Less than two months ago, on Dec. 31, 2002, Johnson-Liff, the casting office which has been a major force on Broadway for three decades, closed its doors. The firm's two partners, Geoffrey Johnson and Mr. Liff, together with their many associates over the years, cast and recast more than 60 Broadway shows, and scores of touring productions, including some of the biggest hits in theatre history.
Mr. Liff was 52 and had a reputation for being kind to actors, treating them respectfully in auditions and going the extra mile when he believed in them. Actress Cady Huffman thanked Mr. Liff in her Tony Award acceptance speech for her work in The Producers. He had liked her in The Will Rogers Follies, cast her later in Steel Pier and remained loyal to her work, selling her talent to Mel Brooks, who trusted his judgment.
Members of the acting and theatre community told Playbill On-Line Feb. 26 there are times when casting directors create a cold and negative atmosphere, but that this was not the environment on Mr. Liff's watch.
Colleague Tara Rubin, a casting director who started as an assistant at Johnson-Liff 15 years ago and now runs her own office, told Playbill On-Line: "Vinnie loved actors and he had a great passion for casting, a great passion for the theatre. And he had an incredible memory."
Along with Johnson, Mr. Liff taught Rubin the tricks of the trade, she said. "He used to tell me that it's much easier to say 'no' than to say 'yes' and he always was looking for a reason to say yes," Rubin explained. "I think the loving care he took with each individual was important." Rubin said Mr. Liff immersed himself in theatre from an early age, reading Theatre World volumes when most boys were swapping baseball cards or reading comic books.
One of the duties of the job that Mr. Liff embraced was the "open call," a chore not all casting directors relish. In the early days of Les Miz and Miss Saigon, Johnson or Mr. Liff would attend cattle calls in New York or around the country, hoping to find something special in the crowd.
"The nature of many of the projects that he worked on allowed him to cast a lot of people from open calls who might otherwise have been overlooked by a less vigilant eye," Rubin said. "An open call was an exciting day for him. If five people emerged from a day of 200 people, he felt he had a successful day."
There were times when he was casting Miss Saigon from an open call, Rubin said, and he would find an actress and place her in the ensemble knowing that she would have the stuff to graduate to the lead role of Kim.
"He would recognize a glimmer of talent, and know that, in a year, she could play Kim," Rubin said. "That's unusual to a long-running show—Daring to be bold enough to say to a producer or to yourself: 'You may not see it now, but I believe it's there.'"
"He was incredibly kind and caring about the business and everybody in it," said former business partner Geoff Johnson, who is still packing up the Johnson-Liff offices in Manhattan before he retires. "I'm not talking just actors, but the producers and the directors he worked with. I think he was very honest and he stood by his beliefs and had integrity. If he believed in an actor he would talk to a director and producer and push."
Johnson said he and Mr. Liff didn't like to use the word "discovered."
"We never say we 'discovered' someone, we just gave them an opportunity — that's what casting directors do," Johnson said. "And he worked very, very hard to give that opportunity."
At a recent cocktail reception given by the producer Scott Rudin, who started out in the Johnson-Liff office, the actor Peter Gallagher gave tribute to Mr. Liff and thanked him for helping the actor through his first major musical audition, for Grease.
Vincent Graham Liff was born in 1950 in West Hartford, CT, and educated at Kalamazoo College, in Michigan. He interned at the New York Shakespeare Festival before being assistant casting director at Otto & Windsor casting, the first independent casting office in New York. Johnson Liff was founded in 1976.
Survivors include his father, brother, sister, four nieces, one nephew and his companion, Ken Yung. Mr. Liff's uncle is the famous agent, Biff Liff.
Though Johnson-Liff has handled high-brow plays such as Tom Stoppard's Night and Day and Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions, it is best known for its connection to the mega-musicals of the 1980s. The company cast the New York productions all four of producer Cameron Mackintosh's mammoth hits: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. It was also charged will peopling Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Song and Dance, Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard. Before Cats, Mackintosh had never before produced in the U.S., and Johnson and Liff actively pursued his business after seeing the unique musical in London.
