Waiters and technicians rushed around the small café table at which Jennifer Ashley Tepper and I sat, unstrategically placed in front of the coat check at 54 Below. Tepper is the newest addition to the 54 Below team, the recently hired Director of Programming at the 14-month-old cabaret on West 54th Street that bills itself as "Broadway's Supper Club."
Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway were doing a sound check in the main room for their show that was set to open three hours later. "She had style, she had flair, she was there; that's how she became the Nannyyyyyyy," the sisters incanted their famous theme song to the hit '90s sitcom. Hidden under Studio 54 like a speakeasy of yore, 54 Below has become a favorite haunt for Broadway performers, from the Callaway sisters to Patti LuPone to Brian d'Arcy James. Yet its struggles to take off as a profitable business are no secret.
Is Tepper "the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan" — the outside-the-box thinker who will take the programming at this fledgling club to new heights? Is programming the key to turning 54 Below into a sustainable business? Tony Award-winning producer Richard Frankel (Hairspray), one of the founding partners of the club, walked over to the table about 20 minutes into the interview. "So what has she told you?"
Tepper was already well-known in Broadway circles when she was hired for the job: A longtime concert producer for composer Joe Iconis, she also produces the Bistro Award-winning "If It Only Even Runs a Minute," a concert series celebrating underappreciated musicals that has developed a cult following.
Tepper and Frankel met when the club was still brand new, during a July 16, 2012 concert that she produced there for Iconis. "There was this big bunch of creative people doing wonderful interesting things and it was all very organized. It was like the Hog Farm at Woodstock. I asked, ‘How it this happening?' They pointed to her," Frankel motioned to Tepper. "I love people who are organized and responsible with making art."
Tepper added, "When we did The Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular here, we had a cast of fifty-two...in this room. It was really exciting! People were in the audience and hanging off the stage and sitting at tables and at the bar. It was very much a winter wonderland gone awry. I think from producing that, I know the limits of what this space can take."
Tepper is not only highly organized; she is a walking encyclopedia of musical theater. "I have this party trick where if someone names a year I can name all the best musical nominees," she enthusiastically shared. Appropriately, she also hosts regular Broadway trivia nights at 54 Below. The author of the forthcoming book The Untold Stories of Broadway, which details the history of eight Broadway theaters as told through the personal stories of people who have worked at them, Tepper is a self-styled musical-theater historian. "It's something you can't major in at NYU."
Indeed you cannot. That's why Tepper got her degree in Dramatic Writing from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, a program that has recently served as a breeding ground for film and television writers. "For my thesis I adapted Everything Was Possible into a screenplay," she recalled, referencing Ted Chapin's popular memoir of working as a production assistant on the 1971 James Goldman/Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, considered by many to be the finest record of what it is like to open a show on Broadway. "I was the weirdo. Everyone wanted to send their spec scripts to 30 Rock and I just wanted to work on Broadway."
That was five years ago. After assistant-directing the Broadway musical [title of show] and spending several years at Broadway producer Ken Davenport's office, she can legitimately say she's achieved that goal. Now Tepper's diving into the world of cabaret with her typical gusto and a cornucopia of new ideas.
"I want to bridge the gap between your established Broadway stars and people who are not so established," she shared. "A lot of my dream is to have writers at the club that we may not have had before." In addition, she has plans for concert readings of musicals and a whole host of new headliners.
Frankel has his own wish list of performers: "Audra's not been here. She's said she wants to, but she hasn't...Brian Stokes Mitchell has not been here. Nathan Lane doesn't have an act, but I live and hope that one day he will." So many Broadway performers have made their cabaret debuts at 54 Below and found it a medium in which they can really excel. According to Frankel and Tepper, there's still a lot of untapped potential in the community.
Tepper has been able to harness some of that potential. All of her Joe Iconis concerts at 54 Below have been very well-attended and her trivia nights bring in a big crowd, despite their late-night placement. Frankel remembered of Tepper's last Broadway Trivia Night, "The most amazing thing to me was this section where people had to match a Tweet to the person who Tweeted it. That was the section people did the best at! The space was packed with people who received those Tweets. That was astonishing to me. Remembering what Lin-Manuel Miranda Tweeted two months ago is a world beyond me, but I'm glad we have Jennifer to look after that."
Apparently, she's not the only one if the attendance at her events is any indication. Perhaps Tepper's status as one of Broadway's biggest fans is the key to knowing just what musical-theater enthusiasts are looking for in a night at the cabaret.
"There are all these various corners of the theater world and our programming has to reach all of them. At some point it will," Frankel opined. "Programming is the most important thing. We think Jennifer will be a big help with that."
Suddenly Tepper pointed toward the ceiling. "Liz Callaway just started singing 'Our Time' as you said that. I just wanted to note that moment," she said with a grin. "I'm ready to start now."
Click below to see Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Kevin Michael Murphy talk about Dracula, The Musical in their concert series If It Only Even Runs a Minute: