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Broadway Bullet Interview: Broadway Producer Adam Epstein

We talk to producer Adam Epstein about Hairspray, what went wrong with The Wedding Singer, and his upcoming projects: Cry-Baby and Ever After.

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Broadway Bullet Interview: Broadway Producer, Adam Epstein

Broadway Bullet: Adam Epstein's producing career began at the very young age of 21, as an associate producer on The Life, and he has gone on to produce such wonderful works as Hairspray, also The Wedding Singer, a bunch of other stuff in between, and he's also working on another John Waters film, Cry-Baby, as well as an adaptation of the film, Ever After. Adam Epstein, how are you doing?

Adam Epstein: I'm good, thank you for having me.

BB: How do you get involved in producing at 21?

AE: I always tell people that I had a blend of insanity and a lot of passion. I graduated NYU, where I had started as a musical theater major -- I had performed from the time I was ten to the time I was eighteen -- and when I got to NYU and realized I didn't want to be an actor, I majored in political science. Upon graduating, I had a choice: am I gonna go to law school or am I gonna stay in entertainment, which I really did love? I interned for a casting office, just to sort of get a taste for what it might be like on the other side of the table, and then, from there, I went to go work for a producer called Marty Richards, which is where I began to associate produce and work on The Life. I started there, worked there for a year, and that had really taken me to a place where I realized what my bliss was. I was able at a young age to say to myself: "Okay, I know I want to stay in the arts." Even when I was an actor, I used to feel uncomfortable taking orders. I would say, "Why can't we do it this way?" or "Why can't we try it this way?" and so on, and so forth. So I think that I had a natural inclination towards controlling the creative process, as opposed to just being a part of it. I ended up forming my own company after The Life because I had a chance to produce it, and co-produce a couple of a few straight play revivals, which I thought would get me some cred - A View from the Bridge, and Amadeus, and The Crucible. I also produced the Boston company of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, and so by the time 1999 rolled around, and I met Margo Lion, we started talking about doing Hairspray, which she brought to me, thankfully, and I reacted to it with great passion just on the idea of it, and I guess you could say the rest was history, because I really wanted to do the sort of Mackintosh model of big musicals that I would originate, and shape, and pick the team for -- and not do hundreds of them, but maybe do an assortment of them that would be really, really strong, and memorable.

BB: You know, everybody knows how much a musical can lose and Hairspray's been very successful, but I don't think anyone would say that it's a Phantom. But it's a very successful show – is that still a profitable area to be in?

AE: Oh sure, I mean, you know the whole – you know, it's the old adage: "You can't make a living, but you can make a killing." It can be incredibly profitable, and with Hairspray, it wasn't that it just made me money, it was that it opened up the doors to do bigger and better things – I shouldn't say better, that's the wrong word -- it gave me a chance at a young age to do something really remarkable, something I was very proud of, and something that was very commercially viable, which allowed me to go ahead and say to other movie studios, or other rights holders, or great people in the business: "Hey, I want to work with you; hey I want to make this happen; hey, I wanna, you know, create this with you," and it gave me a credibility at a young age I probably wouldn't have otherwise had. So it paid dividends in more than just money, but the money certainly was nothing to sneeze at, you know, a hit musical really does pay, and it pays big, and that's why I think people – that's the thrill of it! Rolling the seven, I guess, right?

BB: Was it your decision to bring Marc Shaiman in on Hairspray?

AE: No, that was Margo's; she had wanted to use him. I actually didn't even really know Marc Shaiman that well, I just knew South Park [Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, a movie musical that he composed]. And I was so amazed when I went and saw South Park that somebody – and I didn't realize there was anybody else, actually, other than Trey Parker and Matt Stone – had created a contemporary, subversive musical that had -- that paid homage to the great musicals that we know and love, and had really done a movie musical! I mean, to me it was the best movie musical in years. So I was really enamored with it, and I loved "South Park" anyway, so it combined sort of my contemporary, young vibe with, you know, show tunes. It was great. And all my friends liked it too, and I said to them: "See, you do like musicals!" It was good. So Marc was obviously indispensable there, and he's a great guy, so I would work with him again and again.

BB: With The Wedding Singer what did you think was going to really work most and connect about it, and then ultimately, why do you think it didn't quite connect as you -- I'm sure -- hoped, since you produced it.

