Tonight, the stars will gather on the Audemars Piguet Red Carpet at the Beacon Theater in New York City for the 2012 Tony Awards celebrating Broadway’s finest. Fashion Reverie speaks with producer Catherine Schreiber, whose plays Peter and the Starcatcher, Clybourne Park and Stick Fly have garnered a total 14 Tony Nominations this year. With nine nominations, Peter and the Starcatcher has received the most nominations for a new American play in the history of the Tony Awards. Here, Catherine Schreiber reveals her secrets on how to become a Broadway producer, nevertheless one with multiple award nominations in her pocket, and how to pick a good script. She also shares with us what it’s like working with Alicia Keys, behind the scenes cast rituals, and how to celebrate if one wins a Tony.
Fashion Reverie: When you were a little girl what did you dream of becoming?
Catherine Schreiber: I dreamt of becoming a starring actress. I remember acting out movie songs for my parents as I listened to the scores on a record. God, I think I did the entire score of Bye Bye Birdie…My poor parents….
FR: How did the theater become a part of your life?
Catherine Schreiber: I always loved theater and was always in the school plays. I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz at Camp Walt Whitman when I was really young, the only time anyone has let me sing on stage. In junior high, I played Cordelia in the Happiest Millionaire. Great Neck North High School had an amazing theater department. I played a range of parts from Abigail in the Crucible to Amanda in The Glass Menagerie to Muriel in You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running. I went to Yale as an English major, but continued acting and never stopped. I worked with people like Wendy Wasserstein, Chris Durang, and Meryl Streep.
FR: How does one wind up becoming a Broadway producer? What does it take to be successful?
Catherine Schreiber: There isn’t one simple answer. I think people who love the theater, be it actors, directors or designers who want to be more involved in making things happen, in putting the pieces together to make the magic happen, become producers. In this business, you can’t wait around for things to happen. At least I can’t. So when I had a project I loved and wanted to do, I decided to do it.
In terms of what it takes to be successful, well let’s see, successful is an interesting word. There are different kinds of success. In the three years of working on Broadway, I’ve been involved with seven shows. Four were nominated for Tonys: Next Fall, Scottsboro Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher and Clybourne Park. Next Fall and Scottsboro Boys are brilliant and were critically successful, but weren’t financially successful. The King’s Speech, which was an extraordinary production in London and opened to ecstatic reviews, isn’t yet a financial success because of the timing of the piece. I have no doubt, however, that when it comes to Broadway it will be successful critically and financially. It is just brilliant and the consensus in London was, “better than the movie.”
So to be successful as a producer, I suppose it takes seeing the brilliance and importance of a piece, and believing in it and working hard to make it happen. Actually, it takes being lucky enough to be given projects created by such musical geniuses as Kander and Ebb or creative geniuses such as Rick Elice, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. To be successful in a financial sense… well, that takes all this, plus a little more luck. I guess if you love something and believe in it and you help give it life, then you are successful.
FR: What attracts you to a script or project?
Catherine Schreiber: I need to be deeply moved, to tears or laughter. It has to be important, even on just a human level. And as a producer, I just don’t bring money to the table, I really work hard on many levels, from marketing to ticket sales. When I produced Desperate Writers, I did everything from cleaning the bathroom, to help designing the logo to selling tickets, to creating marketing plans, to walking a large rubber duck down the street on a leash to get attention. If I’m going to spend the time on someone else’s project I need to really believe in it.
FR: We’ve seen a big change in the movie industry. People just don’t go to the movies like they used to unless it’s an “event.” Do you see the same trend on Broadway?
Catherine Schreiber: Well, I’m not going to go into the “Mega event” that is Spider Man —but I guess that answers your question. In general because it’s so expensive to do a musical on Broadway, there often is the tendency to pour everything into it, whether that be casting big TV or movie names to creating sensational special effects. But I think the last couple of seasons have shown this doesn’t always work. The little musical Once has been hugely successful, and Peter and the Starcatcher has shown how magical theater can be using the simplest of props, the cleverest of minds as those of Rick Elice, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and one’s imagination. So hopefully, theater can return to making magic the old fashioned way.
FR: The US has been in an economic slump for a few years now. How has that affected your profession?
Catherine Schreiber: There are periods when it seems people aren’t buying tickets because of the economic slump, but surprisingly, Broadway continues to show tremendous growth year after year. While many people can’t afford some of the top prices of plays dictated by their high budgets, there are discount tickets for people to come to see plays. According to the analysis by the Broadway League, the 2010-2011 season showed a growth of 9% over the 2008-2009 season. The League estimated that the “direct and indirect contributions to our economy totaled $11.2 billion” and that Broadway’s contribution to the city “is almost entirely from the money brought in by Broadway tourists.”
In terms of a specific reaction to the economic slump, I would say producers feel the need to cast stars in roles to ensure audiences will come. This worked beautifully for How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Everyone wanted to see Daniel Radcliffe, and he was indeed wonderful in the show. But, sometimes, star casting is a problem because once that star leaves, people don’t want to come to see the show anymore. Then there are shows like Next Fall, which I think would have had a longer run if there were star casting because it would have brought more attention to the show.
FR: Speaking of stars, you’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. On your last production, Stick Fly you co-produced with Alicia Keys. What was that like?
Catherine Schreiber: Let me just say that Alicia Keys is one of the kindest, most gracious, giving people I have met … and of course, unbelievably talented. She believed and still believes in Stick Fly and has been tireless in her support and promotion of it. From what I’ve seen with “celebrity” producers, this is rare. It has been an honor to work with her and her team. She brought over 25,000 Facebook fans to the Stick Fly site—that’s a stunning number.
FR: Two of your productions, Clybourne Park and Peter and the Starcatcher, are up for Tony nominations for Best Play. How does that feel?
Catherine Schreiber: Well, it feels wonderful! Clybourne Park and Peter and the Starcatcher are both brilliant in their own right. I’m a mother and not allowed to have favorites. So I hope it’s a tie. But, I have to say, I think Stick Fly also deserved a nomination. Stick Fly didn’t get the respect it deserved. Audiences loved it and it reached out and spoke to a segment of our society that has not been addressed before. Stick Fly may be gone from Broadway, but it will have a life touring and on television, and perhaps in film. Condola Rashad (nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play) was fabulous in it, and I’m so glad she was recognized. In general, this was a ridiculous season in terms of how many good plays there were that could also have been nominated.
FR: If either of your plays win, how will you celebrate?
Catherine Schreiber: With the family—the theater family. Bottom line, it’s just wonderful to be nominated, and the Tonys provide an opportunity for a broad audience to get a taste of all the plays. So hopefully, more people will come. There is nothing like the experience of live theatre. I hope more and more people become addicted. I think with the plays that Broadway offers this year, there is plenty of wonderful stuff to feed that addiction.
Catherine Schreiber, producer/actress/writer is a four time Tony-nominated producer for Next Fall, The Scottsboro Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher and Clybourne Park. She was a producer on King’s Speech the play, which played to rave reviews in London, and Stick Fly. She produced Desperate Writers, a play she co-wrote based on her movie, Off Broadway at the Union Square Theatre. Her acting tv/film roles include “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “Rat Race”, “Jane Austen Book Club”. Her theatre roles include Desperate Writers, Wayside Motor Inn at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Sly Fox directed by Arthur Penn. Catherine was honored with the Key to the City of Scottsboro, Alabama for her work with the Scottsboro Boys Museum. She is a Founder of the Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles, a VIP member of the Flea Theatre, NY and a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women. www.wowcatherine.com
—Jeanine Jeo-Hi Kim