BroadwayCon5 Untold Stories of Broadway ProducersHow Thoroughly Modern Millie ended up with a working elevator, a producer “originated” a role in Dear Evan Hansen, an idea for improv became a decade-long hit, and more.
January 28, 2017
At BroadwayCon 2017, Broadway producers John Breglio (A Chorus Line), Ken Davenport (Kinky Boots), Alia Jones-Harvey (Eclipsed), Stewart F. Lane (BroadwayHD), and Stacey Mindich (Dear Evan Hansen) gathered for a panel on the basics of Broadway producing. With such established careers, these theatremakers told some fascinating stories about producing hits throughout the years.
1. Elephants are not meant for the stage, but chickens can be Broadway stars. This isn’t so much a secret, but it felt important to mention as most producers’ faces sunk when they heard moderator Mitch Weiss’ anecdote about a director who wanted an elephant in their show (and wanted to make sure that the elephant would be available to start rehearsing by the next day). This, however, was not the only story about a director requesting live animals onstage. Ken Davenport, who is producing the Broadway-bound revival of Once On This Island, mentioned that director Michael Arden is interested in having both a chicken and a goat join his cast. Davenport said that he is excited at the prospect of adding a new element to the show, which was one of the first he saw on Broadway after moving to New York. “My job as a producer is to help facilitate the artist’s vision and to do things that haven’t been done before,” he said. The point being: Sometimes you’ll get a crazy request that becomes an exciting and manageable challenge (as long as you aren’t asking for a 12,000-pound animal, that is).
2.Trust your creativity. Money doesn’t solve everything. When producer Stewart F. Lane was working on Thoroughly Modern Millie, he was asked to purchase a working elevator for the set that would cost $350,000. After agreeing to the request and installing the elevator on the stage, they realized that the show was running over three hours…because of how long it took for the elevator to go up and down. When the show set out to tour, Lane said, “We went back to the lights and the creativity [to see if there was a way to simulate an elevator without purchasing another expensive set piece.” Sometimes a little creativity goes a long way in terms of saving on production costs.
3. Improv skills really come in handy. Sometimes producers find themselves flush with cash and ready to produce the next big Broadway hit. Other times they’ll find themselves in a McDonald’s, hunched over a book on improv, just minutes before the first rehearsal of their next project. Such was the case for Davenport, who “didn’t have a penny” when he got the idea for The Awesome ‘80s Prom, which ran Off-Broadway for over a decade. “To start producing that show, it cost me [lunch for the cast], a rehearsal studio, and a how-to improv book,” he said. “As you walk down the path, you’re going to need money, but I’m a firm believer that if you build it, they will come.”
4. Some producers “originate” roles in new shows. In the early readings of Dear Evan Hansen, which took place at the round table in producer Stacey Mindich’s office, Mindich was often asked to read the role of Heidi Hansen. “They didn’t let me sing,” she laughed. “We actually built both The Bridges of Madison County and Dear Evan Hansen in my office. We didn’t do anything with actors until we knew we were ready.”
5. Your skills in other areas will absolutely help you in the producing world. “I jumped head first into producing,” said Alia Jones-Harvey, who became a producer after working on Wall Street. “It was definitely an uphill learning experience, but having some background in raising money [helped a lot].” However, it doesn’t matter what field you come from. “If you’re coming from a background that you can rely on, then you can find a partner who complements your skill set.” If you’re interested in producing a show, and the one thing that you’re certain of is that you love the material it presents, take Jones-Harvey’s advice: “Everyone here has taken a different route to becoming a producer. There is no one way, but if you find a show that you truly believe it should be onstage, then you, too, can become a producer.”