by Ryan Leeds
For a true theater lover, there is simply no one else who has captured the rich history that lies between the walls of Broadway’s cherished structures better than Jennifer Ashley Tepper, author of The Untold Stories of Broadway. Tepper’s third volume has just been released, and for any theater geek, it’s a must read.
Tepper spent an extensive amount of time interviewing an array of individuals who had not only stepped into the spotlight, but she thoughtfully sought out the “unsung heroes” that make Broadway hum: stage hands, music arrangers, directors, company managers, and box office personnel.
In this volume, she highlights the Broadhurst, the Belasco, the Edison, the Lyric, the Majestic, the Schoenfeld, the St. James and the Walter Kerr. In between interviews, she sprinkles some interesting tidbits about the theaters and infuses her own experiences and memories.
In addition to writing, Tepper has also worn many hats including directing, producing, and marketing of many Broadway shows and is the director of Programming at Feinstein’s/54 Below. As an industry insider, Tepper knows how to gather the “dish,” but she serves it back to theater lovers in a compelling, gracious, and reverent manner. Think of her as Michael Riedel minus the snark and with better lipstick.
From ghost stories to opening night tales, backstage rituals, secret rooms, PR pranks, and auditions, Tepper’s book is as thoroughly entertaining as a Broadway show itself and can either be enjoyed from beginning to end, or by casually leafing through. With the holidays approaching, it’s the perfect gift for the person who already owns original cast recordings or previously published coffee table books.
The Broadway Blog: So many people love the “razzle dazzle” of Broadway, but your interest goes much deeper than that. What is it about these physical spaces that fascinates you?
Jennifer Ashley Tepper: I’ve always loved the idea that when you’re sitting in a theatre, you are where so many other people have been: people who have created hit shows, people you admire, and all of those things that are so unique to Broadway.
You might love a particular movie, but there’s not really a chance to visit the soundstage and pinpoint exactly where the actors stood. These theaters are so specific in the sense of their history. Many of them have been here for at least 100 years. It connects us to the past. Plus, every theatre has secret passageways and weird nondescript rooms. They help chart what Broadway used to be and what it is now.
BB: You reference a secret tunnel between the Broadhurst and Schoenfeld. Tell us about that.
JAT: People don’t really know about it if they aren’t working in either of those theaters, which are on two different blocks. Two of these secret passageways lie in the inner alley that connects the two theaters. Street passerby on 45th Street can look to the left of the Schoenfeld to find a locked alleyway. The stage door is to the right of the Schoenfeld, but the alley on the left also provides an exit, used by audiences and show folk alike. At the very back of the alley, one door leads directly to the Broadhurst stage and another door leads to house left in the Broadhurst auditorium.
BB: Most of your stories are warm and nostalgic or bittersweet. You also tell stories of people who have had ghost experiences. I’m wondering if there were any that were too bleak, gossipy, or just downright depressing to share?
JAT: There totally were and I have a file marked as “Off the record.” People have instructions to destroy it (laughs). But actually, Fritz Weaver was a Broadway actor who just passed away. He was an amazing man. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and he told me a very sad dark story. He played a Tony Award winning role in a show called Child’s Play and it was about an incredibly dark, violent, suicidal teacher.
Fritz was a method actor and he told me that the biggest regret of his career was the year he did that play because he took the show home to his young kids. He admitted that although it was critically acclaimed, he spent so much time trying to make it up to his children who were terrified by his presence while doing the show. I thought that it was so moving that he focused not on winning the Tony, but what toll it took on his family. That really stuck with me.
BB: Any stories of all out brawls between creative teams or All About Eve type stories?
JAT: There is a lot of that and sometimes you get the true stories of what you’ve heard through gossip, but you get to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. One the best examples in this book is the real story behind Taboo, the Boy George musical. Raul Esparza talked about quitting, working with Rosie O’Donnell, and why the show failed. People tend to be honest as long as—say—ten years have passed.
BB: You mention in the preface that you wanted to focus on people of color and women whose theatrical contributions were either not applauded or remembered. Who were some of those people?
JAT: One of the things that I ran into is that I tried to find female playwrights who had worked at a particular theatre and there either weren’t any or they were deceased. Some other influential artists of color were hard to pin down for an interview. It’s hard to get people you’ve never met before to answer a phone call or email regarding an unfamiliar project. I tried to get as many as I could, but I filled in the blanks quite a bit in this volume.
The Schoenfeld has a cool history of women writers so I charted that in the book and I also found women who worked behind the scenes at that theatre.
George C. Wolfe, who is one of my heroes, has a lot of incredible material in the book. Baayork Lee talked about being in The King and I with white actors who were made-up to appear Asian. People either didn’t care or didn’t protest. So there were some markers that I found with regards to race and gender.
BB: What are your most vivid memories of theaters that you reference in this third volume?
JAT: A Chorus Line revival at the Schoenfeld really sticks out. I saw it 11 times and can recall skipping class on my birthday to go to a matinee. I was working on title of show at the time, directed by Michael Berresse. Michael was also playing Zach in A Chorus Line and took me backstage following the show.
I had the launch of my book at the Lyric Theatre and have such a vivid memory of my first time being there. I came to the city as a teenager with my parents and we were planning to see Aida, but learned that Adam Pascal was out of the show that day. I cried so much that the box office exchanged our tickets for later in the week and instead, we rushed down to Broadway and ran to our seats for 42nd Street. Whenever I walk into a Broadway theatre, I immediately think of the last few times I’ve been there. Those memories are powerful.
BB: Did you happen to find any research on the size of seats and the limited leg room?
JAT: I found a lot of fascinating information. I interviewed Bob Wankel, President of the Shubert Organization, who talked about how, when all of the theaters were first built that women didn’t go to the bathroom that often in public. They didn’t want to remove their corsets or petticoats.
So now, if you’ve ever heard complaints about the lines at ladies’ room it’s because the bathroom was probably built into what was once an office. Things like that definitely affect the physical space. Plus, people used to be smaller so there is less leg room. It’s interesting to learn that the actual life of people go into how these buildings were built.
BB: Coming from someone who is 6’1 and fuller framed, if you have any clout on the design and leg room in newer theaters, I’d appreciate that!
You have a few other volumes coming out after this, right?
JAT: I do. There are 40 Broadway theaters—soon to be 41 with the Hudson—so I’m looking at about six volumes in total. I don’t know how long that will take but I plan to get to all of them.
All three volumes of The Untold Stories of Broadway can be purchased on Amazon.com.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.