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Hey, Mr. Producer


Even now, thirteen years after Mary Lea’s death, Richards is embroiled in a new legal showdown with the Johnson-family trust and his stepchildren. As his lawyer, Alan Naar, explains, the issue is whether Richards is entitled as a “surviving spouse” to millions more from a 1961 Johnson charitable trust only now being disbursed to the family. (Mary Lea’s first husband, William Ryan, has also filed a financial claim.) Richards sounds outraged as he talks about the lawsuit and his contentious relationship with his stepchildren, saying, “They’ve been in court a zillion times.”

“Marty received a large inheritance from my mother, spent his way through it, and now he sees his tank running empty,” says Eric Ryan. “My real hope is that he wins his Oscar, that fame and fortune follow, and he won’t have the financial incentive to go after these assets.” Some of that fortune is in fact rolling in; Chicago has already grossed $114 million, a sizable chunk of which goes to Richards. But for Richards, the suit is as much about being recognized as Mary Lea’s spouse as it is about money. The hearing is scheduled for April in New Brunswick.

The first hit show that Richards and Johnson co-produced was the Tony-winning On the Twentieth Century, staged by Prince and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. As lyricist Cy Coleman recalls, “We opened in Boston at the Colonial Theatre, the night of a huge snowstorm.” Most of the backstage staff couldn’t get to the theater, Coleman says, “so we all took up jobs. Mary Lea did the hair for the actors. Marty and I were the ushers.”

The Producer Circle has had an enviable track record for backing prize-winning, memorable works. Sam Crothers, Richards’s longtime producing partner, says, “We’ve taken on a lot of controversial subjects. Cannibalism—Sweeney Todd. Gays—La Cage aux Folles.” And then there have been a few topics the producers wish they had passed on. “We did a show called Goodbye, Fidel,” Crothers adds, “which I call Adios, Turkey.” That show, starring Jane Alexander, closed after four nights.

Richards has a reputation for a passionate and ferocious temper. (Dittmann says they still occasionally throw things at each other.) “He’s someone you love to have as your friend and would be terrified to have as your enemy,” says Douglas. “He has a revenge streak in him.” Around the talent, Richards is in awe, a champion, a bit of a softie. “I’ve always been terribly intimidated by Stephen Sondheim’s genius, and I was afraid to approach him,” he says, musing about the experience of working on Sweeney Todd. “But he’s the least stubborn composer. If you need another song, he just goes home and writes one and brings it back the next day.”

Many of Richards’s shows have been sold-out successes, but the most coveted ticket in the social and theatrical world for years has been an invitation to his over-the-top Southampton bashes. “His parties were magnificent, beyond anything,” Cy Coleman recalls. “It was like going to the land of Oz—huge tent, hundreds of people, everything first-class.” Each year, Richards would try to outdo himself: The Grateful Dead, the Village People, and Neil Sedaka have performed on Gin Lane, along with impromptu riffs with Sondheim or Coleman at the piano. Singer Lesley Gore, a regular guest, says, “Everything is a production for Marty, with no cost spared. He has this childlike attitude that anything is possible.”

And everything was possible at those parties, which after the more uptight folks left sometimes turned into Dionysian revels. Ah, yes, the sex-and-drug excesses of the seventies and eighties made for a few particularly memorable evenings. “It got pretty wild,” says one amused guest. “There were a lot of drugs. You were afraid to walk into the bathroom.” The parties have grown more sedate in recent years, and Richards wants to sell the house for $50 million because it costs too much to maintain.

Money has been fun for this Bronx boy. “He’s at every charity benefit,” says Cindy Adams. “He’s never forgotten where he came from.” He’s spent millions establishing the Mary Lea Johnson Richards Institute at NYU, and the Children’s Advocacy Center of Manhattan. He’s also known for showering his pals with gifts. “You don’t want to say, in front of Marty, ‘Gee, that’s beautiful,’ ” says Rivera, because he insists on buying whatever she’s admired, whether a cashmere sweater or jewelry. Dittmann says it’s hard to rein in the exuberant Richards, to get him to live within even his considerable means. “Marty’s impossible,” she says affectionately, adding that he has taken to sending gifts to the Sloan-Kettering staff. “He sends the nurses flowers, then he gets them theater tickets, then he sends them tapes and CDs of Chicago. Now he wants to send them jewelry. He wants to be good to the little guys.”

He does like the good life. and yet, well, money isn’t everything; achievement still matters. Sitting in a gilt-edged antique chair in his spectacular living room at River House, with the cut-glass chandelier twinkling overhead, Richards mentions that he’s really upset that he never got his canvas director’s chair from the Chicago set. “You mean all these gorgeous antiques don’t do it for you?” I ask, gesturing at the luxury surrounding us. He thunders back, “I’d rather have that chair than anything in this room.”

His emotional involvement in this movie was quite evident to the cast. Catherine Zeta-Jones recalls, “Sometimes we would be filming into the early hours of morning, until sunrise. I kept saying, ‘Marty, are you okay, are you tired?’ And he’d say, ‘This was my dream to watch this happen.’ ” She adds, “When the last of our energy was gone, when me and Renée could hardly walk after the last number, there was Marty in the audience, clapping.” Director Marshall says, “Marty sat by the monitor with me, and he’d be in tears half the time—the recollections it would bring back.” Richards says the experience was overwhelming: “I put my hands up to the air, after the first assemblage, and I said to Bob Fosse, ‘Please, Bobby, please like this picture. I just want to do you justice.’ ”

In the transition from stage to screen, endings are often rewritten and the tone changed to fit a different artistic or commercial vision. Marshall and screenwriter Condon had planned to make their own mark, changing to end on a rueful note, showing Roxie having second thoughts about her rise to fame. Condon said that two endings were shot, at Richards’s insistence, and the producer’s version won. “Marty told us, ‘I know what you guys are going for, I get it, I can’t tell you how wrong I think it is,’ ” says Condon. “Marty said, ‘It’s such a betrayal of what this piece is about to claim at the end of the day, Roxie’s fought her way to this moment of glory and is now feeling the emptiness. That’s another movie. The point of this story is, she’s thrilled to be here.’ ”

He should know. Not only was he trying to protect Fosse’s vision, but, of course, who could better understand the struggle of a talented and colorful character’s fight for fame and acclaim and razzle-dazzle respect?

“Everything in my life is a drama,” Richards loves to say. Sunday night in Los Angeles, there’s no doubt about it—he’ll be thrilled to be there.


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