It’s been a whirlwind few decades for Rocco Landesman. Since January, he’s been resting up after many busy years as a Broadway producer, theatre administrator, and national spokesperson for the arts.
A child of St. Louis and a graduate of The University of Wisconsin and the Yale School of Drama, Landesman found a home as a producer on Broadway with the success of his production of Big River, which won the 1985 Tony Award for Best Musical. Landesman, who went on to produce acclaimed shows including the original runs of Angels In America and The Producers, is now President Emeritus of Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates five Broadway houses. He became Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in May 2009 — a position he held through the end of calendar year 2012.
DC Theatre Scene recently had the chance to visit Landesman at his DC home to talk shop. The reflections, discoveries, and critiques he offered about today’s American theatre landscape appear in edited and condensed form below.
You’ve worked nonstop for many years. How’s life at a more relaxed pace?
I’m delighted to have my own time back. For the first time in many decades, I can go where I want and be where I want. That’s been a great joy. I just went to New Zealand to celebrate my retirement. But now I’m not sure what will come next. I did buy a piece of the Chicago White Sox, so stay tuned for news about what happens in baseball.
If we’re going to do a little retrospective here, we should probably start at the beginning. Tell us about growing up in a theatre household in St. Louis.
We were definitely a theatre family. Jay Landesman, my uncle, ran a cabaret theatre in St. Louis with my dad Fred called the Crystal Palace. It was a very cutting-edge, avant garde place in the fifties. They did the second production of Waiting For Godot in the United States. They did improvisational theatre there. The Compass Players, which later morphed into The Second City, performed at the Crystal Palace. Lenny Bruce played there. The Smothers Brothers started out there, and Barbra Streisand opened for them before anyone had ever heard of her.
Jay and my aunt Fran debuted their musical The Nervous Set at the Crystal Palace before it moved to Broadway. It was a very exciting time in St. Louis in those years. So I grew up in that atmosphere.
I did a lot of acting in high school and college. Then at one point it dawned on me that I didn’t have the talent to be a professional actor. But I was still interested in theatre. So I began writing criticism, including theatre criticism, at the University of Wisconsin. Then I went into this program at the Yale School of Drama designed to train critics.
Big River was your first show. What drew you so strongly into that particular project?
Very simple answer: it was all about Roger Miller. I love country music, and I think Roger Miller is the greatest songwriter in American history. He was a genius, an absolute original. I had an idea with Heidi [Ettinger], my wife at the time, that Roger Miller could write the score for a Broadway musical.
How come? What’s the connection?
Country music and Broadway musical writing are not that far apart. They both put a heavy emphasis on lyrics and on storytelling and character. I think there’s a real affinity between country music and showtunes. Now, “Huckleberry Finn” was my favorite novel at the time, and I felt immediately that Roger had a command of that vernacular and that style, as well as a sense of Mark Twain’s humor and irony. So I thought he’d be a good fit to write a musical about Huckleberry Finn. And he did. The show won seven Tony Awards and it had a great run on Broadway. I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now if Big River hadn’t been a huge success.
The role of the producer has changed a lot over time, particularly on Broadway. What are some of those changes?
Back in those days, much more so than today — although there are certain examples of it today — the producer originated the show. They thought up the idea for the show themselves, and then they hired the book writer, the composer, the actor, the director… So with Big River we put together all those elements. Heidi had done set design for Des McAnuff, and he became the director. Bill Hauptman was the writer. We worked hard to put together all these elements.
These days, producing is usually a presenting function. The creative team has created the work already, and then they bring it to the producers. Into The Woods worked like that — it had already been created by Sondheim and Lapine. The Producers had already largely been created by Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman by the time I got to it as a producer, so I didn’t have much creative input. In these cases, producing is much more about raising the money, marketing the show, handling the business end. These days, producers do that kind of work more than anything. The idea of a producer conceiving a show doesn’t happen that frequently anymore.
The business of art is always a complicated issue. If you had to boil it down, would you say that it’s more important for a producer to give audiences what they want, or to give audiences what you want them to have?
