Theater News

Daryl Roth Opens Her Heart

The award-winning producer discusses why she brought Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart to Broadway.

Daryl Roth
(© Tristan Fuge)
Daryl Roth
(© Tristan Fuge)

Daryl Roth is one of the theater’s most prolific and serious-minded producers, having earned Tony Awards for Proof, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, and August: Osage County and the 2010 Lucille Lortel Award for Lifetime Achievement for her commitment to Off-Broadway. So it’s not surprising that she’s the one who has spearheaded the current, Tony Award-nominated Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s 1985 Off-Broadway play The Normal Heart, about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, now at the Golden Theatre.

“I’m attracted to things that push buttons and make people think about issues we can’t always access and plays that touch a chord both intellectually and emotionally,” she says, “Theater is a place for audiences to take risks and encounter and explore issues of life and identity. It’s a haven in which to engage challenging subjects with a safety net.”

While Roth would be the first one to admit that The Normal Heart can prove challenging to mainstream audiences, she believes it belongs on the Great White Way. “I found it astounding that it was never on Broadway. And The Normal Heart is as timely now, if not more so, than when it was written,” she says. “People think AIDS is not a worry anymore because there are drugs treating the symptoms. The truth is it’s an even bigger worry. It was important to put this play out there for a younger generation — one that doesn’t understand the legacy or history and what it took to get from there to now and how important it is to be active and carry on.”

The road to Broadway began last October when Roth was asked by Joel Grey — who had starred in the show’s original production at the Public Theater — to produce a benefit reading for The Actors Fund that he was directing. “That night changed my life. I saw the reaction of the audience. I went up to Larry and told him, ‘I want to do this on Broadway. Everybody has to see this play.’ That was my reaction to the emotional wallop that it had,” she says.

Getting the show on Broadway this season was something of a miracle. The cast ended up with a mere 16-day rehearsal period and only a handful of previews before officially opening on April 27, one day before the Tony Awards deadline. “Driving Miss Daisy loaded out and we loaded in the next day. We were right down to the line. Joel went into Anything Goes thinking we wouldn’t get a theater this season, so we brought in George C. Wolfe to co-direct. He’s the leader, but what he did that was so brilliant was giving these actors trust.”

First and foremost among those actors is Joe Mantello, who returned to acting after a 15-year-hiatus during which he became a much sought-after director, and has earned Tony Award and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for his performance. “He told me after appearing in Angels in America that he didn’t want to act anymore unless he’d be able to play Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart,” she notes.

Indeed, Roth is in awe of the entire cast, which received a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble. “John Benjamin Hickey delivers all the time, but nothing he’s done prepares you for this performance. Ellen Barkin is a revelation; she’s honest, moving and emotionally powerful. And how about Lee Pace, who’s such a courageous actor, and Jim Parsons, who took a featured role and made it a standout! The entire cast is just outstanding.”

As Roth points out, though, the play is much more than just a vehicle for great actors. “Since it opened, I’ve received so many messages stating how the play opened people’s hearts, how they felt things that were deep inside, how they cried and weren’t embarrassed to cry,” she says. “For me, it’s the culmination of all the things that theater can do.”