Growing up, the only thing Scott Rudin wanted to do was become a theater producer. “I never had a fantasy of doing anything else or being anything else,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “I used to read [The New York Times’] Arts & Leisure [section] and obsess over, ‘David Merrick has five shows running on Broadway! What would that be like?’ ”
Rudin no longer has to wonder. After getting his start working in producers’ offices on Broadway when he was 15, he went on to create his own production company. There, he produced countless plays and musicals, including the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon. Rudin is now the lead producer on five shows that are all currently nominated for Tony Awards: the new play The Humans, the musical Shuffle Along and revivals of The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and Blackbird. He has also produced dozens of films.
Rudin says the role of lead producer can vary from project to project, but ultimately it’s to create an environment in which a show can be successful. “You’re essentially the leader of the process,” he says. “You’ll be the one who found it, or you’ll have the idea, or you’ll buy the source material that’s involved; and you’ll essentially fund the development or cause the development to be funded — raise the money — [and] figure out who are the players you want to have involved in it.”
It can be a risky business. Audiences can be fickle and some shows take off while others don’t. But despite the uncertainties, Rudin says it’s all worth it. “The risk is intense and the stress is intense, but I think the chance to make something great so balances the equation in its favor that it honestly is never much of an issue for me.”
On the original Shuffle Along and why it was so groundbreaking when it debuted in 1921
It’s the first African-American musical; the first musical that used jazz — it developed ragtime into jazz. It’s the first musical that was written, produced, created and played entirely by a black company. That was a really remarkable thing in its time. … And it had an extraordinary level of success. In a period in which shows routinely would run two months and be successful, this show ran well over a year. That was really unheard of at the time.
On getting started in theater at 15, and what he learned from his mentors
I went to work for a summer in the office of two producers named Manny Azenberg and Gene Wolsk. … I wrote them a letter saying, “Can I come work in your office? I’ll answer the phone. I’ll do anything. You don’t have to pay me. I’ll be there for the summer; I’ll be there as long as you want.” And I did that for them and just loved it and really never looked back. …
I’m a complete product of mentorship because I then went to work for Kermit Bloomgarden, who had been Arthur Miller’s producer and produced The Most Happy Fella and The Music Man and The Diary of Anne Frank and Death of a Salesman — a really remarkable array of shows.
Then I went to work for Bob Whitehead, who had a similarly distinguished, really remarkable career. And I was incredibly lucky because I arrived at the last gasp of that kind of producing career. … I think those guys had careers that you really couldn’t have now, especially Whitehead and Bloomgarden, because they came up in the ’40s and ’50s when the business was so different than it is now, and they were crazy risk-takers, these guys.
When you think about it now, now we know what Death of a Salesman is, but they didn’t know it then. So he read a play called Death of a Salesman and decided to do it, and got [Elia] Kazan to do it — who was probably historically the most important theater director in the history of the American theater before or since — and took this crazy flier on this play that now we look at as one of the two or three greatest plays in the history of the American theater. And these guys did this as a matter of course.
I grew up kind of wanting to be them. The guys who were doing that and the generation that followed them were huge heroes of mine. … They were giants and they took these astonishing leaps. And when they had flops, they picked themselves up and they moved on; and when they had hits, they picked themselves up and moved onto the next one, too.
On the rising prices of Broadway tickets
I think we’re living in a time in which the price of tickets has gotten completely insane. And the thing that makes it very hard to wrangle as an issue is plays have … limited shelf lives. … You do a new play or you do a revival of a play and you’ve got 14 weeks or 16 weeks or if you’re incredibly lucky 20 weeks, so … in order to make the venture make any financial sense the price has to stay relatively high.
What ends up happening — and we face this all the time; we faced this in the first couple years of The Book of Mormon, it was an endless source of frustration and disappointment: … We kept a low-price ticket in the building, we had two or three rows of $69 tickets — this is when we were selling tickets at that point for $499. So we kept this low price; we put it on sale in a very specific way so we could keep it out of the hands of the brokers, and there was absolutely no way to get it to the audience. The single ticket buyer could not get their hands on that ticket in the same way I’m sure Hamilton is having the exact same problem now.
It’s very, very tough to beat back the scalpers. And on one hand, they are your customers; on another hand, they … keep the audience members — who are the fans of theater who are sensitive to a price point and don’t have the ability to spend $150 for one ticket or for premium, substantially more than that — they keep those people out of the building. So it’s a problem that every hit show … [faces].
On how he maintains his passion for the theater despite all the risk and stress of producing
One of the reasons that I went into movies was because I frankly thought at the time — and I was really young when I did this — I thought I love the theater too much to ever be unromantic about it, and didn’t have that feeling for movies. I love individual movies; I love making stuff; I like making movies; I like working with great collaborators. But movies as a form never were a big thing for me. And I thought, I’ll be good at this because I don’t care about it. In other words, not that I don’t care about what I’m doing, but I don’t have a passionate interest in the form.
I have a deeply passionate interest in the theater, which made me worry that I wouldn’t be good at it. So it took me a long time to want to produce in the theater because I was afraid of it — I was afraid that I would be too in love with something to be good for it. What I learned was I was wrong about that, and at the same time, that my love for it has an actual prove-able value.
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