Women Who Made Theater History: Producer Nelle Nugent

Third in a series for Women's History Month.

Take that, Shaq! Producer Nelle Nugent can top your threepeat—she won a Tony Award five years in a row, from 1978 to 1982 (for, in order, Dracula, The Elephant Man, Morning's at Seven, Amadeus and Nicholas Nickleby).

Those shows were produced by McCann/Nugent Productions, the groundbreaking partnership Nugent formed with Elizabeth McCann, her dear friend and onetime coworker at the Nederlander Organization. There had been women producers before Nugent and McCann, but not two working as such a successful team—they practically dominated Broadway for a decade. McCann/Nugent brought the Royal Shakespeare Company repertory of Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado About Nothing (both starring Derek Jacobi) to Broadway as well as such classy dramas as The Dresser, Mass Appeal and a Jessica Tandy revival of The Glass Menagerie. Two of their productions were nominated for Tonys in both 1980 and 1982, and they scored three nominations in 1985.

Nugent says that when she and McCann came up with the idea of producing together over multiple rounds of drinks back in 1975, "we pledged eternal friendship." They've kept their promise, though of late they've been working on separate projects. A mid-'80s contract with Disney provided their entree into motion pictures; McCann didn't like it and has stuck with theater producing (she's behind the current Who's Afraid of Virigina Woolf? revival), while Nugent is doing both. She's currently working with co-producer Reuben Cannon—who's just had a sleeper hit with Diary of a Mad Black Woman—on a feature film adaptation of Master Harold...and the boys, starring Danny Glover.

Her most recent film, After the Storm, based on a story by Ernest Hemingway and starring Armand Assante and Benjamin Bratt, aired on the USA Network in 2001 after winning awards at the AngelCiti and New York International Independent film festivals. Nugent remains active in the theater too, producing last season's Broadway revival of Sly Fox and co-producing a new adaptation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, which will open later this year in London.

Nugent's résumé entails a variety of jobs prior to producing. She first worked on Broadway as a production assistant on Any Wednesday in 1964. A few more shows as PA or director's assistant followed, as well as an acting role in the short-lived 1965 comedy Boeing-Boeing. She was general manager of a number of Nederlander productions in the mid '70s before launching her company with McCann (the two of them worked for a few years as James Nederlander's "handmaidens," Nugent jokes).

Every step along the way in her career was virtually a dream come true. "I've never wanted to do anything but be in the theater, since I was a tiny, tiny child. I popped out and said, 'I'm going into the theater, that's it,' and I think my entire family thought I was a changeling, because there's just no history of it whatsoever in my family," says Nugent, who grew up in Bergen County, N.J., right outside New York City. While acting in summer stock as a teenager, she "discovered backstage—and it was kind of like Balboa and the Pacific. You know: Wow! This is it!" she recalls. She became a stage manager, though few women held that job at the time—"I was willing to take no for an answer"—and later moved on to general managing. "I then went to work as a production supervisor for a company that specialized in touring versions of Broadway musicals," a job that kept her on the road constantly.

It was during that time she met McCann. "She was a company manager at the time, and there were very few women company managers. And I was by then a production supervisor—and there weren't many women doing that either," says Nugent. Once they had their own company, they did what they could to correct inequity. "Our attitude was: You get hired here as a girl; guys have to work harder," Nugent laughs. "We made it our business to make a joke of it because it was always girls had to work harder for less money, and we didn't think that was appropriate given that it was our store." Women actors also have gotten some plum jobs from Nugent, whose Broadway credits include such female-centric shows as the original 'Night, Mother, Crimes of the Heart, Leader of the Pack, even the 2002 flop Smell of the Kill.

Gender battles behind her, Nugent continues to be vexed by another part of her job—recruiting backers for a show. "After Liz and I hit with our very first show, Dracula, which was torture raising the money for, we thought, 'Oh, it'll be easier on Elephant Man'...torture! But that was a huge hit. And then we said, 'Okay, Morning's at Seven, that one will be easy.' Never happened! And on and on and on and on. It never happened. It was always hard."

With all her successes, Nugent doesn't hesitate a second in naming her pet project. "Morning's at Seven. It's my absolute, all-time, hands-down favorite—and it always will be. I love it to this day. I can't imagine anything surpassing that in my love," she says. "It was an affirmation of American ideals, it spoke to the heart of family everywhere—everywhere, two tours of it—and it revived careers. It was such a total act of faith." Nugent had found the play, which had failed on Broadway in 1939, at a summer theater in Lake Forest, Ill.: "Vivian Matalon had directed it, and he called up every producer in New York. I was the only one who got on a plane and went out to see it. I fell madly in love with it." The cast was full of highly respected but unglamorous actors (among them Nancy Marchand, Gary Merrill and Maureen O'Sullivan). "As Liz said at the time," Nugent relates, "with all the stars in it, she couldn't get a table at Sardi's with them all together!" Another obstacle: "We opened in the middle of a transit strike." But "the critics wrote it a love letter," and it ran for 16 months and won a Tony for best revival.