AE: Well, you know I'll say this without disavowal: The Wedding Singer -- you know, post-Hairspray, I had made a goal for myself, which was to create and develop things that came out of my own pipeline. But Margo Lion was really responsible for Wedding Singer, and called me when one of the big people who was supposed to be involved dropped out. And I always tell Michael Riedel this: I did do it as a favor, and I don't mean to disavow it, I don't. I would have done it very differently. I think it was undernourished; I think it was underdeveloped; I think it was unfinished, and I wish that hadn't been the case. I was not involved with the developmental process at all; I came in as the show was already in rehearsal, right before Seattle, and the work hadn't been done, in fairness. I think Wedding Singer had potential to be a great show, but I think it remained an unrealized show, and I think a lot of it had to do with -- for whatever reason I guess -- they just did three readings, and thought they had the structure in place, had the ideas in place, and -- once they got out of the room, it just didn't congeal so. And I also think in a large – your question had sort of a market-based implication – I think it's a show that hardcore theatregoers -- the ones you kind of have to get to attend at the beginning of any run, what they call in London the "carriage trade" -- the first six months, or seven months, the full-price ticket buyers, who really want to go [to theater] were not interested in The Wedding Singer. Nine percent of the audience, nine percent was from Manhattan, which led somebody to quip at a advertising meeting: "We should open in Flushing!" So, it was a sweet show, but it was hardly anybody's greatest moment, and I really do believe it was unfinished. Because it was sort of a conventional story, I don't think it had the quirk and the charm it should have had. I do think if the two leads had been more appropriate, and the material had been up to what I think it could have been, I think they could have created something, had it been smaller, you know, not eleven million dollars. If it had been a six million dollar little, subversive show -- if the economics were different, if you could actually do shows of that size -- it could have been at the Brooks Atkinson, elements like that could have lent it a lot more -- it would probably still be running. Because, you know, it made money for -- the reason it ran nine months was that it had low running costs. So we made money every week, and ultimately at the end of the day, you'll probably get back over time at least half of the investment. Not now, but you know, ten or twenty percent's come back without even being open, so --

BB: Do you think there's ever going to be a point in time where the Off Broadway musical, or the smaller musical becomes a good, financially viable model again?

AE: I think there is. I mean, I think that if you look -- I mean something that makes musicals successful, most importantly is their running costs, and usually, you can't separate that out from the capitalization, and here's what I mean: take Chicago, take RENT, take Avenue Q, shows all of which were two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half million dollars, and run at $300,000 or less a week, can now gross because ticket prices have gone up, and there's more inventory -- $7-800,000 a week, sometimes. Those are great business models. I mean, RENT wouldn't be running, and Chicago probably wouldn't be running if they didn't run that low, and that's been the key. They're both fantastic shows – it has nothing to do --people get confused sometimes -- it has nothing to do a lot of times with whether it's the greatest show in the world. If Hairspray cost half of what it cost, it would be making twice as much, although we make money every week, and we're in the fifth year, and we're doing great. And, you know, the movie's coming out, and I think we have several more years there. But that's a huge achievement: that it could potentially run eight years because it's not a cheap show to run, whereas shows like Avenue Q and Chicago and RENT are -- and notwithstanding their Tonys and their success -- they always have the ability to know they're going to make a good profit every week, even if it's a slow week, because they're not fighting the oppressive overhead that most shows are fighting.

BB: Marty Cooper speaks a lot on the show, and he's commented several times that he's upset at the dwindling numbers in the orchestra.

AE: Yeah.

BB: I'm wondering how much of this is based on this. Union rules prohibit you guys from trimming stuff back --

AE: Right. Well, we make a contract with 802 [the musician's union] that's set for a number of years, you know, that was what the big strike was about and --

BB: Well, but if you start off with twenty musicians and the show's --

AE: Well, yeah.

BB: -- The show's an incredible success its first year, a year down the road you're not allowed to trim it down to ten.

AE: That's right. And also going in, like when I'm doing Cry-Baby, which really needs a pit of eleven, and the theater's likely to have a minimum of 15 – we just don't need 15. It's not necessary, we're not doing Oklahoma! You know, with something like Ever After, it's a very legit, sweeping, Rodgers and Hammerstein style, Les Miserables show, a la Wicked, I guess you could say, or Phantom, you're gonna need twenty musicians, and we're gonna have twenty musicians because I want real violins; I don't want to cheap out on areas that I think are essential to the musical sound. If you're doing a rock 'n' roll Broadway musical, you don't need the kind of wind and string section that you would otherwise. 802 is committed to something that's featherbedding and unionism. It's 1936 over there – they're not making arguments that really, in my view, have a hell of a lot of validity; they're just doing it for their union.

BB: So what are some of the biggest things you want to sneak to our fans of the podcast about Cry-Baby?

