Every working day, the man who has for a long time now been the last patriarch of Broadway looks at himself in the mirror and is reminded of his failures. That's because James M. Nederlander's office bathroom, 21 stories above West 53rd Street, is hung with posters from the biggest flops to have played in his theaters. "Not just any flop goes up there," says Nick Scandalios, Jimmy Nederlander's young deputy. "They have to be somehow epic." After all, even the walls at Joe Allen, which also celebrate Broadway underachievers, haven't got room for all the flops. And so when Jimmy Nederlander runs a comb through his silvern hair, working what remains of the forelock first, then administering an off-the-part downstroke to the left side, he sees an advertisement for The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. He sees an ad for Shogun, the musical. Along with his son, James L. Nederlander -- who is known, slightly inaccurately, as Jimmy Jr. -- and along with, to varying degrees, his brothers, Jimmy may own an extremely profitable multi-million-dollar company that controls more legitimate theaters than anyone else in America, not to mention a share of the New York Yankees. He may this week have on his mind any of the shows currently playing in Broadway houses he owns or manages -- among them The Iceman Cometh,
Annie Get Your Gun, and Peter Pan, all of which have been nominated for Tony awards, the winners to be announced June 6. But when he washes his hands, he sees an ad for the 1995 adaptation of On the Waterfront. (The production, with Ron Eldard as Terry Malloy, lasted less than a week, its fate seemingly announced when one of the actors suffered a heart attack onstage during a critics' preview.)
"I don't want anyone who works for me to forget," says Jimmy.
Jimmy is an owlish 77 years old, and these days is somewhat frail, the result of a stroke he suffered ten years ago. He is short, about five foot five or six, with the adenoids to match; wears square-shaped, clear-plastic eyeglasses; and walks with an aluminum cane, slowly, bringing one step even with the other before moving forward. In the sixties, he began buying up houses on Broadway and evolved from a highly pitched, sackcloth-wearing Jew from the Midwest to the principal challenger to the Shubert-family monopoly. Before that, his father, David T. Nederlander, ran the family business operating theaters in Detroit -- including a partnership in the Shubert-Lafayette Theater.
Life is good for Jimmy Nederlander. The way Broadway's been going, he might as well have a license to print money. Theater owners always do well, so long as their houses aren't dark. It's only the producers who suffer when a show struggles. With nine theaters under its control, the Nederlander Organization is the second-largest of the three companies that dominate Broadway. The Shubert Organization owns sixteen theaters outright and half of another, and Jujamcyn owns five. The Nederlanders' stable is bigger than the Shubert's, however, once you add up their stake in another fifteen theaters nationwide and in London.
Jimmy often says you can't pick a hit from a flop. "Nobody can," he'll tell you. Where other theater owners and producers in town engage in a lot of thought and hand-wringing in deciding what will go onstage, Jimmy says, "I trust my gut." Which is another way of saying that theater isn't -- shouldn't be -- rocket science. Just ask him how he settled on some of the productions currently playing his theaters.
The Iceman Cometh, at the Brooks Atkinson? "Well, Kevin Spacey, he's a big star. And then we got that other guy -- who's that?"
"Tony Danza," says Scandalios, who stands beside Jimmy's desk, on the phone.
"When names like that come up, you usually get great advance," Jimmy says. "We got $5 million in advance ticket sales on that."
Disney's Beauty and the Beast, at the Palace? "Well, Disney," says Jimmy.
Peter Pan, at the Gershwin? "Families like it."
Footloose, at the Richard Rodgers? "Well, that was a successful movie; the musical was produced by the Dodgers, who we've done a lot with. Of course, they came to us with High Society a year ago, and I didn't like that."