Stewart Lane- Recipe For a Producer
by Alix Cohen
“It’s like wildcatting for oil. You bring in the sound equipment and you listen. You bring in experts and they test the soil and say, that’s the place to drill! You drill down and get a dry hole. Ok. Go to the next one! It’s the best people, you think you’ve got the best script and have the best talent…”
June 1983, from the stage of The Gershwin Theater, Michael Bennett announced the Best Musical Tony Award La Cage aux Folles. Producer Stewart Lane, who’d been warned the piece would be “a career ender,” rose from his seat on hearing “the first consonant.” Up against the New York Times-endorsed Sunday in the Park with George, he’d known it was a longshot. The groundbreaking show garnered nine nominations, winning six awards. He was more than excited. “It justified my existence. I spent my whole life working towards that… Then I had to show it wasn’t an accident.”
Few producers have been as well prepared for the job as Lane. By the time he earned the first of six Tonys, he’d been a summer stock apprentice, a working actor, a produced playwright, a director, a play reader for James M. Nederlander, a radio host and drama critic, an assistant casting director, assistant house manager at the Brooks Atkinson and Alvin Theatres on Broadway, a financial executive, and a producer. Oh, and he co-owned Broadway’s Palace Theatre. He was 34.
We’re in a comfy, rather 19th century sitting room surrounded by books, plants and photos/autographs of George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Edwin Booth, PT Barnum, Sarah Bernhardt…Lane collects. Curled on the couch in his jeans, the producer is gracious and affable. He laughs easily, listens well, and raises an occasional eyebrow.
At 11 years old, my subject was preoccupied with television. There wasn’t much music in the house. He hadn’t seen any theater. Best friend Ricky, whose father was an actor, invited Lane to a Broadway show. “I had never heard of him so I didn’t think much about it, except it was kind of cool that he worked at night…” He put on his only suit, got a haircut, and was driven into the city from Long Island. Ushered to the front row of Little Me, he was awed and then entertained. Afterwards, the boys went backstage and saw Ricky’s dad –Sid Caesar “holding court in a dressing room that looked like home away from home, and I thought, why do anything else?!”
Lane has told this story innumerable times. It’s more colorfully related in a preface to his comprehensive how-to book Let’s Put On a Show! Still, the producer’s eyes twinkle recollecting. It’s easy to see that boy before me.
To say Lane participated in theater at school would be to minimize the galvanizing effect he had on his high school drama club. The adolescent not only produced, but got fellow members to write plays they would critique for each other. One of his own efforts featured a vampire who visits a psychiatrist concerned he’s growing less attractive and his teeth are rotting. Eventually, the doctor hammers a stake through his patient’s heart. ‘Turns out he’s having an affair with the vampire’s wife. Lane was way ahead of his time.
Theater attendance began in earnest at about 16. Most weekends, he’d take the train in with a single ticket. “I analyzed everything I saw and devoured Walter Kerr in The New York Times. Not until William Goldman wrote The Season (an account of the 1967-68 Broadway season) did I find anything that explained the industry.”
The summer of Lane’s junior year, Jimmy Nederlander, who was a friend of his father’s, got the boy a coveted intern position at Buck’s County Playhouse. “So when all my friends went to Woodstock, I’m doing summer stock. And I’m thrilled.” It might be noted Lane’s bell bottoms were custom made and his hair discreet in length. “If you had money, that was not a time to show it.” He was undoubtedly where he belonged.
The school’s guidance counselor discouraged a life in theater. Lane was outraged. “Look what I’ve done the last 4 years,” he railed, “How can you say I can’t do it?!” His usually moderated voice goes up an octave. Calling him headstrong, she relented. It was higher education or the draft and this was what he had set his heart on. Boston University was chosen because it offered full conservatory training. Lane was so serious about the craft, he thought a lighthearted approach would undermine it. “Jerry Orbach and Kevin Kline were stealing all my roles…” There were no courses in directing or playwriting.
