 9:30 PM and up-and-comers at 11:30 PM. The venue presents 16 shows a week on 54th Street.
With all the shows that the club has to offer, a common complaint amongst concertgoers is affordability.
"I think a challenge that a lot of theatres deal with — that we deal with — is that it is hard to make a show affordable for an audience and also affordable for an artist," Tepper admitted. "[If] you're doing one thing, you're usually not doing the other thing. As a for-profit, we don't have the ability to subsidize shows. The commercial organization is for-profit, so I think that it's a challenge… We have student rush, and we have a lot of our show's tickets start at $25 or we have late-night shows that are less expensive, and I look around the room and everyone is under 40 sometimes or there are a lot of young people in the room — diverse, of all races. I feel like we try to focus on doing diverse artists, and then we get diverse audiences as far as age, race, gender, everything.
"But, I feel like one thing that I'm always striving to improve at is really coming up with ways to help artists gain money and not lose money on putting together their shows without doing that at the detriment of letting people who might not have a lot of money see them, so it's just a balance."
Tepper and the management at 54 Below have also strived to make sure the musicians are paid fairly, since union musician's (along with union performers) play there weekly. The club is now part of the Local 802 Associated Musicians of Greater New York.
Musicians are now paid a certain amount based on how much the artist is paid overall, and Tepper and her team have come up with a system to make payouts and paperwork as user-friendly for the singing artist as possible.
Cost aside, both artists and audience members continue to flock to 54 Below for the "Only at 54" moments that Tepper continuously posts about on her social media accounts. "There was a night where Jane Krakowski came at 11:30 to a variety show and did a medley of songs from '30 Rock,' and Lin-Manuel [Miranda] dropped in on Writer's Block, which is our occasional writers' lounge, and he sang 'My Shot,' which was from Hamilton Mixtape at the time!"
For Tepper, an exciting moment was when she met Frank Rich, who served as chief theatre critic of the New York Times from 1980-93. "I was shaking Frank Rich's hand, and [he was] telling me I was doing a good job at programming. I felt like I got a good review in the New York Times in the 1980s, and I had to go sit down and have a glass of water," she said.
"This is one of my favorite 54 Below memories," she added. "I produced a [Richard] Maltby, [Jr.] and [David] Shire show that was original cast members from their shows who have been singing music of theirs since the 60s — the original cast of Starting Here, Starting Now were all in it — and it was [also] Jay [Armstrong] Johnson, Ben Platt, Allison Case and new people singing their songs, and I hosted. Hal Prince came, and he asked me to sign his copy of my book at the concert, and it was just my dream. We walk around New York City every day, and we are walking in the same New York City as Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim and John Kander and these legends who walk among us, and this is the time that we're occupying the same New York. [For] 54 Below to capture that in some way and to let these people who are coming up be in the same room as people who are the legends of our world… That's like all I wanted to do, and that's a major way I feel like the venue has evolved."
Another question young artists, concertgoers and aspiring performers have is, "How do I do a show at 54 Below?" After all, the club can be seen all over YouTube, and in 2015, social media is an avenue in which new talent is discovered.
"I really do have an open inbox," said Tepper. "My email is [email protected]. If you have an idea for a concert, you can email me. I may not get back to you that day, but I will get back to you. I do not not answer an email from someone who wants to do a show at 54 Below, and honestly a lot of times, if you want to get involved, the best thing to do is find something specific that you want to be part of and figure out who to talk to about that. Often times, I'll meet someone who is like, 'I want to produce a concert here at some point, what should I do?' And, I [say], 'Tell me a concert here that you want to PA or assist with. I'll connect you with that producer, and you can shadow them and learn how this works.'
"Or someone will say, 'Hey, I specialize in singing Irving Berlin. How do I get to be part of the next Irving Berlin show?' And, I'll be like, 'Send me YouTube clips. Send me information about the shows you've done. Let me connect you with the person doing that show.' A lot of times, when people have more specific questions, it's better because they can get involved… I've had fancy Broadway people be like, 'I love Celine Dion! How do I get to be in the next [Celine Dion] concert?' I say, 'That's amazing. You're wonderful for reaching out. Let me let that person, who I do that show with, know, so they know next time you're interested.'"
The club continues with interactive nights such as Broadway Trivia and the new late-night Concert Lab series, in which rising talent can "try out" their work on the 54 Below stage weekly in preparation for a cabaret of their own.
As Tepper gears up for another year of programming (alongside cabaret singer Michael Feinstein, who has joined the team, renaming the club Feinstein's/54 Below), she's created another bucket list of performers to go it solo. Although she's crossed off a good chunk from when she started (ushering in talent who have never done a solo show before in their life), she's still waiting for Spring Awakening star Krysta Rodriguez to headline. After all, Rodriguez got her job on "Smash" after its showrunner saw her cabaret performance of Iconis' "Broadway, Here I Come!"
So, Krysta, if you're reading...
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)