Why Purlie Victorious and Our Town Producer Irene Gandy Can't Bring Herself to Retire | Playbill

Special Features Why Purlie Victorious and Our Town Producer Irene Gandy Can't Bring Herself to Retire

This industry powerhouse is now helping launch a fellowship for up-and-coming directors, and picking up some lifetime achievement awards.

Irene Gandy Heather Gershonowitz

Decked out head to toe in eye-catching finery, work clatters to a stop upon Lady Irene Gandy’s grand entrance at Sardi’s. The theatre district restaurant is a second home for Gandy, with staff and patrons alike taking the time to pay their respects to her as she takes her seat underneath her vibrant caricature upon the wall.

Gandy used the upper floors of the restaurant as an office for years, raising her daughter within its heavily decorated walls. Childhood birthday parties, countless industry shifting meetings, and plenty of late-night dinners have punctuated Gandy’s decades of dedication to the industry institution. “I just love it here,” Gandy says simply, bangles clinking as she perches in her preferred booth like a throne (which is located just under her Sardi's caricature).

Gandy has plenty of reason to preen. Shortly after what was her intended retirement following the closure of the Purlie Victorious Broadway revival, the 80-year-old press-agent-turned-producer is back in the fray, juggling commitments across the country while preparing to bring Our Town back to Broadway this fall.

“I'm just so happy to be working with Kenny Leon again,” Gandy shares, referring to Our Town and Purlie’s director, her hands aflutter as she pours over the menu she memorized long ago. “Just like with Purlie Victorious, we’re working with excellence. Our Town is such a classic, and the cast…” Gandy pauses for effect before bursting back to action. “You can’t do better than this cast, every single person is a staple of our modern theatre. I’m proud to be a part of it.” The cast is, as they say, stacked, featuring Jim Parsons, Zoey Deutch, Ephraim Sykes, Billy Eugene Jones, Katie Holmes, and Julie Halston.

Irene Gandy Heather Gershonowitz

But back to Gandy at Sardi's. Her meal for the day decided, Gandy merely has to look up before several waiters descend, jockeying to take her order. Many have been serving her for more than 30 years. Once her oysters on the half shell are en route, she leans back, surveying the dining room with pride. Several regulars wave across the room as a smattering of tourists try not to stare. When one, a particularly young girl nestled between her parents dares to meet Gandy’s eye, she points up at her caricature. Gandy smiles when the girl buries her blushing face in her grandmother's shoulder.

When Gandy’s previously announced retirement is brought up, she shakes her head, laughing. “I know, I know. I retire more than Cher and Frank Sinatra put together!” Gandy’s own laughter is mirrored by the maître d’ several yards off, shoulders shaking as he maintains his position at the entrance. “But, you know, I have such a passion for what I do. I want to feel needed. And I feel that I'm needed here, needed in the theatre. And I need them as much as they need me.”

While Gandy's turn of phrase may bring to mind Funny Girl's "people who need people," it isn’t hard to draw a different comparison between Gandy and one of the theatre's most colorful characters: Dolly Levi of Hello, Dolly!

Equally resplendent, the two have a remarkable gift for pairing together disparate parties, forming working relationships (and more than a few marriages). Whereas Dolly had her beloved Harmonia Gardens, Sardi’s is Gandy’s. And just like Dolly, Gandy can’t bring herself to live a quiet life, no matter how hard she tries.

“I have so much passion about this business,” Gandy shares. “If I go more than a couple of weeks, I start going crazy. Every time I retire, something pulls me back. It’s been 50 years, and I still wake up excited.”

While she and her “work-husband” producer Jeffrey Richards bring a show to the Broadway boards most seasons, Gandy’s extensive energy has led her to a wide variety of additional passion projects,—such as working regionally as she supports the up-and-coming playwrights that summon that infamous twinkle in her eye.

Branden Jacob-Jenkins is just… you don’t get better than that,” Gandy says, referring to the lauded playwright behind Appropriate, Everybody, and The Comeuppance. She just got back from a trip to Chicago, where she is supporting his newest work, Purpose at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. “I’m working with them on audience development, bringing communities and emerging playwrights together. It's just really wonderful to see, and to still be the Irene I set out to be.”

These days, Gandy is a sought-after consultant by productions and producing entities alike, providing her invaluable perspective for theatre owners, theatre companies, and other bastions of the industry. With a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement already under her belt, her mantle continues to swell this season, with honors from the Drama Desk Awards, the Black Women On Broadway Awards, and more.

Still, Gandy continues breaking new ground for herself. Plans for several major industry support programs are in development, but one long-gestating project is now on view: The Irene Gandy Directing Assistantships program, launching May 17 with the Drama League.

“The Irene Gandy Assistantships are a program that we designed to help young Black and brown people, specifically directors, work on large theatrical productions,” shares Gabriel Stelian-Shanks, the artistic director of the Drama League. “Honestly, they have been denied access to those kinds of opportunities and spaces: Broadway, major regional theatres. The reason we thought Irene would be the perfect person to name this after is because she did this, long before there was even a path. She is really the model in the professional theatre for someone creating space where there was no space. Her example is really what we're trying to help young people do. She is the hero and the trailblazer, and we want to make more Irene Gandys for the future.”

As the bevy of waiters dress the table with her lunch selection, Gandy slides in a brief moment of emotional vulnerability before digging in.

“I've been on Tony-winning shows, won the Lifetime Achievement Award for myself, but supporting these young directors and having this program be named after me is the greatest honor,” Gandy shares, swallowing back tears of pride as she unfurls her napkin and a waiter pats her on the hand. “I'm glad that I’m still here to see it.”

Irene Gandy Heather Gershonowitz
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