The Evangelist of Broadway

Photo: Danielle Levitt

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.

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.

His stewardship of his theaters is in some ways payback for the way theater took care of him as a child lacking in “carefreeness.” Though he is loath to discuss what he calls his first co-production with this mother—his bar mitzvah—she lets on that it featured him singing a Broadway medley. Daryl Roth even says she became a producer in part because she believed it would be a way to share a lifetime’s interest with her son. “And with Jordan,” she adds, “it wasn’t going to be sports.” She decided to produce the acrobatic extravaganza De La Guarda—“even though it was not my sensibility, really”—after he watched a videotape and told her to. (It became a seven-year hit.) “I had the best partner in the world in this kid,” she says. “He had very interesting tastes and deep insights and was comfortable in himself. That is not to say he was spared insecurities; growing up gay, you can’t be. Which is partly why I brought him to the theater so much. I wanted to ease his path in the gay world. This was long before he says he came out.”

If theater was his mother’s gift to him, his father’s financial acumen is equally central now. It “killed” him, he says, to lose investors’ money on The Rocky Horror Show and A Catered Affair—shows he produced previously. Running theaters is a much safer business, if a much larger one. With all its houses filled, Jujamcyn employs up to 450 people. Still, as an evangelist, Roth is looking to “expand the canvas” further. His ability to establish a Jujamcyn brand requires demonstrating to future creatives that a place exists on Broadway for what they may dream up. (Michael Mayer’s gender-morphed “revisal” of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever has barely had a reading, but Roth already thinks it would make a beautiful Kerr show: “It’s really hot!”) And he won’t rule out the idea of acquiring more theaters. (“Got any for sale?”) They would make it easier to curate his vision of Broadway, though he might also be forced, in lean seasons, to fill them with whatever schlock was available.

Not that it’s easy to divide the schlock from the gems; for all their merits, the new works Jujamcyn is offering—as well as other works Roth fostered, like Spring Awakening—trade some theatrical virtues for others. Visceral engagement takes priority over logical argument and character development; the traditional verbal element of drama is subordinated to light and sound. (American Idiot barely has any spoken words.) Matching that new language to the right new audience may take years, even with balcony seats that cost just $49.

Roth, not surprisingly, is philosophical. “The shows that change the world do it because they offer something you haven’t seen before,” he says. “To get that you have to take risks on something you haven’t seen before! Think of it this way: At one standard deviation you’re pretty safe. You won’t lose your pants and you won’t do anything great. It’s only at three standard deviations that you can change the world—or seriously fall on your ass. To have some ‘plus-three’ moments, you have to accept the risk of ‘negative three.’ ” He doesn’t even pause before adding, “I’m willing to take that risk.”

The Evangelist of Broadway