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The Evangelist of Broadway

Theater owner Jordan Roth preaches to the unconverted.

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Down a private elevator and through a secret door, executives of Jujamcyn Theaters can commute in less than a minute from their eighth-floor offices on West 44th Street to the largest of their five Broadway houses, the St. James. The space in between, a crossroads of sorts, is one of Jordan Roth’s favorite spots. Sometimes, during a matinee, he will stand there as actors and crew dash from the basement to the stage while, on the other side of the door, 1,700 people take in a show. “That’s the moment,” says Roth, “where you feel what you do every day.”

He doesn’t just mean running a company whose annual revenue averages $200 million. Having become president of Jujamcyn when he bought 50 percent of its shares for an undisclosed sum last fall, Roth, at 34, is also an industry evangelist, now with a series of gilded pulpits to preach from. The sermon is Broadway’s future. What he does every day—in his nurturing of projects, his choice of bookings, his framing of the customer experience—is test the long-advanced but little-practiced theory that, even on 44th Street, new work, newly told, can create new audiences.

The Afrobeat musical Fela! and the Green Day punk opera American Idiot—as well as Spring Awakening a few seasons back—are some of his trial balloons. In their narrative approach, they are discontinuous with hits of even the recent past, further from the traditional modes of Rent than Rent was from South Pacific. They all feature non-Broadway-style scores, young protagonists, and immersive stagings that drag audiences into their world. (One of Roth’s precepts is that the storytelling shouldn’t stop at the proscenium.) Not everyone appreciates the gesture: Some patrons in the nightclub environment of Fela! resist entreaties to stand in place and gyrate their pelvises. And older audiences at the St. James seem appalled that on the stage where Carol Channing once descended a vast staircase, now a heroin dealer does.

But critical response for Roth’s four new bookings this season—which also include revivals of Finian’s Rainbow and A Little Night Music—has been strong. The shows have received more than a third of the available nominations for the Tony Awards on June 13—eleven for Fela! alone. What’s perhaps most telling, though, is that the unconventional offerings are making money. Idiot is grossing a solid $800,000 a week, and Fela!, which was languishing, has bounced back vigorously since the nominations were announced. Whether they will recoup their investments, as Hair and Spring Awakening did, remains to be seen—but the possibility seems to support Roth’s premise.

It also vindicates some of the chances he takes. Meeting with the Idiot creative team as the show was preparing to move into the St. James, he did not blanch when Christine Jones, the set designer, outlined her plan to “American Idiot-ify” the theater’s posh architecture. In fact, it was his idea, and her talk of transforming the public spaces into an ad hoc club with VIP rooms and photo booths elicited oohs, exclamations of “nuh-uh,” and fusillades of prayerful hand-claps. “That’s really hot!”—Roth’s highest compliment—was reserved for her idea of covering the lobby’s Venetian plaster with paint and wallpaper that theatergoers could scrawl on with chalk and Sharpies. Though this later led one chat-room habitué to write, “Thanks, producers, for making the St. James a slum,” Roth is determined to “remake the theater” in all senses. After Jones asked about the sign at the bar forbidding patrons to carry food or drinks into the auditorium, he said, in keeping with Jujamcyn’s new policy, “Let’s take that down. It will never be true again.”

The sense of possibility was exhilarating to the creative team. But as Roth escorted me through the secret door, and I pointed out that enacting the ideas would cost either him or the producers of Idiot a fortune, he admitted that some may never happen—and he chided me for focusing on money. “You go to the crass place so quickly,” he said.

A crasser place than the presidency of a Broadway theater chain would normally be hard to imagine. The heads of the Shubert Organization, which owns seventeen of the district’s 40 houses, and of the Nederlander Organization, which owns nine, though well liked, are not renowned for their meek landlordliness. Roth, who is now getting his M.B.A. at Columbia, is so different from these men that he almost seems like a rebuke. He’s well less than half their ages. He’s a Princeton summa cum laude graduate in philosophy, he’s openly gay (his boyfriend, Richie Jackson, is executive producer of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie), and he comes to the job from a creative background (he explored acting, photography, and fashion design before becoming a producer) rather than from management or as a family legacy. Which is not to say he wasn’t predisposed to land at the crossroads of that near-oxymoron, the commercial theater: His mother is the producer Daryl Roth, who says she is grateful if her shows make a few dollars; his father is the real-estate investor Steven Roth, whose Vornado Realty Trust controls more than $20 billion in assets.


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