Stewart F. Lane: Let's Put on a Show!
Stewart F. Lane is the producer of Broadway's Legally Blonde and a 4-time Tony award winner for Jay Johnson: The Two and Only, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Will Rogers Follies and La Cage aux Folles. His latest project has been authoring Let's Put on a Show!, a reader-friendly guide of the process of producing a play or musical from concept to standing ovations.
Lane, co-owner of The Palace Theatre, has also produced 1776, Gypsy, All Shook Up, Fiddler on the Roof and the movie ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway. Lane took a moment out of his New York summer Sunday to talk to BroadwayWorld.com's own Eugene Lovendusky, based in San Francisco, to discuss the over-20 years of experience he has put behind his new book...Eugene Lovendusky: Good afternoon and thanks for taking a moment to talk about your new book!
Stewart F. Lane: Oh it's my pleasure!
Eugene: What can people hope to discover when they read Let's Put on a Show!?
Stewart: Well I originally wrote the book to give people sort of a blueprint of how to put together a production. Everyone I've known from either the theatre school I graduated from (I was a BU acting major, class of, let's just say early-seventies) and even as an actor, there was never any guidelines of what to do once you get out. How do you find work? Where do you find work? And the same with producing. How do you get a project together? How do you get the play? Where do you get the money? And so I decided after 30 years of producing, plus acting, writing, directing as well… a book would be a nice primer for people who want to start a theatre company or do community or regional theatre. So I explain how you pick a play, how to get the community involved. One of the first plays I ever did, I wrote it, it was called In the Rink; it had a living-room set. So I went to a furniture store and I asked if they could donate any furniture for the living-room set. They donated patio furniture, so I had to put blankets over it. [laughs] But that's what the book is for… to tell people how to put on a production.
Eugene: Awesome! [laughs] So you do have a bunch of Broadway experience behind you, but you focus many parts of your book toward the novice theatre producers. What are some of the similarities you feel are in producing a small-scale versus large-scale production?
Stewart: I think picking the material is very important. You wanna be able to pick a play that will challenge your audience. You don't want to pander to them, you don't want to offend them. The idea of theatre would be to generate excitement, to talk, to challenge them whether it's a big production of a small theatre.
Eugene: Many theatre people (and I'm one of them) simply know the producer as that guywho raises money and accepts the Tony Award when their show wins! [laughs] Can you help paint a better picture of what a producer actually does?
Stewart: I'll start with the reason I went into producing from acting, for instance. With producing I have the illusion of some control over my life. Instead of going with my hat in my hand for each audition as an actor, I could actually be the one responsible for myself as well as for others. That's what producing is. You're the person responsible for making sure that paycheck clears at the end of every week. You're the one that finds the project, puts the team together; the composer, the lyricist, the book writer. You're the one who hires the advertising agency, the marketing agency. You're the one who picks the theatre, the out-of-town theatre. You're the one who picks the director! You're the one that they're gonna come to if there are any problems. And that's what the producer is… he's the chief executive officer. And at the same time – and this is one thing I can bring to the table that a lot of producers can't – I know the artistic sense.
Eugene: Exactly. You're getting ahead of me on questions here! I was just going to ask, having your experience on-stage back in high school; you went to LA for a while then came back because you missed the stage; how do you feel your performing and artistic experience helps you as a producer today?
Stewart: Oh, no question the work that you're able to do as an actor let's you concentrate on character and a lot you can bring to the rehearsals; motivational questions, why characters do things. I look for the same qualities in a script. I want character-driven stories. I don't rely on special-effects, I don't rely on action sequences. I want an engaging story that I think audiences will embrace.
Eugene: So what else do you look for in the shows you pick today versus the ones you may have chosen 20 years ago?
Stewart: Because I own the Palace Theatre here in New York City, my career has mostly been concentrated on musicals, like La Cage aux Folles and Will Roger's Follies and Legally Blonde which is now playing there. So that's kind of been my history. Today, creatively speaking, things have changed because the big musicals are occupying the bigger theatres longer but we're also looking at smaller,down-scale musicals. So while we have The Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King playing, we also have smaller musicals like Spelling Bee, Spring Awakening or Avenue Q. You know, one-set and 14-actor plays rather than multi-sets with 35 actors.
Eugene: How did you come about buying The Palace Theatre?
Stewart: The theatre, you've got to really love it. Although today there's a wide-range of material and a wide, broader-based audience, the grosses are higher than ever before. But I got involved at a time when it was just the opposite! The New York economy was down-the-tubes. Theatres were more of a liability than anything else; they were called a "white elephant." Banks wouldn't give you a mortgage on it. At the time, my friend and partner Jimmy Nederlander, was looking for some support to help finance the first theatre he bought in New York, which was The Palace. That goes back to 1978 when I met him, and I came on-board and that's what happened to The Palace Theatre!