I don’t know if there’s an exact answer to that, because I think good art can come out of it either way as long as you like it and you have a passion for it. Cameron Mackintosh is a great producer because he actually loves Cats and Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera. He truly loves what’s in those shows. So I might just say that you can’t produce for somebody else. You have to produce for yourself. If something becomes especially commercial, that’s great, but you can’t have an eye only on producing what you think someone else will like.
Now, I know many serious producers and theatre artists aren’t going to produce commercial work, because that’s not their sensibility. That’s perfectly fine. But trying to put on a commercial hat for a project that’s not your passion? That’s dangerous territory.
Let’s pretend you’re the age you were when you did Big River. Do you see particular work out there in theatre right now — locally or nationally — that you’d want to have a hand in producing?
That’s hard to say. I haven’t seen shows lately that specifically make me think: I wish I had produced that. But I see a lot of shows out there — Once might be an example — that have been produced out of someone’s real passion, without regard at first to its commerciality. Spring Awakening was another one. I think people who are producing out of their own conviction have the best chance of success. Sometimes they become commercial productions, sometimes not. But you have to produce from your heart. That will never be a hopeless enterprise.
It’s interesting to be in DC while we have this conversation. This is a city of institutions, in many ways, and DC theatre artists talk quite a bit together about how, or if, they value that sense of caution about what is commercially viable.
Well, their work has to reach audiences. So there has to be some commercial aspect to it. And it helps to have good box office and good reviews. But if the work isn’t passionate in some clear way, not much can save it.
Do you see shows here in DC?
We see Michael Kahn’s work at Shakespeare Theatre. We go to Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, Signature Theatre… No one can see everything, but we’re in the DC theatre audience for sure.
And how do you think DC theatre is doing? What excites you about what you’re seeing?
It seems to me that DC theatres all do serious work. They care about the quality of their work. And increasingly, it seems, I see shows in DC before I see them in New York, which is exciting. I saw the David Ives play Venus In Fur at Studio Theatre before I saw it in New York. And Clybourne Park I saw at Woolly Mammoth first. Great work, no question.
I’ve noticed that theatres here don’t have the finances to do a lot of musical theatre. Arena Stage and Signature do it, but I’d love to see more of that. But I know it takes a lot of resources to do musicals. It’s not like a lot of regional theatres anywhere else are doing musicals either.
Talking about resources bring us to the everlasting topic of supply and demand. You’ve spoken a number of time about this in recent years.
Well, I made those remarks at Arena a couple years ago, which basically became infamous! It felt like the whole field rose up in fury about that one. What, we can’t talk about supply and demand? We can’t have a conversation about it? The reaction to me talking about how to gauge the number of theatres we should have was like: How dare you raise this subject?
But there really is elasticity of demand. And there’s a disconnect about how the theatre community talks about it, or sometimes refuses to talk about it. At the NEA, we found that theatre attendance has been declining while the number of theatres is proliferating. At some point you have to say: there’s a disconnect here that we need to talk about. And maybe that means fewer theatres.
Some of the theatres that are most commercially viable are the ones that are investing in the future by building more space. Their push toward drawing in future demand is based on the success they’re already having.
Sure. But again, the ones who are feeling strain from these projects are the ones where the demand simply doesn’t rise to the level of supply. What’s happening is “If we build it, they will come,” rather than “If they come, we’ll build it.” My basic point was that in cases where you can’t increase demand you typically have to decrease supply.
A lot of people don’t think of it in simple terms, though.
People were making it sound like we were going to be running death squads at the NEA. Rocco’s advocating for fewer artists and fewer plays! Nonsense.
I think many of those who had a strong reaction to what you said are trying to make sure we’re not just coming up with reasons not to invest in the arts. Theatre folks don’t want to assume that they’ve thought of every possible way to boost demand. That’s understandable, don’t you think?
Boosting demand is what they have to do, and god bless them for it. But it hasn’t happened as a larger trend. Listen, this is a really valid topic for conversation if people can bring themselves to talk about it. The theatre world can be so defensive sometimes.