One day, he walked into BU’s radio station, WTBU, and offered to do a Best of Broadway show. Every Sunday morning, the enthusiast was on air three hours. “I got to put together a commercial, tape things…” He also became, by default, the on-air drama critic. Three summers, he apprenticed in stock. The fourth, Lane was assistant to the casting director who had worked on The Godfather series.
“I Couldn’t Get a Job As a Waiter!”
Back in New York, the graduate took classes at HB Studio, voice lessons, went to the gym and auditioned, securing an occasional showcase. His benevolent parents offered to back five years in pursuit of ambitions “so they knew I wouldn’t live in a dive…The first lesson I learned was you have to have connections in everything you do. I went looking for a job as a waiter and couldn’t get one without experience.” I ask whether it occurred to him to lie. He frowns. “No, it didn’t.” Lane is a mensch. (a person of integrity and honor)
Next summer was spent at The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. “My father said, let me see whether I understand this, you’re gonna build their sets, hang lights, do publicity, act in shows and you pay them $350?! I suggested he think of it as extended education.” In fact, over time, Lane absorbed not only theater but history from Shakespeare through Gilbert and Sullivan. He suffered no stage fright and memorized entire scripts with ease.
Aware an Actor’s Equity card was necessary, Lane agreed to apprentice at an Illinois theater “In the middle of nowhere.” He packed warm clothes (it was November) and a hefty stack of plays from the Nederlander office to critique and send back in exchange for others. Over two entire years Lane found nothing worth recommending. He shrugs. ‘Not as easy as some think.
“I was ready to take on the world.” He toured in Send Me No Flowers with Van Johnson “a doll” (who always wore red socks and a girdle onstage) and played the lead in a North Carolina production of Picnic. No musicals. “I did patter songs for auditions because I never really had a voice.” While acting in Never Too Late at a dinner theater, Lane decided he might as well be doing sitcoms and flew to California. Listen to the offhand tone. He joined The Groundlings Improv group and took more classes.
In the Wings
With no jobs in the offing, Lane authored a comedy called In the Wings, which unexpectedly became the first show he professionally produced. The effort was a combination of trial and error, how-much-free-stuff-can-I-get, and a loan from his father (which was paid back.) He found a theater, developed a marketing campaign, had a logo and set designed by friends; local stores donated furniture, they rehearsed in a synagogue. In the Wings made back 75% of its investment he notes proudly, an admirable return in theater. When he was 50, Lane rewrote the play from very different perspective. That version was produced by The Promenade Theater in New York.
The five year subsidy running out, he telephoned “Jimmy” (Nederlander), asked whether there might be a job here, and was hired as assistant house manager at The Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Responsibilities included dealing with maintenance, W2 forms, patrons, stagehands, the boiler bathrooms, take-in and take-out of shows, unions… Then he began to double at The Alvin Theatre. Acting was no longer in the picture. He calls it “an honorary withdrawal.”
“You read all the scripts,” Nederlander said to Lane,” Invest in one of the shows, that way you can sit in on meetings.” At 29, in search of his niche, Lane invested $20,000 with Whose Life Is It Anyway? starring Tom Conti. Emanuel Azenberg was lead producer. “These guys were 30 years older than I was. I learned by listening.”
He also became a junior executive with his father at Rapid American Corp, the retail operation that had purchased RKO. A genuinely right brain/left brain individual, Lane found himself involved with the banking industry, computers, cable, oil… He did this while maintaining jobs at The Atkinson, The Alvin, and The Palace Theatres evenings and weekends. When Rapid American bought a half interest in the Palace, Lane started coproducing there.
His first experience was Jerry Herman’s The Grand Tour with Joel Grey. “He was wonderful, but no one wanted to see a little Jewish guy getting chased around Europe by Nazis.” This was well before the Academy Award winning film Life Is Beautiful, which successfully excavated humor out of the horror. It ran three months. Lane was sure no one would ever want to work with him again. Regret hangs in the air during this part of our interview.
