BWW Interviews: Judith Ann Abrams: A Dreamer With a Magic Touch

Broadway and West End producer Judith Ann ABrams has been involved with multiple ground-breaking and multi-award-winning shows throughout her long career. But, when talking to her, it is clear that her passion lies in a dream she had at age 23 that gained her notoriety in the Broadway community: The creation of The Broadway Pixie Judy Troupe - the first professional musical family theater. SHe was gracious enough to share her vast experiences, including helping to create a new Equity contract, boldly pursuing her dreams and much more.

Q. Looking at your bio, you have such an extensive list of credits! It seems you have been involved in so many hits especially in recent years.......

A. If you work hard long enough, produce shows that has a message that touches your heart, that you desperately want to share, and weed out the bad managements and co-producers from the one's who really care that your backers make back their have a real shot. I was blessed with great mentors and that is so important...especially when you are starting out.

Q. You ended up working with some big names. How did those relationships develop?

A. My family was "in the business." As an extended niece of radio,stage and television star of Gertude Berg ( Molly Goldberg) and listening to show business horror stories from my cousin, comedy writer and Broadway producer, Howard Merrill ( who created " I've Got A Secret" and wrote for Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke and every top TV show) I learned very early on that this is not just a glamour business. It's damn hard work and requires a real passion. I wanted to prove myself without nepotism and was told early on that doors might be opened for me but, I am the one " who has to go inside...and stay there!"

Q. So, you went through that door and......

A. While I was attending American University, majoring in Journalism and Communications, I was asked to be on an ABC-TV show called "College News Conference." It won many Peabody Awards and we interviews every major political figure from President Kennedy on down. I intended to follow that career but my dad died very suddenly and I left school in my 3rd year and moved back to New York. My first job was with Music Fair. They owned 10 theaters and produced touring musicals for all of them including the famed Westbury Music Fair. I was eventually promoted to casting director. It was here that I noticed that shows like The Sound Of Music, and any family musical, always sold out. I saw a great void and my dream to produce a theater company that specialized in family musicals was born. I did a proposal based on their box office reports and was immediately fired for going through their files!!!!!! But I was rehired when they saw that my proposal made great dollars...and sense.. and I was asked to form a theater for children. We started with $400.00 I borrowed from my Mom, started at Westbury only...sold out 6,000 tickets a day and the next year I was given the entire 10 theaters.

Q. And, this was how your dream and The Pixie Judy Troupe started? Did you ever pay your mother back?

A. I offered but she wouldn't take it! We eventually had 6 companies on the road and then I took a theater in New York. As Liz Smith wrote, " The Pixie Judy Troupe is the in place to go out with your kids." And we were.

Q. What made the Troupe such a success do you think?

A. I hired top writers and composers to create musicals for me, used the best Broadway actors, had wonderful directors, ELaine Stritch even directed our Tom Sawyer, and insisted that every aspect of our shows were the best and not like " Kiddie shows" that were created with cardboard sets and ripped tights.

Q. How did the Equity contract get created?

A. We were making fortunes for the theaters we played but getting very little money. Our actors got $5 a show! and, we had to dress in our hotel rooms because the " adult shows" had first dibs on the dressing rooms. The conditions were awful. So, myself and at that point other children's theater producers went to Equity to get their help in protecting our actors with better conditions and more money. To do that we created what is now the Theater for Young Audiences.

Q. And Pixie Judy? How did that happen?

A. Well, I hosted the shows so there was one central character that tied all the different productions together. I started doing it in clown face. But, some of the kids would cry when I walked on stage. We opened at The Westport Playhouse and my "Aunt Tillie" ( Molly Goldberg ) came to do press with us. I came out, some of the kids cried and when she came back after the show I was crying at their reaction. She told me to get rid of the clown make-up and be myself. She said I looked like a Pixie and so...Pixie Judy was born! Again, the importance of having mentors.

Q. And Richard Rodgers became a mentor. How did that happen?

A. He came to one of our performances at my theater in N.Y. He came back after and said he loved what I was doing to build young audiences for theater and if we needed help to call him. I did. The next day!!!!!! He ended up financing 3 of our cast albums for The Rodgers and Hammerstein Music Library and Golden Records and sent me to London to produce the the albums with the London Symphony Orchestra. He even wrote the liner notes.

Q. Is it true that you performed for the children of 2 Presidents?

A. Yes. We were the first theater for children to be invited to perform at the White House, which we did taking Helen Hayes as our special guest star in our production of "The Littlest Clown." Then, during our Summer tour
we became a favorite of the Kennedy kids ( Caroline, John and all the cousins!) because we performed at Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis every summer. Then, in the WInter, they all came religiously to our theater in New York.