"They had the unique and enviable position of handling all those long-running shows that came over from the UK," said Rubin. "That kind of thing will probably never happen again."
Johnson-Liff's dominance in its field dimmed in recent years with the end of the British musical era and the closing of Cats and Miss Saigon. Les Miz is due to shutter in March, leaving the firm with only two major accounts, Phantom and The Producers.
Additionally, former Johnson-Liff associate Tara Rubin left the fold in April 2001 to form her own casting company. Rubin's shows this season include Imaginary Friends, Flower Drum Song, Metamorphoses and Mamma Mia!.
Johnson-Liff's future prowess in the world of big Broadway musicals was seen with its first major client, 1975's The Wiz. Another long running entertainment, Ain't Misbehavin', followed in 1978. A spate of important plays, many produced Elizabeth McCann and Nell Nugent, came next: The Elephant Man, Morning's at Seven, Amadeus and The Dresser. Then came Dreamgirls in 1981. Cats arrived the next year, quickly followed by other long-lived British imports.
Johnson-Liff's major successes of the 1990s were Victor/Victoria, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate. Contact and The Producers were its final major casting assignments.
In the 1960s, Geoffrey Johnson worked out of producer David Merrick's office as a stage manager and casting director. He was also Noel Coward's U.S representative during the last years of the playwright's life.
Johnson first met Vincent Liff when the latter—15 years Johnson's junior—would visit his famous uncle, agent Biff Liff, at the Merrick office. Geoffrey and Vincent met again as employees at Otto & Windsor, one of the first independent theatrical casting agencies. Linda Otto and Geri Windsor, two former Merrick casting directors, ran the office. When the company's two partners decided to decamp for California, Liff convinced Johnson to open up their own office.
The story of the formation of Johnson-Liff was told this way in Back Stage, the trade weekly:
"The birth of Johnson-Liff can be attributed to two fortuitous phone calls: one for Geoff and one for Vinnie. Taken together, the calls changed the two men's lives and made their careers.
"'She was a very demanding lady,' Johnson said of his former boss, Geri Windsor, who headed the East Coast office, where he worked. 'I used to have these terrible telephone fights with her. One night, I had worked something like 10 hours that day on three television pilots, and three major names had turned down these pilots. And she asked, 'Why did they turn them down?' and I said, 'Because the [pilots] are not very good. Why would anybody with integrity want to do them?' So she said,'You can't talk about these pilots like that,' as if she'd written them, and she started yelling at me. I said... 'Geri, stop yelling or I'm going to hang up the phone and walk out of here.' She didn't stop yelling. Johnson walked out of Otto & Windsor's New York office and never went back. Liff, however, stayed on, and eventually ran the office... Then came a call from Porter Van Zandt.
"'At the time [general manager Van Zant] was handling the Broadway transfer of this little show called The Robber Bridegroom,' recalled Liff. 'He said, "We'd like you to cast it." And I said, "Well, let me call Geri and ask her if she'd be interested in having us do it." He said, "No, you're misunderstanding me. We want you to cast it." So then I really had to make some major decisions.... I felt that I wanted to be on a team with someone. And I was eager to have Geoff be that person. I think there was a part of Geoff at the time that thought I was this 25-year-old upstart. But I finally talked him into it.'"
The company's first receptionist was future Broadway producer Scott Rudin.
From the years 1986 to 1993, the firm was known as Johnson-Liff & Zerman, in recognition of colleague Andrew M. Zerman, who is still with the company.
"When we went into business, there were maybe two or three independent casting directors for theatre," remembered Johnson. "Now there are a lot out there and very good ones like Tara Rubin and Bernie Telsey."
Rubin assumed the Producers account, while Johnson Liff associate Jamibeth Margulies will continue with Les Miz and Phantom.
Johnson told Playbill On-Line that in his "retirement," he plans to do some writing and perhaps some free-lance casting work.