SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Robyn Goodman

Special Features   SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Drink With Robyn Goodman
We roost at the upstairs bar of the famous theatre restaurant to talk to busy producer Robyn Goodman, whose projects include Second Stage Theatre, In the Heights, Avenue Q and more.

Robyn Goodman
Robyn Goodman Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


"I'm in a book club. We're reading a book about every president. We're up to Lincoln. I've read one about Polk and Van Buren."

That's not exactly the ideal start for an article about Robyn Goodman, one of the busiest producers on Broadway, and certainly one of the few prominent female members of her professional species. Not exactly scintillating stuff, book clubs. Until you learn of some of the other members. Gail Papp, widow of impresario Joe Papp, and actress Marsha Mason.

Both ladies have a place in Goodman's varied past. Goodman — who counts actress among her many former careers — replaced Mason as Lady Anne in a 1974 production of Richard III. She played opposite Michael Moriarty at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, and holds it as, in her estimation, one of her two best efforts as a stage perfomer.

As for Gail Papp, "Joe Papp was my mentor," said Goodman, while sipping at a Diet Coke at Sardi's second-floor bar. (She did not order a drink, as she had a new play to read that night, and wanted to stay focused.) "He's the one who told me to become a producer. It was Joe who got me out of bed and back to work after my husband died. I did a play for him that I had done in London. He said, 'What do you want to do next?' I started bringing him little projects and plays, and he said, 'You know, I think you're a producer.' I think it was because I started putting together some projects for him and he thought I had good taste." She took Papp's advice. Goodman hasn't acted since 1983, when she appeared in Carl Reiner's Something Different at Second Stage, an Off-Broadway nonprofit she founded with Carole Rothman in 1979. "I did the sort of Marlo Thomas part. I used to have a flip." Marlo Thomas part? A very likeable, urban, single-woman character, you mean? "Exactly right. Slightly sexy, hopefully."

"I loved acting, but I don't miss it," said the producer, who with her designer glasses, slim figure and tinted hair, still turns herself out well enough to pass as an actress. "I'm never going to act again. I stopped acting because I was so fulfilled by the producing aspect of plays. Also, I grew up with Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, and I saw where those gals' careers were going, and I saw where my career was going. And I thought, 'Well, why don't I just use my brain and do something else that I can succeed at?'"

She does not, however, regret her former vocation. "It's really helped me be a better producer, understanding what actors go through eight times a week. I encourage your producers to take acting classes. You're in the room, you understand the vocabulary. You know how to help them, ultimately."

Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Goodman's career as a commercial producer has blossomed over the past decade. With frequent producing partners Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, she scored with the Broadway transfer of Avenue Q, a massive, mildly subversive musical which won the Tony Award for Best Musical and is still playing in an Off-Broadway production. Since then she stumbled with High Fidelity, but hit with In the Heights and the recent West Side Story revival. (The jury is still out, recoupment-wise, on the currently running American Idiot.) Additionally, she's the curator of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Underground Series of new plays, a critical and popular success that began in 2007.

She prides herself on being very conservative in her budgets, keeping production costs low. "The most important thing is that you keep a show running as long as you can," she said. "My track record on returning money has been very high, and I want to keep it that way. I want to work with people who have the same fiscal outlook. My big loser was High Fidelity. And one of my plays returned 50 percent. But everything else has pretty much made money."

She's just as frugal Off-Broadway. Altar Boyz, a musical spoof about a Christian boy band that she produced with Ken Davenport, ran for years, but took forever to eke out a profit. "Ken Davenport and I eventually fired everyone and did all the jobs ourselves," she said.

Next up is Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, a new play by Rajiv Joseph and starring Robin Williams as the tiger in question, who wanders the play as a ghost. "He's a real actor, a wonderful actor," she said, and the first person they offered the play to. "He's dressed like a man, not like Tony the Tiger. As he says, he's hairy enough to play a tiger."

Of what attracted her to Joseph's play, she said, "This was a purple cow to me." She's quoting Seth Godin, author of the marketing book "Purple Cow," meaning an original or remarkable idea or company. (That said, the phrase perhaps originally comes from a well-known 1895 poem by Gelett Burgess.) The quote came up earlier in our conversation when talking about Second Stage.

"It was a purple cow at the time," she said. The theatre company was conceived by her and Rothman as a forum where good, contemporary plays — ignored the first time around — were given a second chance. "I said I only want to do it [start a theatre] if we can come up with an idea that's good enough." That idea, apparently, was good enough.

Goodman is not exactly sure how she met Rothman — who is still artistic director of Second Stage, now 31 years old and one of the most important nonprofit theatres in New York City. "I must have been sleeping with someone she knew," she mused. "I'm sure that was it. And I was up for a job, also. She cast me in a play and I couldn't do the play. So we got to know each other a little bit. And it seemed she was single and looking to meet somebody. And my best friend was a doctor and had just broken up with somebody. I fixed them up and they ended up getting married."

Robyn Goodman
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Goodman was formerly married to actor Walter McGinn (That Championship Season), who was killed in a car accident in 1977. She and Rothman named Second Stage's McGinn/Cazale Theatre after her late husband and actor John Cazale, the stage and film actor ("The Godfather," "Dog Day Afternoon") who dated her friend Meryl Streep in the 1970s. "My husband died and a year later John died, so [Meryl and I] went through a very painful period together." Today, Goodman lives with set designer Anna Louizos (Avenue Q, In the Heights), her partner for more than 13 years. Goodman helped Rothman steer the ship at Second Stage for its first 13 years before she jumped ship, and started a four-year stint as supervising producer of "One Life to Live." "I needed a break. I was burnt out. 13 years. I don't know how Carole does it." Not that running a soap opera was exactly a break. "It was the hardest job I ever had in my life," she said. "I worked seven days a week." Still, like everything the producer has done in the past, Goodman views "One Life to Live" as something that has strengthened her hand as a theatre producer. "When you're in a soap opera, someone writes a big story, but [you're] involved with them in a major way, trying to break up that story incrementally so that it has a six-month arc, as opposed to a two-act arc. That gave me a much better sense of storytelling and structure. It helped make me a better producer."

She left that job in the late 1990s, which means she's been producing plays for more than a decade. Is she burnt out again? Time for another break? No. "I'm not turning out four a year," like Second Stage does, she explained. "That's exhausting. I'm picking them carefully."

Which gives her time to walk her dog. And go to the Caribbean when she can. And attend her book club. "Van Buren was gay," she said. "Did you know that?"

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