Jeffrey Richards: big man on Broadway

Jeffrey Richards: big man on Broadway
HITMAKER: Jeffrey Richards’ productions include “Hair,” "Desire Under the Elms," "Reasons to Be Pretty," "Blithe Spirit" and “You’re Welcome, America.” (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)
On the opening night of the revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms," Kevin Spacey, Naomi Watts and a crush of theatergoers pressed into the St. James Theatre. But the man most instrumental in its transfer from Chicago's Goodman Theatre was nowhere to be seen. Finally, as the lights blinked final warning, lead producer Jeffrey Richards appeared, glad-handing the crowd of theater professionals. The snappy attire, including chic aviator sunglasses, seemed Richards' only concession to his new position as one of Broadway's most powerful producers.

"You have to search out Jeffrey on an opening night," said James Fuld, a businessman who's known Richards since they were classmates at a private school in the Bronx in the '60s. "People have this glamorous image of a Broadway producer. Jeffrey takes the subway."

The four-time Tony Award winner -- for the revivals of "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "The Pajama Game," the musical "Spring Awakening" and the drama "August: Osage County" -- will once again be a ubiquitous presence at tonight's Tony fest.

He has copped three producing nominations -- for best revival ("Hair"), best play ( Neil LaBute's "Reasons to Be Pretty") and best special theatrical event ( Will Ferrell's "You're Welcome, America: A Final Night With George W. Bush"). And in a less hotly competitive season, that tally might well have included three more critically acclaimed productions: "Desire Under the Elms" starring Brian Dennehy, Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" and David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow." All told, his productions received six more Tony nominations in the acting categories: Raul Esparza ("Speed-the-Plow"), Thomas Sadoski and Marin Ireland ("Reasons to Be Pretty"), Gavin Creel and Will Swenson ("Hair") and the heavily favored Angela Lansbury ("Blithe Spirit").

Despite the proliferation of Tonys on his mantel, Richards appears less motivated by awards than the opportunity to work with his favorite artists, at least according to Mamet, who is usually astringent on the subject of producers. "He's brave and he's honorable," says the playwright, whose newest work, "Race," will be presented by Richards next season.

"Jeffrey doesn't say, 'I'd love to read your play.' He says, 'I'll do it.' And when I told him that I wanted 'November' to open on Broadway, he thought about it for 10 seconds and said, 'OK,' " he says. "That's tremendously freeing for a writer."

Not since the heyday of the legendary David Merrick has a single producer had such an influence on Broadway. And it comes from a press agent, known largely as a fanatical and often quirky booster before his debut as a Broadway producer in 2000 with a revival of " Gore Vidal's The Best Man." How did Richards manage to be so prolific this season?

"With lots of therapy," quips the producer, still boyish at 60, sitting in his midtown Manhattan office with phones ringing off the hook. Unmarried, it's a 24/7 existence for him. Blithely padding through the hive are the two real stars in the producer's life: Lottie and Skye, two strays that regularly get Playbill credit as mascots. Unlike their human peers, they remain unimpressed with their billing. "They're jaded," he says.

Richards, most decidedly, is not. In fact, his giddy enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge have attracted Jerry Frankel and Steve Traxler, who have provided much of the financing that fuels Tonka Productions, Richards' production company named for yet another of his dogs. The well-filled coffers are an anomaly in these economically strained times. "We complement each other," says Richards of his business partners.

"He's definitely the lead," says Frankel, mentioning the transfer of the Public Theater's revival of "Hair" from Central Park to Broadway. "Everybody said it wouldn't work in a theater, the money couldn't be raised. Jeffrey looked at me, and he said, 'Let's do it.' We raised the money in three weeks, pared down the budget and watched every penny." "Hair" is now one of the season's most surprising hits.

That hands-on approach -- Richards and Frankel once spent an afternoon in a blizzard handing out fliers for "Best Man" -- is how the team came to be awarded what Philip Smith, president of the Shubert Organization, calls "the plum" of the season: "You're Welcome, America." The smash hit, which later aired as an HBO TV special, was hugely lucrative for all involved. "Ferrell's agents could've given it to any producer on Broadway, and they gave it to Jeffrey because of his record, his professionalism and his extraordinary command of every detail," Smith says. "On any given day, you can ask him about any of his productions, and he can give you a complete rundown, right down to the names of the box-office personnel."

Richards, Smith adds, has a theatrical flair that he doesn't hesitate to use. When the producer was hunting for a theater to house his revival of Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial," he showed up at the Shubert offices in Navy dress uniform and snapped, "Jeffrey Richards reporting for duty," Smith says. "He gets your attention."