Next, from The Actors Theatre at Louisville, came Frankenstein, with John Carradine, John Glover, and Dianne Wiest. “It had the dubious honor of being the most expensive non-musical to open and close in one night. We had surround-sound and vibrating seats, a complete theater experience… I think the fault was in a script that adhered to the original story and not people’s expectations.” A Frankenstein poster hangs on the glorious failures wall at Joe Allen’s (the iconic theater-goer’s hangout). Lane, immortalized with Hal Prince and David Merrick, is in very good company.
“Keeping your wits about you when everyone else has lost theirs…”
By 1980, Lane stopped working for his father, acquired the other half of The Palace Theater and brought in Kander and Ebb’s Woman of the Year with Lauren Bacall. (The star regularly appropriated toilet tissue from her dressing room, taking it to the Hamptons by way of a purloined company car.) When audiences didn’t get excited, the budget was appreciably upped to allow for an animated cartoon of Katz (the male lead is a cartoonist) and Tommy Tune was brought in to add zest. Still, Lane tells me the show was financially rescued by Raquel Welch who appeared during Bacall’s vacation and again after that contract ended.
Though his first brush with success, the musical was clouded by economics. Authors walked away with a quarter of a million dollars each while producers saw no profit. “I think we were the first show to institute a pool, regularly dividing profit between royalty people and investors according to proportionate shares.” Soon after, The Writer’s Guild came up with a production contract mirroring the idea which is commonly used today.
Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles, based on the play, not the film, was pivotal to Lane’s career. His was the second creative team to tackle the story returning it to St. Tropez from an attempt to relocate to New Orleans. “They said we were nuts, but I knew the material was solid-romance, family, sacrifice.” Everything Arthur (Laurents, the director) touched turned to gold. (beat) Then he went on to do Nick and Nora and it all went wrong. Same guy?! The Way We Were, same guy!” He shakes his head. So much for bankability.
Gene Barry, who contrary to his television (Bat Masterson, Burke’s Law) persona had been a song and dance man, was offered the role of nightclub owner Georges. Concerned about playing a blatantly gay man, he took some time to consider. In something of an aria da capo, Sid Caesar auditioned for the other half of the couple Albin/Zaza. “He was funny, but it wasn’t the kind of humor they were looking for.” The role was given to George Hearn who was up for anything and won a Tony.
Things went smoothly until the second preview when a serious thunderstorm leaked through the roof onto all the costumes, which got soaked. Every able-bodied company member ran to nearby hotels to borrow hair dryers. The curtain went up just a bit late. His eyebrows rise. So it goes.
Initial backers’ auditions for The Will Rogers Follies were performed by its authors, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman. “I just didn’t see it,” Lane recalls. Convinced to give the show a second chance, the producer found Keith Carradine playing the lead. “I said, that’s it. He’s Rogers. Two hours of this guy and I was won over…”
“Peter Stone (book writer) made the structure work, but when I commented a joke wasn’t landing, he’d invariably say, the joke’s fine, it’s the way the actor’s doing it! Tommy (Tune, the director) was brilliant. The cast learned rope tricks.” Lane had just renovated The Palace. Lyricist Betty Comden tripped on a carpet and ended up on crutches. Nonetheless, she negotiated her way down a spiral staircase for weeks to attend meetings in the stage manager’s basement office. “A trooper.”
Among Lane’s musical revivals are Can-Can, West Side Story, Sunday in the Park with George, Fiddler on the Roof (for his daughter, who had never seen it), Gypsy, Annie, …Why not the Follies? “You need Keith Carradine.”