There have, of course, been flops too. A surprising one to Nugent was Total Abandon, which played for one night in 1983. In this case, everything seemed stacked in the show's favor, according to Nugent. "We had Jack Hofsiss directing, David Jenkins doing the scenery, it starred Richard Dreyfuss, it had a cast to beat the band. We were in our favorite theater, the Booth. We had a pre-Broadway tryout in Philadelphia: sell-out business...wonderful reviews." And then: "We came into New York and they laid us to filth. I cannot begin to tell you how horrible the reviews were. They hated everything!"

Nugent suspects the problem was the play was ahead of its time. "It was about child abuse," she says. "I guess it was impossible [at that time] to grasp that a middle-class man could be a child abuser. We weren't ready for it." A similar problem afflicted 1981's Piaf, which lasted just a few months on Broadway despite raves (and a Tony) for star Jane Lapotaire. "A woman being that coarse, I think, was difficult," says Nugent. "We hadn't had Roseanne yet on television. Edith Piaf was coarse and a street person—I think it was very, very difficult for people in high-priced seats to accept."

But, she adds proudly, "the show had an enormous amount to say about a woman's fight for freedom to be what she wanted to be, to love, to laugh, to be what she was. There's that woman thing again!"

Earlier in Nugent's career, she had to deal with men who didn't want to be managed by a woman. She remembers in particular one crew member who refused to follow her directions, then tried to blame her when something went wrong with what he did on his own. But she proclaims the playing field today "totally level," explaining: "There wouldn't be a guy that prehistoric in his mind that could get hired and still object to a woman stage manager, because there are people who are so first-rate at the job, both male and female, that it's really down to 'who cares?' It's skills that you're dealing with, as opposed to gender, which is extremely refreshing. It's also refreshing to see women IA [union] members. There didn't used to be. Liz and I were among the first to hire female stagehands."

Over the years, Nugent has seen many changes in front of the stage as well as behind it. For instance: "There's a really shrinking—shrunk, shrunk—audience for non-musicals." She elaborates, "It's difficult getting people to things that make them sit and watch and listen. If you look at the 1930s, hundreds of shows opened a season, and that was in the Depression. [Now] they're much less willing to sample and think for themselves.

"We have so many alternatives for leisure time, for discretionary income," she continues. "Television has preempted a lot of our forms. Those wonderful daffy comedies we had in the '50s—there goes the sitcom. Those kind of issue-oriented things—well, that became the movie of the week. These days you have to have much more of a marketing sense than you had in the past and be much more concerned with how you're going to market a play, because in the past people sought it out." A more recent challenge to theater producers, Nugent adds, is that "people aren't making plans that far in advance since 9/11. Those big long advances are not quite what they were."

Working in the movies, Nugent has encountered a new set of challenges. "I call it the 'may I factor,'" she says. "In theater there's very little may I factor, because you don't have distribution; you need one theater. In television you need a network, and in film you need distribution, so the may I factor is quantumly expanded by all the people who have to say 'agreed' that that is appropriate television tray on which to serve advertising or in film that will have a wide enough distribution to merit the expenditure."

As she moves between theater and film, Nugent has to adjust to other differences too. "In theater you're on a maintenance level once you open. You never get rid of it, you're always working it until it's over. So with a show that does well and has road companies, it's constant maintenance. In film, once you finish it, you finish it. It's done, and you move on to the next. That's a hugely different investment in your time."

To be a good producer, Nugent says, "you need passion, you need to be able to deal with talent, and you certainly need to convince everybody who works for you to tell you the truth. As I often say: Tell me when you see it on the radar; don't tell me when the iceberg's ripping through the hull of the ship. I can't help then, but when it's way out there on the radar we can solve it together as a team."

One incontrovertible phenomenon confounds even successful producers like herself, in all media. Citing a mantra from William Goldman's book Adventures in the Screen Trade, Nugent states, "'Nobody knows anything' is exactly what this entire business is about. If you give the audience what they want, they're going to come; the problem is finding out what they want. Even if you do all the audience research in the world, you can still come up with a huge surprise. We have to entertain, and we have to get their hearts and souls."

Throughout March, BWW is profiling groundbreaking women in various theatrical disciplines. Click to read earlier stories in the series, about writer Elizabeth Swados and designer Beverly Emmons.

Photos below Playbills: Richard Dreyfuss and Eric Stoltz in Sly Fox [photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times]; Nugent (far right) with American Theatre Wing president Isabelle Stevenson (third from left) and other women producers honored by the Wing in 2003 [photo by Patrick McMullan]. 

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