Philip Rose, Daredevil Broadway Producer Who Advanced Liberal Causes, Dies at 89

Obituaries   Philip Rose, Daredevil Broadway Producer Who Advanced Liberal Causes, Dies at 89
Philip Rose, a Broadway producer who bet—and sometimes won—on unlikely theatrical projects, including several works that advanced the cause of African-American stage artists—most famously the original production of Raisin in the Sun—died May 31 in Englewood, NJ. He was 89.

Philip Rose
Philip Rose

Small, scrappy and politically courageous, Mr. Rose's producing ethos was aptly captured by the title of his memoir, "You Can't Do That on Broadway." Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun made history in 1959 as the first Broadway drama written by, directed by and mainly starring African-American artists. It astounded the theatre community by becoming a hit and running more than a year.

He went on to produce Purlie Victorious, a comedy by actor Ossie Davis, about a black Southern preacher in the Jim Crow South who wants to build a church for his congregation; The Owl and the Pussycat, a romantic comedy by Bill Manhoff that daringly starred the interracial couple of Alan Alda and Diana Sands; Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, a drama that introduced a young Al Pacino to theatre audiences; Purlie, a musical version of Davis' play; and Shenandoah, a Civil War-set musical that starring John Cullum that ran for more than 1,000 performances.

Short and slight, Mr. Rose was nevertheless a man of driving confidence. "He never thought of himself as diminutive either in size or in ambition," said Merle Debuskey, his publicist of many ventures, including Raisin. "He would play tennis as if he were Pancho Gonzales and shoot pool with the confidence of Willie Hoppe." A gambler in outlook and in practice, he would have his stage manager call him at his weekly poker game with playwright Neil Simon to read off the grosses of whatever show he was producing at the time.

Mr. Rose was a music publisher with no track record as a producer when he attended a casual reading of Raisin in the Sun in the Greenwich Village apartment of Hansberry and instantly insisted on bringing the play to Broadway. He had one ace in the hole; he knew actor Sidney Portier, who agreed to take the lead role. Portier recommended an old acting school friend, Lloyd Richards, to direct. The cast was filled with actors who would become stars later on: Claudia McNeil, Louis Gossett, Diana Sands, Douglas Turner, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

Still, theatre owners and backers wouldn't touch the property. The only African-American shows to succeed at the box office until then had been musicals. With no theatre to put his play in, Mr. Rose took Raisin out of town. New Haven reviews were positive, and weekend sales were strong, particularly within the black community. A four-week stand in Philadelphia followed, again with great notices and strong box office. Yet, Broadway was silent. Finally, the Shubert Organization sent down a emissary, a man named Jack Small, to check the show out. Backstage, after the show, Small offered Mr. Rose the Barrymore Theatre, but only after another run at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago. Mr. Rose jumped on the chance. The drama was later nominated for a Tony Award as Best Play. Bringing in the longest of long shots, Mr. Rose was thereafter addicted to taking chances. Often this resulted in a flop. His follow-up to Raisin, a play called Semi-Detached, ran less than a week in 1960. Also quickly forgotten were 1963's The Heroine and 1964's Nobody Loves an Albatross. But when he hit his mark, the results could be memorable. In the late '60s, he decided Purlie Victorious, the Ossie Davis play he had produced in 1961, would make a good musical. He tried to get Frank Loesser to write the score, but eventually hired one of Loesser's proteges, Peter Udell, and Gary Geld, with whom Udell had written the pop hit "Sealed With a Kiss." The show opened in 1970, ran for 688 performances, and made stars of Cleavon Little and Melba Moore, both of whom won Tony Awards.

Geld and Udell also wrote the score for Shenandoah, which opened in 1974 and was an even bigger success. Mr. Rose's decidedly liberal bent shown through in most of his productions—many of which he also directed—and the musical was no exception. Though set in the Civil War, many critics identified its subject as the Vietnam War. John Cullum played a pacifist Virginian who wants no part of the conflict. Nonetheless, the war tears apart his family. Cullum won a Tony Award for his portrayal, as did James Lee Barrett, Udell and Rose for the book, which was based on the 1965 film written by Barrett.

Shenandoah was Mr. Rose's last great success. Kings, The Trip Back Down, Angel, My Old Friends, and Comin' Uptown, all produced in the 1970s, failed to find an audience. Mr. Rose fared no better in the next decade, with Amen Corner, Late Nite Comic and Checkmates all closing quickly. In 1989, he revived Shenandoah, but it ran only a month. After Truly Blessed and The Cemetery Club in 1990, Mr. Rose's Broadway activity ceased.

Philip Rosenberg was born Jul 4, 1921, on the Lower East Side of New York to Russian Jewish parents. His family moved to Washington, D.C. during the Great Depression. There, he began working for many of the local stores in the area, and became acquainted with the black neighborhoods of Washington.

"I was only 16 with no skills and took this job of collecting 50 cents or a dollar a week for the credit department stores. They sold to the black community who lived in slums just blocks from the capitol," he later recalled. "So I ended up going into people's homes. Where I was born, I never had occasion to meet black people. In Washington, I was scared, but after a while I was accepted by some of the families and made many friends. I was from a poor background, too—one of five children—and we had discussions about our lives. I learned so much from them about gospel music and jazz. Washington was a very segregated city, but we found ways to go out together. That experience changed my life."

The experience would later inform which plays he chose to back. "Both in the theatre and in real life, Phil fought for what he believed in and believed what he fought for," said Steven Suskin, a theatre historian who worked as a stage manager on several of Mr. Rose's Broadway productions. "He was at the same time a fighter and a gentle man."

He moved to New York in 1945. While acting in a Gilbert & Sullivan company, he met actress Doris Belack, who became his wife. She survives him.

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