Q. There is nothing like live theater!

A. I learned that at such an early age. I used to run after school every day to the set of "The Goldbergs" and watch them rehearse for that nights TV performance. It was a great learning experience and I soaked it up. But when my aunt did "Majority Of One" on Broadway and I was introduced to the magic of live theater I was hooked.

Q. And along came "Annie Get Your Gun" with Bernadette Peters. How did that change your life.

A. Well, I toyed with expanding from theater for children. Forgive the pun! Then I had the opportunity to become an associate producer of this glorious show. I grabbed it and it won a Tony for the Best did Bernadette. It was very exciting. I did not give up The Pixie Judy Troupe but the market was changing as kids got into video games and so forth. Then I came on as a Producer of The Dancer's Life starring Chita Rivera. To work with this icon was an amazing experience. I did 2 off Broadway shows, one being Cy Coleman's "Exactly Like You" and "Spalding Gray's: Stories Left To Tell."

Q. What was the actual transition for you becoming a more full time Broadway Producer?

A. I was sent the score of "Spring Awakening." I knew the story and message of the show. At that point my niece Cristal Rose had just started college. She had been to all my Pixie Judy Shows and was also brought up around theater. She brought me a couple of focus groups from her college at my request. The kids loved the show and said it was "time people produced something that speaks to our age." That did it for me and I signed on as a producer of " Spring Awakening."

I MUST always select a show that has a message that speaks to me. "Spring" was amazing and forged a bond for parents and their kids who saw it together to discuss very important issues of sex, identity, love, abortion etc. That show brought me my first Tony and I can truly we earned it. I was a producer of " Spring" in London and won an Olivier Award! Can you imagine! I was very active in the marketing and happily got us all the windows on Bloomingale's to promote the show. To me a good producer is a marketer. Marketing, marketing, marketing is what I tell kids who want to produce today. the 2 M's in my life have been great mentors and the ability to market.

Q. Why didn't you do anything for 4 years after that?

A. Well, I wanted to. I read scripts and went to workshops. But, nothing touched my heart. I actually turned down several shows. 3 never opened, one I hated the management and knew my investors would never see a financial statement and the 5th opened and closed in a week. And then along came "Kinky Boots".

A. And how did that happen?

Q. SO much of this business is who you know. I had worked with Hal Luftig on "Annie Get Your Gun." He asked me to fly to Chicago to see a try-out of "Kinky Boots." I felt if they did the work it needed it could be great. I loved Cyndi's score and am a great fan of Harvey's talent, the management Foresight had a great reputation of giving proper and frequent reports and financial information and I ALWAYS wanted to work with Daryl Roth. But, first and foremost the message touched me to the core and I knew I had to do the show. I had the passion I had for "Spring Awakening" so I was able to raise money and now I am one of the producer's of the "Kinky Boots " Tour. Kinky Boots is the gift that keeps on giving and gave me my second Tony Award.

Q. Wow! 2 Tonys and an Olivier! I bet your family is proud.

A. They wanted me to be a nurse and "stay out of this difficult business." I'm glad I didn't listen and I think maybe they are too.

Q.. How did you get involved producing in London?

A. One of my" Kinky Boots" partners, Adam Blanshay, is a producer here and in London. He got me involved as an investor with him in "Matilda" here, Mark Rylance's 12th Night etc. and now " The River" with Hugh Jackman. Adam is producing a wonderful show in London called, " Made in Dagenham" and I am involved with that and he brought me into " Scoundrels" as a producer. He didn't have to sell me because Jerry Mitchell, our genius "Kinky Boots" director/choreographer redid " Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for London and it is doing very well.

Q. You seems to be on a roll! Will you stop for a bit now and relax?

A. What is that! No, I am one of the producers of " Love Letters" and am very excited to be producing a musical of The Visit with Chita Rivera. This show will become a must see and being involved with 3 icons of theater, Chita, John Kander and Terrance McNally is beyond a thrill for me. We are losing so many icons. Elaine Stritch was a very dear friend and I was sending a script to Joan Rivers.

Q. And what has happened to Pixie Judy?

A: Well, I want to do a Pixie Judy Pop Up Theater and am looking for a space right now. My shows are timeless and I think people are tired of paying Broadway prices to bring their kids to see professional, live theater. So stay tuned! If you keep the kid in you alive and are passionate about what you do rusting isn't in the cards for this old broad... or Pixie Judy!

Judith's participation is as producer on KINKY BOOTS, LOVE LETTERS, the upcoming THE VISIT with Chita Rivera, the London production of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, the national tour of KINKY BOOTS and the past Broadway hit SPRING AWAKENING. A recipient of 2 Tony Awards and an Olivier Award, she and her company are involved as investors in the Broadway production of IT'S ONLY A PLAY, MATILDA and the upcoming THE RIVER. She is also currently working with her partner Adam Blanshay as investors for the London production of MADE IN DAGENHAM. Judith's company does producing, marketing and investing.

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From This Author Sally Henry