The Broadway company of The Lion King came out full-force April 10 to cap a memorial service for a theatrical king (and their late landlord) James M. Nederlander. As they delivered the stirringly apt “He Lives in You” from their show, snapshots of a life well spent in the arts flickered across a huge screen behind them.
At the song’s end, the audience rose and gave one final standing ovation to the last of the Broadway patriarchs, who died July 25, 2016, in Southampton at the age of 94.
The hour-long mid-afternoon tribute was presented in the Nederlander-owned Minskoff Theatre, which was packed to close-to-capacity with a glittery crowd that could only be described as Theatre Concentrate.
Thomas Schumacher, who produced The Lion King for Disney Theatrical Productions, served as a host of sorts, opening and closing the salute and setting the tone with fond memories of how hospitable the theatre icon was to Disney invaders, offering up the Palace for the company’s first Main Stem effort, Beauty and the Beast.
Schumacher said Nederlander pooh-poohed the glamour aspect of the job. “As he said more than once, he was in the moving business: ‘Move ’em in. Move ’em out.’”
An impressive array of heavyweight names that the iconic theatre owner moved strategically in and out turned up to express their gratitude and appreciation—names like Tony Bennett, Tommy Tune, Billy Joel, Harry Connick Jr., and Kristin Chenoweth. Most came with songs, some came with stories to share.
Ten-time Tony winner Tune delivered his big hit from Seesaw, his first Nederlander show and his first Tony-winning performance: “It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish).” “Seesaw,” he said, “was the beginning of our professional relationship, which lasted for 52 years and never faltered. Shows come and shows go. Theatres get renamed, but the one thing that didn’t change was Jimmy’s loyalty.”
He then introduced Chenoweth, and they improvised some microphone-adjustment comedy going from 6’6” Tune to 4’11” Chenoweth (an inch taller than Danny DeVito).
She too met Nederlander with her very first Broadway show, 1997’s Steel Pier, and their association continued through to Wicked. “My kind of guy,” she beamed proudly. “He wasn’t that much taller than me, and we had a very similar voice.”
Veteran producer Emanuel Azenberg, a longtime Nederlander associate, waxed his usual eloquence from the podium. “When you get to be my age—and this is about the oldest I’ve ever been—we more and more tend to look backwards, to be nostalgic,” he noted. “Nostalgia in the 17th century, I read recently, was regarded as a psychopathological disturbance. In our Broadway theatre, we older people are afflicted more with this disorder than most other occupations. It was always better in our time—funnier, more collegiate, more artistic, less commercial, et cetera.
“The past was better,” he insisted, “and, if we don’t have that romantic, more ideal past, what will we be left with? We’re not nearly as important in the present. We don’t really want to be patronized in the future. Well, the future may not include us at all.
“We now look back on Jimmy’s life trip, nostalgically. We describe it as truly successful, up-tempo, exciting, no bad things, hits, only hits. And it was a great trip.”
The trip was not without bumps, Azenberg allowed. “There was failure, heartbreak, loss personal and professional, tough competition, theatres that sorta got away… The Hellinger was sold because Jimmy needed the money to pay for everything else. But even in those difficult times, if you were a friend and in deep trouble, Jimmy Nederlander and [his brother] Joey Nederlander would be there. They’d somehow bail you out. On the other hand, in those more difficult times, if you wanted a $10 raise, you’d have a hard time. The theatres needed repairs, and money was tight.
In those days, you could say Jimmy was generous to a fault and cheap to an art.
“The James Nederlander success is a great American story. That success was earned and deserved, but we should always remember that it came with hard times, hard work, and some sleepless nights and achieved by a man who knew what loyalty meant. If there was anybody you wanted in a foxhole, it was James Nederlander.”
Billy Joel might seem an unexpected person to be thankful to Nederlander but his one and only Broadway effort—Movin’ Out, set to dance by director-choreographer Twyla Tharp—ran three years. Also, “Jim pioneered amphitheatres around the country,” he said, “and we played a bunch of those places.”
But it was Nederlander’s crafty negotiations that got Billy Joel the mother of all amphitheatres. “We were angling to play Yankee Stadium back in 1990—no one had ever played it before,” he relayed. “We were negotiating with George Steinbrenner, and he was very proprietary about the field at Yankee Stadium. ‘No rock fans are going to trash up my field.’ Jim pointed out to Steinbrenner that word was that Paul McCartney is going to do a show this summer at Shea Stadium.’ Steinbrenner heard this and went, ‘Yes! Get me the piano kid.’”
He then waved on Harry Connick Jr., who couldn’t resist crowing, “The first thing I have to say is Billy Joel just opened for me!” He also credited Nederlander for bringing him to Broadway via An Evening with Harry Connick Jr. and His Orchestra.
“The Nederlanders were an instrumental part of my career on Broadway,” he confessed. “In fact, the very first thing I did was play the Lunt-Fontanne in 1990 or so. It was a few weeks of playing concerts. The feeling I got appearing on Broadway—even in that capacity—was something I’d never experienced before.”
Nederlander’s distinctive carny-colored speaking voice was much commented on, but Nick Scandalios was the only one game enough to attempt to mimic it—and even he admitted, “You haven’t heard Jimmy’s voice until you’ve heard him scream from the next room: ‘I want you to book Hootie and the Blowfish into the Greek.’”
The executive vice president of the Nederlander Organization, personally groomed for the job by Nederlander himself over the past three decades, said, ‘Jimmy invested in me from the age of 22, and for the entire 29 years we shared, he never stopped. The confidence, support, friendship, mentorship, and love is something I’ll carry with me for all my days. While I was always aware of it and always grateful for it, nine months after losing him, I can say with hand on heart it is a love and affection that stirs my soul each and every day in ways that I continue to marvel at.”
In 2009, Nederlander lent his name, support, and funds to the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, which celebrates outstanding student achievement and elevates the importance of theatre arts education in schools. The Best High School Actor and Actress are annually honored with the Jimmy Award and a $10,000 check.
Sixty of The Jimmy Award alumnae showed up and performed a keenly choreographed musical mash-up of showstoppers from Nederlander hits—“Tomorrow,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “The Lambeth Walk,” et cetera. Special attention was given to “Jimmy” from Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Fittingly, the last word was given to the president of The Nederlander Organization: “James M. Nederlander was my hero, mentor, a father that I was lucky enough to call a colleague and best friend. He loved show business, both the show and the business. I have never seen an individual more devoted to talent, producers, people up front and at the back of the house, showing up to support an individual no matter what part of the world it may be, telling a young artist to keep following their dream—‘You got talent, kid. Keep punchin’ and stay out of the way of the fast ball.’
“Whether he was producing shows, booking theatres, promoting concerts, he was always looking toward the future—always loyal, always shooting from the hip—yet always bringing an individual down for a soft landing when they didn’t like what they heard. A handshake guy whose father taught him, ‘If your word’s no good, you’re no good.’ Thank you, Dad, for being the greatest father and grandfather anyone could hope for. You’re always in my mind and forever in my heart—“
At this point, James L. Nederlander paused. A commotion backstage seemed to catch his eye, and he excused himself from the stage. Moments later, he returned with news: “Three to one, Yankees.” The old man would have loved it!