When Rocco Landesman saw his very first Broadway show, he began to learn about the disparity between art and commerce. In 1964 as a junior at Clayton High School, Landesman took the train to New York during spring vacation to see the new Stephen Sondheim musical Anyone Can Whistle.
"I fell in love with it," Landesman says. "I came home and was raving about the show to my parents. And they said, 'That's all well and good. But by the time you've come back, Anyone Can Whistle has already closed.'" (It ran for nine performances.)
Four decades later, Landesman is one of the most influential producers in the Broadway theater. He has been involved with mounting Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas like Angels in America and Proof, mega-hit musicals like The Producers, popular revivals like Guys and Dolls and Death of a Salesman. He even got to produce his own Sondheim musical, Into the Woods. But he's still trying to figure out how to make money out of quality.
This week Landesman is back in town on a whirlwind visit that includes his fortieth high school class reunion, the Cardinals playoff games and a bid to purchase the Cincinnati Reds. He'll also speak on Friday at Washington University. His topic: "Why We Need Broadway." "I want to keep it informal," he says. "I might talk for a few minutes, then we'll open it up for questions."
One obvious question: How did you get where you are?
In the early 1980s Landesman was a professor of dramatic literature at Yale University. He also ran a private investment fund called the Cardinals Fund. But he had long dreamed of producing a stage adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with songs by Roger Miller. Big River opened in 1985.
"Big River was an education unto itself," Landesman says. "If I had known then what I know now, the prospect of producing a Broadway show would have been too daunting to even try. But we were young and naive and passionate." Not only was the show a hit, but its sponsor, Jujamcyn Theaters, liked the way Landesman operated and hired him to run their five-theater empire. Earlier this year he bought Jujamcyn, putting him in the unique position of both producer and landlord.
In 1985 Big River cost $2.5 million to produce. "Today you're lucky if you can do a straight play for that," Landesman says. "Four years ago The Producers cost ten-and-a-half million. You can't tell me that between 1985 and 2001 prices have quadrupled."
So what has?
"The cost of labor, advertising, marketing. The problem is that theater is created new every night. Unlike the movies or other forms of entertainment, there are no economies of scale or mass production. There are no efficiencies in the theater. The costumes are handmade, the sets are handmade and the actors have to do it live each night. It's very labor-intensive, and costs have gone up faster than inflation. It's as simple as that."
What is not so simple is striking the balance that allows a producer to meld art and profit.
"To some extent my job is handicapping which shows are going to be successful," Landesman explains. "We do have to produce a certain number of hits to pay the bills. If Jersey Boys [Landesman's newest musical, which begins previews this week] turns out to be the next Grease I'll be very happy, because its success will enable us to produce some plays that we know will not make money. I knew, for instance, that Caroline, or Change [the 2004 musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori] wasn't going to make money, but I wanted to do it. The last fifteen minutes of that show are as powerful as anything I've ever seen in the theater.
"We can't do that every day or we wouldn't be in business. But now and then a show comes along of such magnitude that you have to do it. We've produced all the August Wilson plays knowing they weren't going to make money, but we felt August Wilson should have a home on Broadway. We just named a theater after him." [Wilson died of cancer at age 60 this past weekend.] "You have to do a certain amount of those things to feel good about yourself when you're coming to work every day."
Or when you're coming home.