Where Angels Fear to Tread: Chase Mishkin

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Producer Chase Mishkin, perfectly turned out, posture superb, strawberry coif gleaming like a beacon in the gloom of the Booth Theatre, is concerned about the dirty floor.

She explains that when The Story of My Life tried out at the Goodspeed in October, the crew spent aeons after each performance cleaning the all-white set. That would be ruinous on Broadway, especially in this environment—though the phrase “in this environment” makes her want to sock someone. Too downbeat, too fiscal.

Mishkin is more about the magic. She reads a script, she loves it, she puts it on. Hey, kids, we’ve got a show to do: Are the musicians scheduled? Why are those shoes squeaking? Her team, strewn about the orchestra for a production meeting shortly before previews began earlier this month, call out reassurances. The musicians are ready. The shoes have been oiled. No one mentions the larger problem, the one without a solution: How do you open an intimate, original two-man musical, about the regrets of one over the death of the other, even when the men are played by Will Chase and Malcolm Gets, in this environment? Yikes, that phrase again.

As for the scuff marks, well, a poor girl turned model turned “Carpet Queen of L.A.” (as the West Coast publicists called her—her late husband was in floor coverings) could at least solve that; somewhere along the way she’d acquired a master’s in physics.

“Any good maid in town will tell you,” she barks. “Get a Swiffer!”

The Story of My Life, which opens Thursday, is the twentieth show Mishkin has produced on Broadway; there have been ten more Off Broadway. Some have repaid multiply (Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, The Beauty Queen of Leenane), some just made it into the black (Butley, Dirty Blonde). The rest either partly recouped (A Class Act and the just-closed Equus, whose return she estimated at 85 percent) or never paid a dime—follies like Urban Cowboy and the jaw-dropping Prymate, which included a scene of a sign-language interpreter masturbating an ape.

“I don’t try to defend that one,” Mishkin says. “But I don’t throw rocks at it, either.”

Whichever category the current show ends up in, it won’t be her last. Impressionism, starring Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, opens around the corner at the Schoenfeld next month. But despite the bootstrap sass, the heart-on-her-Playbill enthusiasms, these are hard times for a woman who has already lived through plenty. (Age: “Great-grandmother.”) She even sold the London cab she’d reupholstered in Burberry plaid and used for years as a limo. “It was too expensive to run.”

As are most shows. Mishkin started raising the nearly $5 million she needed for The Story of My Life last May; by the time the paperwork was completed in October, many of her angels were wingless. A multimillionaire widow bankrupted by Bernard Madoff asked for her $250,000 back.

“We finally got our capitalization,” Mishkin says, “but what about next time? I really want to do this musical, Beyond the Limelight, about Charlie Chaplin. And an original musical called Lady on a Carousel. And A Civil War Christmas, which I put enhancement money in.” (The Paula Vogel play got rave reviews in New Haven in December.) “But I can’t plan any of it because I don’t know where to get the money. Half the investors calling me are looking for jobs!”

There will always be financiers for brand-name musicals with recessionproof appeal. What Broadway needs to keep its theaters lit are lunatics who go for the long shot, the small gem, the newcomer. (The Story of My Life is by Brian Hill and Neil Bartram.) Of course, producers who lead with their wallet and heart in lockstep are prone to tripping. Mishkin invests a dollar of her own money for every dollar she raises; she rarely produces revivals and makes no excuses for her taste. “I read ten scripts a week. Well, I read the first twelve pages. And I figure if I pick it, it has to be great, even though that doesn’t always work, somehow. But for the first time”—she lowers her voice as if about to admit to some ape-masturbating—“I’ve been telling people not to send me scripts. In this environment … ”

She catches herself.

“But I’m not in it for the money,” she says, recovering. “I’m in it for the good cries.”

The Story of My Life
Booth Theatre.
Opens February 19.

Where Angels Fear to Tread: Chase Mishkin