It’s their careers they’re defending.
I know. I really do feel strongly that theatre practitioners need to make a living in their field, and most of them can’t. If you look at what a playwright or a director has to do to make a living in the resident theatre… it’s almost impossible. I was married for 18 years to a very successful set designer who worked on Broadway, but if she did two or three resident theatre productions a year instead — which would take most of her time — she couldn’t make enough money to pay her assistants. I mean, it was appalling.
My point was: maybe if there were fewer theatres, people would be able to make a living wage here and there. It’s a legitimate question.
So let’s talk about theatre nationally, and regionally beyond DC and New York. What do you think theatre is doing well regionally right now? Or: what’s not up to snuff?
To me, the resident theatres that are doing the best work are those who do theatre for their communities and their actors. Some theatres have a mindset more like they’re waystations for Broadway, or part of a farm system for Broadway. But trying to measure the validity of what you do by trying to transfer shows to Broadway… that’s a hopeless errand.
It’s very hard to build an identity, or an idiosyncratic style, if what you’re trying to do is move a show to New York. That starts to corrupt the whole process. You start choosing shows and determining what you’re doing by based on commercial viability, rather than what your community and your audiences need to engage with. Sometimes you see actors living in residence as a company, and that’s very heartening. But there are very few theatres that do that, and almost none of them work in true repertory anymore.
When the resident theatre movement was formed in the 1960s, it was much more common to have a group of actors in residence who grew together and were a cohesive unit, doing plays in repertory. You’d have two or three shows playing at the same time, with the actors taking different roles in each. The plays were chosen in large part to give those actors interesting roles. It was a special and intimate relationship each time you presented them to your audience. But that kind of ecosystem is rarely found in the resident theatres anymore. There are economic pressures.
The resident actor model certainly provides a level of home, given the transience of many actors’ lives.
To have a home where you can work and grow together as a company… to allow a company to have an aesthetic and a point of view built off of who’s really there performing… that’s what it’s all about to me. And as the theatrical world gets more and more atomized and fragmented we see less and less of that. Maybe someday that model will be brought back, but the circumstances in the world would have to change pretty dramatically.
When you talk about making art that’s meaningful to specific communities, as you referring primarily to new works?
In part. But it can also be about reimagining the classics. You can do old repertories in new and interesting ways. The special ingredient is that feeling of company among the actors, that continuity of talent.
I guess the bottom line is a group’s relevance to the community. And the center of gravity a home can create for a company of artists.
Exactly. I think that’s the most satisfying way to do theatrical art.
Howard Shalwitz at Woolly Mammoth has been talking a lot in the past few years about ways of working back toward something similar to this model. He’s thinking about ways of getting the whole creative group in the room earlier, actors and designers alike. If you can’t do a show comprised only of people directly from your native community, at least you can have artists come in earlier and work together longer.
I think that’s very important. And I also like that Arena Stage has a program in place now of hiring playwrights, to give them some professional security and workspace. It’s a concrete way of acknowledging that playwriting is an honorable profession. If that becomes a model or starts being emulated, it could be tremendous for the theatre community as a whole. I’d sure like to see more of it.
Do you have other thoughts on theatre that isn’t being produced in America right now but should be?
I do worry about the future of musical theatre. Mainly because of the enormous resources required to do it. Musicals are always in danger of becoming a lost art, I think. Which is sad because it’s really Americans that do musical theatre better than anyone else. When I see musicals in England I’m usually appalled at how shoddy the productions are. They can’t sing and dance! Of course, I’m sometimes appalled when I see Americans doing Shakespeare. But we do musicals better than anyone.
Theatre is special. It’s different from the movie business, the book business, the music business. There are no real efficiencies of mechanization and scale in theatre. You can’t stamp out a theatre production 50 times or 50 million times. It’s live each night. The sets and costumes are hand-made. It’s done by those actors in that particular place. And that’s more and more expensive because it’s labor-intensive. The beauty of theatre is also its tremendous vulnerability, because it’s so expensive to do.
