Michael Mayer, Jason Robert Brown, More Remember Late Off-Off-Broadway Champion Kyle Renick

Obituaries   Michael Mayer, Jason Robert Brown, More Remember Late Off-Off-Broadway Champion Kyle Renick
The former artistic director of WPA Theater—the original home of Little Shop of Horrors, Steel Magnolias, and more—died November 29. He was 71.
Kyle Renick_obit_graphic_HR.jpg

Kyle Renick, who as a leader at Off-Off-Broadway’s WPA Theater introduced audiences to such shows as Little Shop of Horrors, Steel Magnolias, Jeffrey, and Songs for a New World, died November 29 at the age of 71. His death, caused by congestive heart failure, was confirmed by general manager Albert Poland, a close friend who worked on the commercial transfers of several WPA (Workshop of the Players Art Foundation) titles.

Though WPA was officially established in 1971, Mr. Renick joined in 1977 as managing director as part of a creative overhaul, with the mission of revisiting neglected would-be American classics and celebrating new plays and musicals. Also ushering in the relaunch were Co-Artistic Directors Howard Ashman and R. Stuart White. Their inaugural season began with a revival of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café, as adapted by Edward Albee and directed by White.

Kyle Renick in 2018
Kyle Renick in 2018 c/o Albert Poland

Additional early productions included the chamber musical Gorey Stories, which would go on to see a short-lived run on Broadway in 1978; a White-helmed revival of Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come; and Michael McClure’s Josephine: The Mouse Singer, which earned an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 1979.

WPA also produced the initial showcase of the musical Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, marking the first collaboration between lyricist-director Ashman and composer Alan Menken. Three years later, they would present the world premiere of their beloved Little Shop of Horrors at WPA. After the month-long WPA mounting, the popular ‘60s dark comedy pastiche celebrated a five-year commercial run, during which time it was adapted for the big screen.

Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene in Little Shop of Horrors.
Lee Wilkof and Ellen Greene in Little Shop of Horrors. Peter Cunningham

White died following complications from AIDS in 1983, and Ashman left around that time following the success of Little Shop of Horrors. Mr. Renick assumed the position of sole artistic director that year, with the Drama Desk marking the company’s shift with an honorary award for Outstanding Achievement. WPA soon moved to 519 West 23rd Street, where it stayed through 1998.

After Ashman too died due to AIDS-related complications in 1991—during the height of his Disney success with Menken—Mr. Renick partnered with Michael Mayer, enlisting the director to helm a musical revue based on Ashman’s work. The show, titled Hundreds of Hats, opened at WPA in 1995. In addition to Menken, the revue featured music by Marvin Hamlisch and Jonathan Sheffer. Mayer worked with the company again in 1998, directing the late John C. Russell’s Stupid Kids—an experience he refers to as “the best creative experience I’ve had with a group of people in a theatre.”

Of the roughly 100 plays that came through WPA, 15 saw commercial transfers on Broadway or Off-Broadway, and nine received film adaptations. Additional works presented by WPA during Renick’s tenure include:

  • Steel Magnolias: Before the 1989 movie and the Off-Broadway bow at the Lortel Theatre, Robert Harling’s Southern dramedy premiered at WPA in 1987.
Billy Porter, Andréa Burns, Jessica Molaskey, and Brooks Ashmanskas in <i>Songs for a New World</i>
Billy Porter, Andréa Burns, Jessica Molaskey, and Brooks Ashmanskas in Songs for a New World
  • The Lady in Question: The Charles Busch play kicked off Renick’s “Silly Series” in 1989, embodying the untried, non-conforming, and often droll ethos of WPA.
  • Jeffrey: Playwright and upcoming The Devil Wears Prada bookwriter Paul Rudnick recalls several New York theatre companies rejecting his 1993 play exploring sexuality in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis. “Kyle agreed to produce it immediately, for which I’ll always be grateful,” he writes. “None of this would’ve happened without Kyle, who offered so many other artists exactly this fearless and matchless enthusiasm.”
  • Songs for a New World: The Jason Robert Brown song cycle premiered Off-Broadway in 1995. Brown cites Mr. Renick as the “first person to give my music an audience,” adding, “a producer with courage is a rare and astonishing thing, to be celebrated, to be honored, to be mourned.”

But it wasn’t just the blockbusters that fueled Mr. Renick. “He wanted to do stuff that didn’t belong anywhere else,” Mayer explains. “Kyle was just as proud of the stuff that didn’t transfer commercially as he was of the things that did. His mission was not to create commercially viable work, but to support the work of people who were doing this downtown, and largely gay, aesthetic.”

WPA eventually moved on to the Peter Norton Space on 42nd Street, where it presented its swansong production in 2000: Sheffer’s Blood on the Dining Room Floor.

Mr. Renick, born April 24, 1948, is survived by his brother Kevin and sisters Pamela and Therese. He received a B.A. in music and drama from Tufts University (where he momentarily lived with another Off-Broadway leader-to-be: New York Theatre Workshop Artistic Director Jim Nicola). His friends and peers intend to hold a memorial honoring him at the Westside Theatre, home to the current Mayer-directed revival of Little Shop of Horrors, in the new year.

Mayer’s production is, in fact, dedicated to Mr. Renick. “Everything I knew about Howard Ashman came from the work I had done on Kyle’s behalf in creating Hundreds of Hats,” he says. “In so much as Howard trusted Kyle with his vision, I felt like Kyle trusted me. So it is as much a dedication to this friend that brought me into the fold as much as it is a celebration of the kind of work I knew to expect from Kyle and the WPA.”