'Theater nut'

Richards' love affair with the theater began almost at birth. His Texas-born mother, Helen Stern Richards, ran a small theater in Oklahoma before moving to New York where, in short order, she met, married and divorced Richards' father, a maker of short-subject films. Helen Richards worked as a Broadway press agent and general manager, allowing Richards access at an early age to major productions in New York. He reveled in plays he would later revive, including "Best Man," "A Thousand Clowns" and "The Homecoming."

"Jeffrey's been a theater nut, a real groupie, all his life," says veteran producer Liz McCann, whom Richards replaced as the lead producer on "Hair" when she failed to raise the necessary capital. "He's fair," she says. "I would work with him again -- and there's not many people I can say that about in this business."

A graduate of Wesleyan and Columbia School of Journalism, Richards became a press agent and quickly earned a reputation as a tenacious, imaginative and impulsive publicist. He once startled an airport lounge of passengers when he conducted a spot poll to determine the box-office viability of a star in a production he was representing.

Then there's that incident during a performance of "Reasons to Be Pretty," LaBute's drama that has been lagging at the box office. Some longtime theater observers suspected Richards' fingerprints when a male audience member stood up and started cursing at Ireland, who was in the midst of an emasculating diatribe directed at her boyfriend. (The producer denies that the man, who was ejected by ushers, was a plant.)

Richards has also gained notoriety for his volatile temper. He was famously brought up on charges and fined by the theatrical press agents union for abusing a staffer. Ashtrays flew, glasses were broken.

"He's high-strung and passionate," says Irene Gandy, who has worked in Richards' office for more than two decades and is one of the few African American women in the business. "But Jeffrey also places tremendous confidence in the people he works with and just lets you do your job. He cut me no slack; he expects you to be as totally committed as he is."

Indeed, woe to those who don't measure up. Richards has pursued Jeremy Piven with a vengeance after the actor abruptly dropped out of the revival of "Speed-the-Plow," citing mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi. Though the revival ultimately ended up in the black, the profit potential was significantly reduced. "What happened during that production affected our investors, and since we are going to arbitration I have no other comment," Richards says. "But with any other artists I've ever worked with, their motto has always been 'the show must go on.' "

As a producer, Richards rewards commitment with an unquestioning loyalty. Elizabeth Ashley, currently starring in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," recalls a test case that came up early in Richards' producing career. "We were all grousing about the set, which looked like a condo in Alta Vista," says Ashley, who is a close friend to Richards. "But he told us, 'This is a wonderful designer, this is his concept and I won't interfere with that.' End of discussion."

Supporting writers

Richards' loyalty to the artists with whom he works may be why he eschews the comparison to Merrick in favor of the producing team of Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder. This adventurous producing team was an early and sustained backer of Edward Albee, producing not only his early successes such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" but also sticking with him when he precipitously fell out of fashion.

"I think when you have an enormous success with a writer, you have a responsibility to be there for them," Richards says. Nonetheless, a producer's commitment can extend only so far. After all, such a stellar talent as Stephen Sondheim is hard-pressed to receive a commercial production these days after a series of flops, a situation that befell Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge in their later years. "All I can tell you is that the writers I support are young in their careers, and they have a lot of good plays left in them," Richards says.

In addition to Mamet's "Race," Richards is presenting Letts' new play, "Superior Donuts," another transfer from Chicago opening on Broadway in October. These may be no-brainers as both writers are on something of roll. The more difficult propositions have been the transfer of LaBute's "Reasons to Be Pretty" from off-Broadway and the revival of "Desire Under the Elms," which has since closed at a total or near loss of its investment.

But Richards simply says he's more than willing to take risks. That has also been true of such commercially unpromising projects as the Broadway premiere of August Wilson's "Radio Golf," which quickly folded on Broadway.

"I've heard him say any number of times, 'This is going to be a hard sell, but we're going to sell it as hard as we can,' " Ashley says. "I think those plays are actually more thrilling for him than the successes."

As far as this season is concerned, Richards will no doubt be batting at least .500 with "You're Welcome, America" and "Speed-the-Plow" having recouped, "Hair" likely to, and even "Blithe Spirit" standing a good chance. He is already looking toward the 2010-2011 season with a revival of Ketti Frings' Pulitzer Prize-winning stage adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel," to be directed by Daniel Sullivan and updated by David Auburn ("Proof"). "I just picked it up one night and was totally captivated by it -- it has death, first love, a mother more grasping and greedy than Madam Rose in 'Gypsy,' the disintegration of a marriage, and a young man who must escape to become the artist he is destined to become."

Asked if he's personally drawn to plays about dysfunctional families ("August," "Homecoming," "Desire Under the Elms") because of something in his past, he laughs ruefully. "I never look at myself that closely," he says. "Besides, I'm not an artist."