Eugene: Wow! You've produced some great shows there so far, but what happens when a show that you're not producing, like Lestat, wants to move in?
Stewart: When you get the big corporations like Warner-Brothers or even Disney, they don't want partners though sometimes they should. In the case of Lestat, it was something that Warner-Brothers wanted to do, they didn't want anyone to tell them how to do it, they were gonna find out themselves. And I think they faced a lot of problems that they didn't know how to resolve when it finally got to Opening Night.
Eugene: You begin each chapter of your book with words "from the trenches" (I really like that part) where you preface with first-hand accounts of your experience in the business, including for example, the time your father convinced you the reviews for La Cage were pans…
Stewart: Oh what a night! [laughs] La Cage had a fantastic opening! We'd taken over the lobby of the PanAm Building and the theme was "Flying." We had little luggage tags with the La Cage logo on it and a 28-piece orchestra on a revolving bandstand around the symbol that we had for the show. I mean it was a glorious night! But my father was just so upset because he thought we had folded! He thought "Oh no! You'll never work in this town again!" I held a little party afterwards for my family and closest friends and my father was saying "Get them out of here! It's a tragedy! We shouldn't have a celebration!"
Eugene: [laughs] What are your more memorable good and bad moments in your career that have really helped shape you to who you are today?
Stewart: I think one of the most defining moments was the night Michael Bennett announced La Cage aux Folles as Best Musical of the Year. I was 33. You know, you can believe in yourself until it happens, but you never really know. But that night I said: "Yes! I knew I was right! I knew I was meant to be in the business! I knew I was supposed to be doing this all the time!" I had proved to myself and the world that I could pick a musical, I could deliver it and be recognized for it in the community. That was amazing. Then of course, the second time for Will Roger's Follies, just to show the first time wasn't a mistake!
Eugene: You've had a lot of success, but some people feel that a show's success is only as good as a show's marketing. Others feel it's based on talent or timing or just luck of the draw. In your opinion, what makes a production a hit?
Stewart: That's a great question because one thing I've learned over the years – and there's a lot of serendipity involved – but it's not just one thing. You could have a great play but if it's not packaged right, if you don't cast it properly, if you don't have chemistry on-stage with the performers, if you don't have the timing right, if the audience is ready or prepared for this kind of material… it all comes together. There's a little story in a book called The Season by William Goldman – it's a wonderful story and it came out when I was in high school and it became my Bible. He talks about the beginning of the season when "Judy Garland at Home at The Palace" was playing there like 1967, and Judy had been ravished by pills and this was her come-back to New York. He describes the audience watching her get up there, choking out a song, in tears. Then they bring Lorna up on-stage, she cries and chokes out a song. Then they bring up Liza and there's crying and weeping. And at the end of it, William is filing out and he hears these two guys talking in front of him. One turns to the other and says: "So that's what theatre is?" And the other one says: "You're darn right! It certainly ain't singing!" It's not just theatre; it's a theatre event, it's a happening. It's more than just the play itself. It's the context in which you're doing it and who you're doing it with and how you're doing it that makes it a major event.
Eugene: Wow, that's a great story! Thank you for sharing that. You're book has other great stories, like the risk you take financially. Where is the money in producing? How do you stay on your feet after a flop like Frankenstein but then you manage a big fan-favorite like Thoroughly Modern Millie? Where does the money come from?
Stewart: Unlike The Producers, I do put my own money in my own shows, to support my own material. The answer is to know when to cut bait; don't chase rainbows when there aren't any. For Frankenstein, my friend Jimmy Nederland said: "Cut bait! Save your money for the next show!" Inevitably there's always one person who says: "Come on, let's fight the critics! We'll find out audience! It only takes a million dollars more!" You know it's a long climb out of that pit.
Eugene: Your book goes into many details and the fine-print and time-lines, but to wrap-up, you just received a Tony for Jay Johnson: The Two and Only. Congratulations. And you're currently producing Legally Blonde. What's next?
Stewart: I'm actually producing the PBS version of Company. I'm working on a new musical called Princesses, based on the story "The Little Princess." Kind of a dark version of Legally Blonde. And I'm working with Leslie Uggams on a musical based on the life of Lena Horne.
Eugene: You've got your hands full.
Stewart: Hopefully they won't all happen at the same time!
Eugene: Thanks very much for your time and for providing such a helpful reference book for producers everywhere!
Photos: Stewart F. Lane at his book-signing (2007) by Rob Rich; Stewart F. Lane receives the Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor (2005) courtesy MrBroadway.com; Stewart F. Lane with three of his four Tony Awards (2002) courtesy MrBroadway.com; Stewart F. Lane at the Theatre Museum Awards (2006) by Rob Rich; Let's Put on a Show courtesy Amazon.com