There are reasons his response is so instant and electric. Simply put, Arthur Miller sparked and has — at various stages along the way of Libin's ever-changing job description — fueled his remarkable career. As vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, chairman of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and now head of the League, Libin is respected and beloved as one of the theatre world's best boosters, leaders and champions.
But in 1950, when he was still an unformed freshman at the University of Illinois in Chicago listing a little toward a career in international affairs, he happened to catch the first national road company of Miller's Death of a Salesman starring Thomas Mitchell. (It had, at that time, seemed like a great double-date idea.) He saw Mitchell step out of the stage door and into the night, his collar up, giving the brim of his hat a brisk, jaunty twist.
"I thought, 'Willy Loman is alive!'" says Libin, recalling the feeling that went off inside of him. "Right then and there, I knew that's what I wanted to do!"
Of course, theatre offers many roles, and Libin has played most of them, starting out as actor. While trying to find a path into the world of theatre, he visited the Compass Players where Nichols & May and Barbara Harris were no strangers at the time. When the occasion came for him to make his stage bow, Arthur Miller happened to have a role for him — George Deever, the next-door-neighbor in a Chicago community theatre production of All My Sons.
Encouraged, he applied for, and was accepted as, an intern actor and technician at a summer stock company run by Peggy Wood in upstate New York. "That first season I performed in numerous roles and received nice reviews, and I thought 'My life is finally defined.'" "In 1951, I transferred to Columbia University and got accepted by its School of Dramatic Arts. Gertrude Lawrence was downstairs doing The King and I then" — this interview is being conducted in Libin's Jujamcyn office above the St. James Theatre — "and she was teaching acting at Columbia. I wound up winning a Gertrude Lawrence acting award, which came with $500. I remember one day she was watching me play a romantic scene. She stopped us right in the middle of it because my young woman partner was too restrained and she said, 'You've got to feel it when you're doing a love scene.' So she ran the scene with me and really planted one on me. All I could think of was, 'I'm being kissed by Gertrude Lawrence.'"
After receiving a draft notice, he quickly found a stage outlet — five theatres at Fort Hood, Texas showing the same movie. Passing himself off as a producer-director from New York, he became one in Texas, persuading the commanding officer to use one theatre for plays. He promptly formed a theatre group and put on Sidney Kingsley's Detective Story. "While I was in the service was the first time I started thinking about what I was going to do with my life, as opposed to what I was going to do on Saturday night."
After the Army, he returned to Columbia on the GI Bill for his BFA degree. Eddie Kook, a favorite professor who taught lighting, picked up the phone one day and got him a gofer job for the great set designer Jo Mielziner. That lasted for three months and led to his first job on Broadway — assistant stage manager of Happy Hunting, the Ethel Merman musical Mielziner was producing.
When Libin decided to become a producer in 1957, he chose a revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and then found the place to produce it — an abandoned ballroom in the Martinique Hotel on West 32nd. Because the playwright had theatre approval, he came to inspect the premises — with his wife. The wife was Marilyn Monroe, the verklempt landlord closed the deal on the spot, and the Martinique Theatre was created.
In 1963 Circle in the Square's Ted Mann entered the picture, proposing a co-production of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Martinique Theatre. That still-famous production dovetailed into a partnership that has existed for 37 years on just a handshake — and a friendship that continues to this day.
Libin has also risen to the top spot in several theatrical organizations. For three decades, he was president of the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers. Currently, he is president of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS as well as the Circle in the Square Theatre School, and, in January, he was upped to chairman of The Broadway League.
He promises to keep the League in step with the times. "What we're trying to do is get as many people involved as we can. I think the League is very unifying, not only for all the people who are involved regionally operating theatres but also, at the same time, all across America with road companies. The reason I believe in the unity of all that enterprise is the resources people undertake now to do a play. We have to have an environment that makes people want to come.
"We have to do everything we can to promote people to keep coming to the theatre, make it comfortable for them when they do come, make it easier for them to buy tickets. We have systems in place where you can buy your ticket on line and print it out — all those innovative things. As technology keeps changing, we'll be making it even easier.
"The success of programs like Kids' Night on Broadway has created other social groupings of people who come to the theatre. We reach them through Twitter, through any kind of email — any technology that encourages the people to come — promoting Broadway and interfacing with sponsors who have the same desire to be a part of the theatre by identifying their product with what we do.
"The value of the theatre during these difficult times is verified by an abundance of successful productions and robust attendance. Our theatre is a place where theatergoers can experience a respite from the trouble of the day. It's an escape from the economics, war and politics that are headlined in the press, radio and television. It is a haven from the everyday that you can share with others sitting in the theatre with you!" Harry Haun is a staff writer for Playbill. This profile appears in the Playbill for the 2010 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.