After Frank Sinatra died in 1998, a columnist friend from The New York Post called Lane at his office asking whether the crooner’s story would make a good musical. Of course, was the unequivocal response. He then asked who the producer might get to write the music. “Cy Coleman wrote “Witchcraft,” Lane answered, “he’d be a great candidate.” The newsman asked after a potential director …Monday’s edition of the paper declared the show actually in development. Lane started getting calls not only requesting auditions, but offering money. Unable to turn his back on a gift horse, he and Ward Morehouse III (the columnist) collaborated on It Was Easy, which was performed in Nantucket, Atlanta and Off Broadway.
A down-and-out theater producer joins forces with a wily newspaperwoman to slap together “Sinatra: The Musical”- a license, they think to print money. Soon they’re besieged by weirdos who want to be stars, and mobsters who want to make an investment they can’t refuse.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution
“As a Producer I have at least the illusion of control over part of my life”
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical (David Spencer/Alan Menken) had an ending as dark as the one that ostensibly shut Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel. Lane says the audience was “stunned.” He successfully tested cutting the script earlier without changing the story. (Hardly unprecedented- Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the ending of Carousel, Lerner and Lowe changed My Fair Lady.) Unfortunately its authors disagreed, so the producer pulled out…
The Goodbye Girl (David Zippel/Marvin Hamlish) had book issues. “By that time, Neil Simon had kept us entertained for decades. He was on a level where you couldn’t touch him. As Manny (Emanuel Azenberg) used to say, don’t you think if he could fix it, he would?”
Asked to produce Minnelli on Minnelli, Lane was excited by the through line of Liza Minnelli performing at The Palace where Judy Garland presented one of her most iconic shows. He was also, however, concerned about the artist’s recent health and personal problems. When Liza invited him to her apartment, he assumed they’d discuss the show. Instead she performed the entire piece in her living room. It was great. Lane signed on without reservation.
Understudy Sutton Foster made her reputation stepping into Thoroughly Modern Millie (Jeanine Tesori/ Dick Scanian) when the original cast member “took sick.” She “pulled,” as the Kander & Ebb song says, “a Shirley MacLaine.” (MacLaine went on for Carol Haney in The Pajama Game.) Despite film offers, the artist stuck with the show. For that production, Lane was talked into buying a $300,000 elevator which turned out to be cumbersome and added nothing. In the end, it was used only because they owned it. He sighs.
Enron (Lucy Prebble) was successful in London before and after its failure in New York. “I think the pain of 9/11, the company’s greed and misuse of capitalism were too much for New York to swallow.”… “War Horse (Nick Stafford) was a big risk but I had faith in the emotional content.” Why then, I asked, didn’t he produce The Curious Incident of The Dog In the Night–Time which involved the same creative team. “They didn’t come to us.”
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Robert L. Freedman/Steven Lutvak) which earned the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical, was already in Broadway previews when Lane got involved. “The title was terrible, there were no stars, and we were going to be up against Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (which flopped), but I enjoyed it so much, I said yes.” A producer without intuition is like a polar bear without fur. The London production is currently being planned. Things take time to ferment.
When I raise the issue of earpieces used on Broadway in the last few years (examples: James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Bruce Willis), Lane responds unbothered. “You used to hear stories about Brando not remembering his lines. It didn’t affect his acting. Does it bother you that an entire string section is moved to the 10th floor?” As to ticket costs, Lane, in his producer hat, simple says costs are going up and it’s a case of supply and demand.
The above represents a fraction of Lane shows, not to mention artistic endeavors. He’s produced made-for-television movies, concerts, and documentaries, directed half a dozen plays, and authored: Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way, Jews on Broadway, and the terrific, aforementioned Let’s Put on A Show which exists both as a book and DVD http://www.letsputonashow.biz/
Three years ago, Lane brushed off his Equity card to appear in Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in Sag Harbor. He relates the story with innate comic timing. When they called, he thought, well, I’m too old to play Hero, maybe Pseudolus? I don’t know whether I could handle Pseudolus. I’m not really a singer…and all the lines. Well, given the time…” Cast in Buster Keaton’s former role, his reaction was The Old Man?! ME?! (pause) I’ll take it! “I loved being part of a cast again.” There’s that twinkle.
