Wannabe Divas, Has-Been Impresarios, and Great Expectations: Susan Schulman Has Seen It All on Broadway
The veteran press agent dishes about her nearly-half-century career in her new book ''Backstage Pass to Broadway''.
"Is this the hallway where David Merrick and his girlfriend nearly assaulted you?" I asked press agent Susan Schulman while stepping into her small 16th-floor office in the Paramount Building on Times Square. Schulman has worked as a theatrical press agent (that's the person who handles media relations for a show: booking interviews, inviting critics, and occasionally putting out fires) since 1966, but one moment in her career in the mid-'90s merited its own chapter in her recently released memoir, Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales From a Theatre Press Agent: Schulman handled press for the 1996 Broadway premiere of State Fair, the stage adaptation of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musical. One of the lead producers was David Merrick, the legendary "Abominable Showman" who dominated Broadway for years with hits like 42nd Street and Hello, Dolly! He was the last of the great impresarios, but by 1996 a stroke had rendered him unable to speak. That didn't prevent his assistant/girlfriend (and later deathbed-wife), Natalie Lloyd, who often interpreted his mumblings in business meetings, from speaking for him.
After unsuccessfully attempting to sue The League of American Theatres & Producers (today called The Broadway League) for shutting State Fair out of the Tony nominations for Best Score, Lloyd fired Schulman and demanded she turn over all press material for State Fair. She showed up at Schulman's office with Merrick and a large bodyguard, carrying a check for what was allegedly Schulman's unpaid fee (although it was past 4pm, so Schulman would never get to the bank in time to deposit it). Fearing that she was about to be swindled, Schulman didn't let them into the office.
"It was terrifying. She just held her finger on the buzzer and was screaming," Schulman recalled. "It sounds funny now, but it wasn't. It was pretty scary. Finally, they were escorted out of the building." She's stayed loyal to the Paramount Building and their crack security team ever since.
That's just one of the many anecdotes shared in Schulman's book, which offers an overview of her career, starting with her earliest job at the newly formed Lincoln Center under Director of Publicity Jack Frizzelle. "He was a wonderful first boss. He really let me learn and grow." From there she moved on to work under big Broadway press agents like Bill Doll and Frank Goodman until she was able to venture out on her own.
"It was a complete accident," admitted Schulman on the subject of her career. When she left NYU, she really wanted to work for producer Manny Azenberg. An assistant in his office kept stringing her along, telling her to call back in two weeks. Finally, at the prodding of her mother, Schulman reluctantly took the Lincoln Center job. "Had the Azenberg job gone through, I probably would have wound up being a company manager or a general manager — something I'm really not suited for." She shudders at the thought of all that bookkeeping. Now Schulman gets to use her knowledge of the theater and her talent as a writer to help craft the right expectations around a show, and that is much more complicated than it sounds.
"It's hard to figure out sometimes," she explained, citing Dancin', the 1978 dance revue by Bob Fosse. "When it opened in Boston the critics all said, ‘There's no thread. There's no story.' They didn't like it. But there wasn't ever supposed to be a book or story! They just expected it because it was Fosse." Such great expectations are a difficult thing to overcome, but not impossible. "By the time we got to New York we got that message right," Schulman noted. "It was virtually the same show, but this time [the critics'] expectations were different." Dancin' went on to run on Broadway for 1,774 performances.
It's a tough job with a constantly changing set of tasks. Schulman pointed at two motley figurines on a shelf in her office. One was juggling several balls at once while the other was jumping through hoops. "Those are my press-agent dolls," she said. "It's keeping a lot of balls in the air and it's dealing with a lot of personalities."
Indeed, one of those personalities was Lesley Ann Warren. Famous for her portrayal of Cinderella in the 1965 Rodgers and Hammerstein television remake, Warren decided to make her triumphant return to Broadway in the 1997 Johnny Mercer dance revue Dream. Between destroying set pieces in rehearsal, throwing a chair at a producer, and racking up $5,000 in interior-decorator bills for her dressing room, Warren certainly proved what a personality she could be. During the production, Schulman was taking regular phone calls from New York Post theater gossip columnist Michael Riedel, who often knew about the bad backstage behavior before she did. "He clearly has a mole in every company. I think he had several in Dream," she mused. She never lied to him. How could she? Too many people saw all this happen.
"I would never lie to a reporter," she insisted many times. "Now, I might not tell you everything I know." But omission is not the same thing as fabrication. Schulman's truthfulness is something she carries with her to each new job. "If I don't have any credibility, why should anyone in the media talk to me? That credibility is what I have. That's my currency. You can't blow it. Well...you could, but you'd be an idiot." This is a point on which Schulman doesn't mince words.