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The Evangelist of Broadway

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With that background, Roth has been dismissed by some as a trust-fund Broadway baby and welcomed by others as a genetically customized Broadway savior, primed to do in his generation what the Shuberts did in the seventies. But the financial crisis they faced was in some ways easier to weather than today’s crisis of relevance: In an entertainment environment crowded with cheaper options, the old theatrical formulas won’t build audiences for the future.

Even Jujamcyn’s offerings might at first seem to fall into the dead-end categories critics are always lamenting. Jersey Boys, booked before Roth joined the company in 2005, is the nostalgic jukebox musical par excellence; Hair, which he shepherded into the Hirschfeld, is a classic nostalgic revival. Finian’s Rainbow (which didn’t recoup) and Night Music (which likely will) are nostalgic and big-star revivals, respectively; Idiot and Fela! are jukeboxes.

But the labels are misleading. All the current Jujamcyn shows (except perhaps Jersey Boys, whose gross receipts of $263 million are inarguable) engage the audience in new and vital ways. The onstage dance party at the end of Hair, replayed each night on the Internet, is just the most obvious such novelty. Idiot addresses a younger demographic in the video-saturated mode it favors. Night Music reinterprets a grand achievement of the musical theater in the most intimate terms. And Fela! is a jukebox musical only in the narrow sense of having a preexisting score; in its storytelling through dance, music, and spectacle it is a rarity on Broadway.

Which is surely why it almost never got there. Steve Hendel, its lead producer, says Roth was the only theater owner to offer the show a booking after an Off Broadway tryout in 2008—“and, I think, the only one who even came to see it.” It’s Roth’s kind of show. “What I’m aiming for, and what I think the long-term health of the industry requires,” he explains at his office, “are three things. Shows that are, one, uniquely theatrical: experiences that need to be live. Two, essential: They matter, they need to exist. And, three, they sell tickets. We aim for all three, but that’s a high bar, and sometimes you get only two.”

Roth has been dismissed by some as a trust-fund Broadway baby and welcomed by others as a genetically customized Broadway savior.

Unlike his theater lobbies, Roth’s office still awaits its designer makeover. It was, until last fall, Rocco Landesman’s—and, long before that, David Merrick’s. Landesman, who bought the chain in 2005 for $30 million, had in the previous eighteen years as its president built it into a creative force that at times accounted for a third of Broadway’s gross revenue. Still, when Roth started working there, Landesman was clearly itching for a successor. The two men could not be more different. Landesman is a garrulous, cowboy-boot-wearing high-stakes gambler, while Roth, with his sleek Prada suits, pale crew cut, big eyes, and odd combination of delicacy and enthusiasm, is more like a character from The Wind in the Willows—perhaps Otter. Nevertheless, he was the perfect successor, not least because he could afford the price tag; once the deal was in place, Landesman left to lead the National Endowment for the Arts. He retains his stake in Jujamcyn but has recused himself from its dealings.

That makes Roth the final decision-maker. Powerful as the position is, it offers limited tools for his goal of “delivering forward” Broadway’s cultural centrality. One of the tools he does have is marketing, and most attempts to entice young theatergoers have depended on it. But Roth is ambivalent about its efficacy. “If you have a show that speaks to a certain audience,” he says, “then you need marketing to let them know that. But you can’t trick an audience—or not for long. What I believe in is product. Don’t waste your time trying to figure out how to get a young audience to see The Music Man. If you want a young audience, don’t fucking do The Music Man.

Roth instead tries to “curate” a coherent vision across his venues. He forms very early relationships with material he may want to book down the line. (He has been nurturing American Idiot since before its first public viewing.) To keep track, he plots dozens of projects in various stages of completion on a bulletin board sectioned by a masking-tape grid: down the left side, his five theaters; across the top, fall and spring seasons for the next four years.

For obvious reasons, he keeps the board hidden from visitors’ eyes, but its current configuration can pretty easily be guessed. Jersey Boys isn’t going anywhere for a while (though there are options if it does). Hair will likely close by Labor Day, and a musical he won’t name will get the Hirschfeld. The prospects for Night Music, which posted its closing notice three weeks ago, suddenly improved with the surprise news that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch may come in as replacements. As a result, two Off Broadway successes Roth has been supporting—Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a comedy set in the world of professional wrestling—may have to wait if they still want the Walter Kerr. Similarly, the resurgence of Fela! means that The Book of Mormon, a musical by the creators of South Park, may not get the Eugene O’Neill this fall. As for American Idiot, Roth suspects it will be a long time before the St. James is graffiti-free again.


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