AE: I think that Cry-Baby, hopefully, can be that kind of endearing and subversive show that is yet another look at the 1950s but via John Waters: with idiosyncrasy, with humor, with nuance. I mean, there's a character called Hatchetface -- if you know the material, and I think what's nice about it is in the challenge that I always felt with it, even though I really want to do it, is: how do we make it stand alone from Hairspray? Because I'd rather it say: "Oh, those are lovely companion pieces," than "Oh, there was Hairspray, and now there's this follow-up." I think because Cry-Baby has a great story, and because I think it tells a story about class, you know in America -- which is still very relevant -- without being pretentious about it. I think it has something to say – it's not necessarily life-changing, but also hopefully will have the joyous ecstasy of a great musical. We can accomplish something, and do something in a fun genre that hopefully is smart, with heart. That was where Wedding Singer, -- what it didn't have. Not that it was intentionally trying to be lowbrow but it just -- you didn't really feel, and you didn't really fall in love with those people, , and you should have. That should have been it. The decade shouldn't have mattered. Or the 80s should have been a great springboard for pure nostalgia. Maybe we're not far [enough] away from it yet, I don't know. But the 50s inspire something else. And, you know, baby boomers do buy tickets, which doesn't hurt.

BB: This year there's been, I think, a pretty undeniable backlash from the critics about musicals based on movies.

AE: Yeah.

BB: Do you think about that when you plan on your marketing for this?

AE: I think I'm always cautious, and I think I always have a certain level of anxiety, always climb a wall of worry. I think as a producer, you kind of have to. But I do believe that you can't be terribly ideological about it; I think you have to pick – I don't pick material from a catalog because it's a title. Cry-Baby is not a well-known title. There are many other titles I could have picked -- if you're gonna say: "Let's do that, it will make money," that's hardly a well-known title. So I come at things, first because in truth -- and I think David Merrick probably would have told you this if he had been here -- Cameron would tell you this, Hal Prince would tell you this: The art dictates the commerce, not the other way around. If you say: "Hey, we're going to do Show X just to make money," you probably won't make money. If you say: "Hey, let's try this; this is a good idea, and this could have something," what inevitably can follow -- can follow -- is an enormous amount of success. I mean, Avenue Q was that, Spamalot was that, Wicked was certainly that. And so was Hairspray. You know, when we were developing Hairspray everybody said: "Oh, a man in drag onstage," and "What is that?" And nobody really understood what it was, until it was like -- they heard a demo, or they came to a reading, and they said: "Oh my God, this is fresh, and this is vital, and this is a lovely way to take a look at the 60s, which hadn't really been done before in that capacity." So I think -- I think you can't second-guess the critics too much, or the press; I think you have to do what it is you love, and there's – most things have been an adaptation. There's no moratorium on adaptations of books or novels or operas or revivals, certainly. So I think if good work is done next season, I think if Little Mermaid's great and we're great and Young Frankenstein's great, it just shows that some movies work, and some movies don't.

BB: I'm wondering how familiar you are with the after-market because -- let's put a hypothetical situation out there. I certainly hope Ever After does well -- I love the movie --but it strikes me as the type of show that, if, for some reason, it didn't do great on Broadway, then every community theater in America will want to do that show.

AE: I think that that's right. Here's the thing: I'm going to go back to my same point. It's romance, it's an old -- I wanted to do an old school sentimental musical that wasn't snarky --

BB: And we need a new one! People are tired of doing Oklahoma!

AE: That, but also what's nice is: Hairspray is one of the few pastiche musicals that doesn't do the "Wink wink isn't it a hoot;" it doesn't do the "snark factor," as I call it, and I really want to do something -- now that I've done what I call "popsicals" for a number of years -- I wanted to do something that was sentimental. I want it obviously to be witty; you know, it can't be so utterly free of irony that you have no idea what you're looking at, but it will be sentimental, it will be straight up, and it will be about falling in love, and it's about romance, and I would like to take a formula [the formula of being based on Cinderella], which is bended, I think, very successfully in that movie, and make it stage-worthy. I mean, in watching the movie, how I got to it: I was watching it one day --I had seen it originally -- I was watching it on cable, and I was song-spotting it. I was going: "Oh my God, there's a musical number right there." And I was going: "There's a musical number there," and I went: "Oh my God, I gotta call Twentieth Century Fox [Ever After's distributor]; I gotta get this.' And then, know lo and behold, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich -- who've long been in the wings waiting to write their show -- submitted a demo to me that was just spectacular, and beautiful, and heartbreaking. We've had one reading, we have another one in July, and then we go out of town in the fall of '08. We actually already have the theater! I can't tell you what it is. But we're on our way with it, so it's exciting. Doug Hughes of Doubt fame is going to direct it; he was very attracted to this, and he brings a wonderful credibility to anything he does, I think. So, it's a great group.