Do you have thoughts on the musicals that are happening on Broadway today?
I have to say, it’s very hard for me to watch most musicals on Broadway now, because they feel so over-produced, over-mechanized, over-miked. The music is so in-your-face. It’s become such a technological experience. At least that’s how it feels to me. More loudly-sung power ballads… more mechanization of the stage effects and the set… It feels like a different world to me.
When I see musicals nowadays, I feel old. The last musical I really produced, which was The Producers, now feels like a total anachronism to me. It’s not exactly a technological wonder.
Where do you think those change came from?
It has to do with the way the ear is trained now, and with people’s attention span. Taste has evolved. There are a lot of factors that make a show like The Producers feel like a thousand years ago.
Let’s not forget to look at the other end of the spectrum — at the Fringe theatre movement. There’s a big growth in the Fringe movement right now. What do you think about shows that are micro-produced like this?
I guess I’ve spent a while talking about how resource-consuming it can be to do theatre, but of course, the opposite is also wonderfully true. If you have a stage and a couple of actors, you can do pretty much anything you want. So there’s always going to be a Fringe or a counterculture theatre. That will never go away. That’s very encouraging, no question.
The NEA gives grants, of course — something that has been at the forefront for you for the past few years. Do you think that theaters are too dependent on outside funding? And if so, where should that funding come from?
I think serious theatre has always required patronage in some form or another, on some scale. Whether that’s the NEA, or state arts councils, or private donors… Giving funds has always been a part of the work that needs to get done and it definitely needs to continue. The NEA can’t do enough all on its own… There was a day when it was bigger, but it’s more limited now. So I can only say: wherever a theatre can get the money and support to keep going, that’s what they need to do.
How did you deal with the NEA’s limited budget during your time in charge?
It’s challenging, for sure. I felt my responsibility in that job was to make theatre a much bigger part of the national conversation — to bring about much deeper and broader support for the arts. The arts need to be a much bigger part of our national consciousness, particularly at the federal level. So what we tried to do was to form collaborations with other federal agencies that have real funds, real money.
The NEA budget is almost unnoticeable. It’s like a rounding error compared with the budget of the HHS or HUD or the Department of Transportation or the Department of Agriculture. That’s where the real money is. Fortunately we were able to form a number of collaborations and partnerships with these agencies to bring along a real funding stream for the arts in a way that never existed before.
We also went to the private sector. We started an organization called ArtPlace, which is a consortium of private foundations. Basically, the biggest arts funding organizations in the country got together and decided to fund what we call “creative placement” alongside the NEA. The point has been to use the arts to revitalize communities and neighborhoods. And to bring the arts to the grown-ups table, to the real discussion of how we’re allocating our resources in this country.
For us to be sitting in meetings with the domestic policy council, which had never happened in the past, was very important. And I think that’s a real legacy of my tenure there, and of all the people I worked with.
Certain people do seem to perk up if you can find a good way of talking about the economic implications of development of the arts.
That’s the way it gets traction in Congress and in the administration. Otherwise it’s just one more thing going on in the East Wing. And it needs to be in the West Wing — it needs to be front and center. It’s an important part of the economy.
What comes next for you? How involved in the theatre world do you think you’ll be?
I’ve kept financial interests in Jujamcyn, but I don’t have a burning desire to go out and produce something right now. I’m looking forward to an opportunity just to rest and reflect. I may do some more writing. I certainly want to do a lot more reading. It’s only been a few months, so TBD.
But I’m still going to be an avid theatergoer. I think I’ll be able to do a bit more traveling to go see shows in other cities. I’m looking forward to being an audience member and an appreciator now. That’s a special role I always enjoy.
You mentioned writing. Do you know what kind of writing you’ll be doing?
We’ll see what happens. While I was at the NEA I remember getting an invitation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters to give a speech. That opportunity got me to reflect on the nature of art and why humanity needs it — the more anthropological explanations for why all societies have art, and why they have to continue to make art. That big topic, and reading about all the issues it raises, will continue to fascinate me, I have no doubt.