I Wanna Be a Producer!
One of the hard-working, lucky, presumably rich men behind The Producers talks about putting the show together.
I recently had the chance to chat with one of these fellows. According to his Playbill bio, "Rick Steiner launched himself into 'Little Old Lady Land' in 1985, co-producing the Tony-Award-winning Best Musical Big River, followed by Into the Woods, The Secret Garden, and Broadway's longest running revue, Smoky Joe's Café. Credits: Six poker championships, including the 1992 World Series of Poker 7-Stud Hi-Lo (Las Vegas) and the 1995 Legends of Poker 7-Stud event (Los Angeles). Rick resides in Cincinnati Ohio with his wife Jan and children Ace, Duke and Jaclyn." Steiner was happy to talk with TheaterMania about the theatrical phenomenon of the year, if not the decade.
THEATERMANIA: How did all nine of the Producers producers work with Mel Brooks?
RICK STEINER: We are a team. Rocco [Landesman] is the lead producer and, just like we did with Sondheim [on Into the Woods], only one person spoke to God. We had our ideas, we told them to Rocco, and Rocco was the liaison with Stro [Susan Stroman] and Mel. They were horrified when, after the opening night in Chicago, I gave Stro my notes, which I was not supposed to do. My notes were very simple: "Keep doing what you're doing. Have a good time. See you opening night."
TM: When and how did you first become involved in the project?
RS: I wrote a big check. Fortunately, Harvey Weinstein was able to back it up! We got involved last spring after Mel had a reading of the show; Rocco offered the St. James Theater to him during intermission. Had we waited until the end of the second act, we might not have gotten it.
TM: Did you know it was going to become a mega-hit?
RS: You never know. You use your gut judgment. What we knew was that it was every producer's favorite show because of the source material--the movie. I have a story about how strange the circle of life is: We opened our first show, Big River, on February 22, 1984 in Boston at ART [American Repertory Theater]. That happened to be my mother's birthday, and she was involved in theater. We were all really excited and I couldn't sleep, so I turned on the TV and saw a film called The Producers. It was the first time I saw it and I fell totally in love with it.
TM: How did you begin in the theater?
RS: I had been a professional child actor in summer stock in Cincinnati. My mother pushed me into it! My grandmother was with George M. Cohan and my grandfather was the box office treasurer of the New Amsterdam Theater, so it was kind of in my blood.
TM: And how was the production team for The Producers formed?
RS: When Rocco and I were at camp together in Minnesota, there was this larger-than-life fellow there named Pogo. He was about 6' 6" and 300 pounds, and we did a musical called Paul Bunyon. Then Rocco went to the Yale School of Drama, got his Ph.D. in theater and taught at Yale. I had a theater in Boston--a video theater, closed circuit TV. Rocco went to see Roger Miller play at The Lone Star Café in 1982 and thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to put Roger and Mark Twain together?' That was the birth of Big River. Rocco said to me, "I need your help. You get the money and help me with the business part, and I'll take care of the creative." We've been partners ever since.
TM: Is it true that you raise money the old fashioned way, from many individual investors?
TM: What was it about the first workshop of The Producers that drew you in?
RS: Every producer in New York wanted to be involved with the show. It's your life story, and you want to see it on stage. Mel Brooks worked on it for years at the urging of David Geffen, who then became too busy with DreamWorks and handed it off to whomever. We became whomever.
TM: Did the show change much during its pre-Broadway run in Chicago?
RS: Ninety-five percent of it stayed the same from the first previews there until the opening night on Broadway, which is incredibly unusual.
TM: How do you handle a mega-hit? Are there problems?
RS: You're always going to have problems...but these are great problems. There is a word that's crept into our vocabulary that none of us has ever used before, and that word is "inventory." You don't usually think of ticket inventory; you just try and sell all the tickets you can. But we don't have that much inventory left. And we can't, like Macy's, go and replenish it. We've got a $52 million-a-year business. In most other fields, that would be small. But, in the theater, it's huge.
TM: How do you pick shows?
RS: I pick the ones that interest me. You have to have a real passion for what you are doing and be willing to go through every wall and take all the hits from the critics.
TM: Was there any concern that the number "Springtime for Hitler" would offend audiences?
RS: I think that was an issue 33 years ago. Mel holds Hitler up for ridicule; that's how he tries to get even. We laugh so we don't cry.
TM: Is producing as much fun as poker?
RS: It's just as much agony. I'm totally immersed in it. The producers were sitting around the table one day and one of them said, "I haven't been able to sleep." It just consumes you; it takes everything that you have, every waking moment. It takes you to the heights and the depths. I rank it up there with baseball and poker and sex.
TM: What are production meetings like?
RS: We laugh a lot, and then it's the nuts and bolts stuff. We talk about the German version; we want to go to Germany when they do the show there. It's interesting: We all know how to struggle, how to keep a show going when you're really up against it. But we don't know how to handle this kind of success yet, because we've never had it. For the creative team, it's incredibly well deserved. They never took their eyes off the ball, not even after they got those great reviews in Chicago. They kept pruning and tightening. The show is going to run until we are all old geezers, and it's an incredible rush to be part of it.
TM: What was you reaction when The Producers won 12 Tony Awards?