BB:  If it were to flop, is there money in that community market? Is there money to make it worthwhile to you?

AE: Yes. Seussical is the most licensed show in America right now, making so much money for its product, for basically it's Stephen [Flaherty] and Lynn [Ahrens], its authors, but everybody, you know, the partnership – the most licensed, the most toured, the most performed, other than Grease, Annie and there's another title. But Seussical is the most heavily licensed, and obviously everybody knows it was a big flop in New York. So yeah, I think so.

BB: Now is that making it up to The Producers or --

AE:  It sure can; yeah, of course. And also, you never know, it could revivify it, it could go out in another tour -- it could have another life, you just don't know.

BB: Because I think one problem with musicals is there is a heartland out there in America listening to the show --

AE: Right.

BB: -- that love shows, but often, they don't connect with the same thing that Manhattan connects with.

AE: No, very true. That's very right.

BB: Like you were just saying with The Wedding Singer, you know.

AE: Yeah, that was -- Hairspray's now a tourist-friendly show; its second tour is out now, selling out in places like Tulsa, and all these places. So obviously, it took a little name recognition to get it out there, but it does great business. It does great business in New York for mainly kids and families – mothers and families, what you would probably call "red state folks", I guess. I believe that with Cry-Baby, you have the same thing because, even though it pushes an envelope and, there are things in it that are going to sort of titillate, and we sort of go: "Ooh, should we say that or shouldn't we say that?" It's all done with affection; It's not out there just to offend people. Nor is it offensive at all, but it might have an edge. But it's a sweet edge. Ever After really doesn't have that, Ever After is sort of the all-encompassing family show, that's not necessarily how we're – we're not trying to create it to be so square – but, you know, certainly it's something that can be heavily licensed beyond, and heavily toured, and that does factor into the decision. It's not the only decision. I guess I've often been accused of being pretty middlebrow, but that's okay. You know, these musicals are ten to twelve million dollars, sometimes more. I don't think there's a place for avant-garde bankruptcies.

BB: As for a final thought, if you're willing to share this: What has been your biggest mistake that you have learned from?

AE: I would say the best lesson I've had -- and I made sure not to repeat it in the Cry-Baby development process -- has been Wedding Singer because I think that it just shows you that titles ultimately don't hold all the currency people think they do. In other words, when I came into Wedding Singer, as I said before: worst-case scenario, we'll make the money back, make some money on it, maybe it'll turn into something of a Grease or – maybe not a Grease, but something that might have a life, and I think that's faulty thinking because I don't think that had the material been good, or had been terribly better, it would have worked infinitely more. I think the lesson is: you gotta do what you love, you gotta go with your heart, and if my heart had been in that, I think there would have been a different result, and for whatever reason it wasn't, and that's a shame. You know, I love the team behind it, and I love, personally, I love the show because I was part of it. But I do understand what people didn't like about it, and why it didn't work, and that's why I did a workshop with Cry-Baby: to make sure that we could accomplish getting the show's staging, getting the kinks out – not all of them – but making sure the show is properly developed so that we can -- because we open in La Jolla in the fall before we come to Broadway. We're out in La Jolla tweaking, and not excavating. We're out there trimming a little bit, we're not out there looking around going: "Wait a second, we are in big, big trouble, and we have no time to fix it." The underlying answer to your question is really believing in something, and doing that for the right reasons. It's almost like: don't tempt the universe and say: "Oh we'll do that, we'll make a few bucks." I think that that's scary, and I think a lot of people that – I'm not going to name the shows – but a number of shows that have come out now, and in the last few years, have thought just that, and I think: Look at them, most of them have been burned. Because the work wasn't done and -- some of them have been jukebox, and some of them have not been, and look at those titles, look where they went. So I think that's an important lesson to learn: do what you love.

BB: All right, well Adam, I thank you so much for speaking so candidly with us, and I wish you all the best of luck, looking forward to your upcoming shows, looking forward to the movie of Hairspray-

AE: It's a joy, it really is. So thanks for having me.

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Photos:  1.) Adam Epstein, 2.) Leads Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti in a scene from The Wedding Singer, 3.) (l-r.) Corey Reynolds, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Matthew Morrison, and company in a scene from Hairspray, 4.) Ever After promotional poster

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