The L.A. producer behind the Broadway juggernaut ‘Hadestown’
In 2011 Dale Franzen received the CD of a “little folk opera” about Orpheus, Eurydice, Hades and Persephone.
“Within four bars, I was sucked in,” said Franzen, who was artistic director of the Broad Stage in Santa Monica at the time. She immediately contacted Anaïs Mitchell, the music’s composer, to see if they could push the project further.
“If Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell had a child, it would be Anais,” Franzen said. “I had never developed anything from scratch and originally was just thinking it might be for the Broad. I certainly was not thinking Broadway.”
She is thinking about Broadway these days — and Tony Awards. That CD of songs rooted in Greek myth has evolved into “Hadestown,” the musical with a leading 14 Tony nominations heading into the ceremony Sunday. A driving force behind the production is Franzen, an opera singer by trade, who left her post at the Broad Stage to become one of the lead producers for the acclaimed musical.
After the bevy of Tony nominations were announced, including nods for best musical, book, score, director (Rachel Chavkin) and featured actor (sentimental favorite André De Shields, who plays Hermes), Franzen spoke with The Times about “Hadestown’s” epic journey from CD to stage. The producer recalled those early days, when she reached out to consultant Mara Isaacs, a Studio City native who had worked for the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., for 18 years.
“I was just starting my own company, and Dale was my first client,” said Isaacs, who eventually signed on as Franzen’s producing partner on “Hadestown,” joined later by Hunter Arnold and Tom Kirdahy. Chavkin came aboard, and the project was on its way: an off-Broadway production in 2016, then a successful three-month run at the National Theatre in London last year. It opened on Broadway in April.
“Hadestown” is an $11.5-million production, and a big part of Franzen’s role has been to find financial backers. Investors may have been seduced by the show’s blend of blues, folk and rock music, but there is also the Franzen style of persuasion.
“She made people feel like this was an opportunity for them rather than a favor for her, and she brought in a lot of new investors,” Isaacs said.
Added Franzen: “As I learned along the way, you can go beyond the usual suspects.”
Laurie David, an author and film producer (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Biggest Little Farm”), was one of the newcomers.
“We were walking along the beach one morning when Dale pitched me the piece,” David recalled. “I said, ‘I love you, but no.’ I had never invested in theater, I knew it was risky, and it’s also risky to go into business with one you love.”
But the she saw the show off-Broadway. And she picked up the phone.
“I called Dale and said, ‘I made a mistake, and I am all in.’” David has invested enough by now to be included in the above-the-title list of producers — those giving at least $250,000. Retired Los Angeles TV executive Rick Feldman also jumped in.
“Dale is the life force behind this,” Feldman said. “She has moxie and energy, and because she has been a creative person, she knows how to spot artistic problems.”
There have been challenges. The creative team had to figure out how to go from performing the show in the round off-Broadway to the proscenium stage of Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre.
“We added a chorus, and mostly, we were always conscious of keeping the vibe of the show,” Franzen said. One decision made early on: “Not to put stars in the show but to make stars.”
The mostly young cast does include some beloved veterans, including De Shields and fellow Tony nominee Patrick Page. Of his experience with Franzen, Page said, “She has literally not made one false step in the three years I have been involved. She and Mara have patience, and confidence in the material and in their actors.”
Franzen is not the first female producer to drive a project, of course, but her charisma and soft power — her nurturing, Page said — was unusual.
“We’re not all the same, but I do think women have different skill sets,” Franzen said. “We think about values, and many of us see theater as the ultimate space where we listen with our hearts and ears in a profound way. The moments in my life I have spent in those dark spaces surrounded by strangers have deeply stirred me.”
“Hadestown,” she added, “is about how every person suffers from shadows, and here that shadow is doubt. Even children of 7 or 8 are coming, jumping into the myth.”
Franzen is working on another show, “Sisters in Law,” a two-hander about Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor. Though she still lives in Los Angeles, she is in New York for all the pre-Tonys activity, touting how proud she is to be associated with a musical “that is not a jukebox show and is not based on a movie.”
The words and music may not be hers, Isaacs said, but “Dale’s DNA is all over this show.”
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