Editorial: In Praise of Producers


I once knew a Producer who sold his wife’s jewelry to finance a show.  The marriage did not survive, but the show was a hit. I knew a Producer who gave away most of his shares in a production just to get it on its feet, only to watch his partners become rich while he struggled to make rent.  I knew a Producer who mortgaged his family’s home to renovate a Theater he didn’t even own.

It has been suggested that Producers are mercenaries, feeding off of artists for financial gain.  Granted, the Producer is the only position in the Theater that is not hired and it only takes one thing to be a Producer; Money.  So you would think that Producers would come in a variety of personalities, but actually, there are traits that most Producers share.

Lead Producers in Commercial Theater are a quixotic group.  They have to be. They are setting themselves up in a business known for failure.  They are achievement-oriented and risk-taking optimists, working in a field where you have to be in love with the art of Theater to put yourself through such insane pressure with an unforgiving deadline.  Theater, like the Church, is a “calling,” not a vocation.

It drives me crazy when people say that Producers aren’t creative.  Producers weigh every decision they make for its artistic merits.  If they didn’t choose that particular play with those creatives, the show would not go on, no one would have jobs or the potential for continued income or even, perhaps, glory.

It drives me more crazy when Producers are blamed because a show folds.  It’s the nature of the business; all shows close eventually.  Sooner or later, the audience will wander and money will run out. NO ONE feels the pain of closing a show so acutely as Producers; watching years of negotiating, charming,  wheedling, maneuvering, and begging come to nothing as their dream disappears overnight.

Sure, there are a few bad apples who keep two sets of books or move money around illegally from one production to another as if they will never get caught. (You can probably guess who I am implying.)  But they eventually do get caught.

The changing regulations of the Theater Industry have not helped Producers.  Up until 1996, the New York Investor Protection Bureau required that all signed Investment paperwork and funds had to be in before the first paid public performance of a theatrical production.  This gave a rock solid deadline for Producers to use to raise money.  But 20 years ago, Congress passed a law called the National Securities Markets Improvement Act (NSMIA) that preempts the states’ powers so there has been no law whatsoever requiring a producer to have  the financing secured by any particular date or milestone in the production cycle.  Some attorneys and producers responded to this change by setting up their own deadlines in the production’s offering documents, others have left it open-ended. I have seen offering papers that used a deadline of one year after the official Opening Night! 

As a result, in the past 20 years we have seen more shows fold before rehearsals start, because if you have a group of risk-taking optimists and take the pressure of a deadline off of their investors, chaos ensues and funds promised do not always materialize.  Producers should be praised for responsibly pulling the plug before the first rehearsal, rather than berated for lost income.  

Believe me, no one hates closing a show more than the Producer. It is their lifeblood, their reason to be.


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Photo: Ben Arons

Bess Wohl‘s SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS has moved from Ars Nova to the Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, mainly because it received good reviews and great word of mouth.  Taking place at a silent, spiritual retreat, this play is at least 50% pantomime and 90% played for laughs.  It tells the story of a group of six varied characters,  looking for a way out of their personal torment through enlightenment.  While watching the show, I had a wonderful time; beautifully directed by Rachel Chavkin, it is an enticing theatrical experience, I laughed heartily and it was entertaining, but the moment the show was over, I realized that every single laugh was at someone’s expense and usually at their misery. I was upset that I laughed mindlessly at their pain and that this is what our violence-inured society has come to; Schadenfreude antics. Is this really the type of humor we want to exalt?

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS is like a one-night stand; at the time you think it’s great, but the moment it’s over, you feel cheap and ashamed.

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The original West End Production of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES by Christopher Hampton moved to Broadway in 1987, with Alan Rickman as Valmont and Lindsay Duncan as Marquise de Merteuil.  This was such an exquisite pairing of dueling lovers that they were cast again in the 2002 revival of Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES.  I saw both productions twice and loved every minute of them.

I recently saw the National Theatre Live broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at a local theater and with the announcement of its move to Broadway this coming season, I thought I would weigh in.  This is a darker, more gossipy, more ferocious version of the play.

Janet McTeer is a formidable actress, among the best of her generation, capable of fine nuance and grand dramatic gestures, both equally truthful.  Her Nora in 1997’s A DOLL’S HOUSE was stunning.  Dominic West, although a sturdy Actor, is no match for Ms. McTeer.  Especially in a production that has heightened the gaming aspects of the script, she needs a stronger opponent to thrust and parry. Hopefully they have found it in Liev Schreiber, who is taking over the role of Valmont for Broadway.  I am really looking forward to this production.

Show Info

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(The play is based on a 1782 French novel. There was a 2008 revival that was not as successful.)