October 2015, Lane and wife/producing partner Bonnie Comley inaugurated the groundbreaking Broadway HD, a subscription library of 150 (to date) stage plays and musicals from the 1970s to 2016, streamed directly to your home. The organization shoots new shows with a television director and edits older productions. In the realm of why-hasn’t-anyone-thought-of-this-before, the service allows an international community to be up front and center for theater that was missed or to which it had no access. https://www.broadwayhd.com/index.php
“I’d Been Mad at BU Twenty Years.”
When Lane attended Boston University, the theater and music departments “didn’t talk to each other.” Nor did the school help graduates in any way. For 20 years, he was angry that the first communication received after he left was a request for money. Eventually Comley suggested he try a new tack.
Determined to rectify the situation, Lane joined The Board of Overseers, an advisory body, then worked to set up a Musical Theater department. He and Comley created an endowment that brings seniors to New York for 2-3 days every spring to audition before casting directors and producers and donated money to renovate The Fox Theater. “I don’t want to create more acting teachers, I want people working and thriving in the industry.” Additionally, Lane occasionally teaches a Producing Master Class.
Meanwhile, he’s been writing his own musical, Back Home Again, an original story (with, he stresses, a book) utilizing the songs of John Denver. The piece was successfully produced on Long Island when the musician’s catalog became available about 6 years ago. This version opens in San Francisco in January with hopes of bringing it in, then taking it on the road. Lane thinks ahead. “Historically speaking Country Western doesn’t have a good track record on Broadway, but this is more Sierra Clubblish.”
So You Want To Be a Producer?
“It’s a terrific time to be in the industry. There’s so much being produced. And it’s easier to raise money now…You have a 1 in five chance of making your money back, but hitting it big is more appealing than 1/7% ten year treasuries…It used to be, ‘I can make more money in the stock market.’ Now people are looking for the next Phantom.”
He describes directing as fun, “you get to conduct and sculpt,” acting is focused, and writing is lonely-editing his own play was difficult. Producing, Lane declares unequivocally, is work. “People depend on you to get that check every week. No one cares how nice a guy you are…You have to make tough decisions, like when to close. Firing people is part of the job…” The seasoned professional can’t recall turning down something he regrets. He thinks of himself as picky and wants to be involved, not just write a check.
Patience is necessary. Lane tells students it can take years for something to come to fruition. He works on a lot of things at once. It took decades to get the rights to the Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers film Top Hat from RKO (the story) and Irving Berlin (the music), who was alive at the beginning of negotiations. Lane invested in a production at The Aldrich Theatre in London and a three city tour in the UK. The show ran 2 ½ years and earned an Olivier Award, but producers in New York weren’t excited. “You might feel it in your bones, you might have a personal attachment to it, but you never know until the public gets hold of it…even after critics have seen it…”
Workshops are the preferred introduction to a show, but most often the producer is forced to base choices on words and imagination. “I read the script first, Bonnie looks at the budget first.” Begun in the late 1990s, their professional collaboration is truly symbiotic with Lane the acknowledged face of the company. While I’m in the apartment, Comley comes in and out with papers to sign, borrows her partner a moment to meet someone, updates schedules and later corals the friendly, if jealous dog. You get the feeling they might finish each other’s sentences. When I ask Lane whether he has an opening night ritual, his eyebrows go up into a Charlie Brown point and he tells me he kisses his wife.
“Knowledge is security. If I know what I’m talking about, I’m very confident. When it comes to theater or family, I can be confident…I get to work with really talented people….I’m not saying I made all the right decisions, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Going back in time, I’d be afraid to touch the butterfly. Ultimately look where I am and what I’m doing. I couldn’t be happier or more excited whether it’s starting a new project or watching the kids grow up.”
Mr. Broadway grins ear to ear.
All unattributed quotes are Stewart Lane.
All Playbills courtesy of Playbill Inc.