May he show you to your seat?
Jay Gutterman has put on plays for sellout crowds, and for an audience of seven.
NEW YORK — Jay Gutterman can easily recall one of his low points as a producer. That was right after Sept. 11, 2001, the first night his play "Love, Janis," reopened after being closed by order of the mayor.
Only seven people were in the audience, several of whom were friends of cast members. Before then, it had been playing to big crowds. But now, all flights into New York were canceled.
"There was no one out," he recalls. "The streets were bare. The tourist buses were naked.... But the show went on as though there was a standing-room-only house.
"It was like watching a stock that fell off the chart," he says. "It took months to finally get back up to snuff."
Such is the life of a theatrical producer in New York City.
This spring, Mr. Gutterman has been hearing from hotel concierges that tourism in New York may be good this summer. He'll take good news like that wherever he can find it. He figures his current show, "Hank Williams: Lost Highway," should have strong appeal to those out-of-towners. Though it's the story of perhaps the greatest country-and-western singer of all time, he worries how it's playing with Gotham residents. Manhattan doesn't even have a country-and-western radio station.
So instead, he's been advertising on a classic rock station (advertising is 15 to 25 percent of his costs) and emphasizing the show's other aspects. It has memorable music, including tunes familiar even to people who prefer grand opera to the Grand Old Opry: "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Your Cheatin' Heart," and "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)." The reviews have been good, and the show, and especially its star, have been nominated for a bushel of awards. Now all he needs is to keep the seats filled.
New York theater has had a troubled winter. Bad weather, a Broadway strike, the war in Iraq, and an uncertain economy have made for dicey times for an industry still trying to figure out what the new normal is since 9/11 knocked it for a loop.
Producers like Gutterman and his partners - who include his wife, Cindy - must be particularly adroit at coping with the vagaries of their profession. Their battle to keep "Lost Highway" from spinning out on the road to success tells a lot about what it's like to try to create theater in New York right now.
Real producing, Gutterman points out, doesn't involve shenanigans like those in Mel Brooks's "The Producers." "It's a great satire," he says, noting that his mentor, the late Alexander Cohen, was just one of several Broadway producers who was convinced Brooks fashioned Max Bialystock after him. The show depicts producers as devious, out for a quick financial killing, and contemptuous of the show itself. In reality, Gutterman says, it's vital that a producer "play it square" and "mount a show that everyone is proud of."
Sure, he's a bit of a salesman, he says. "But you want these people to work with you again in the future."
Gutterman and his wife have helped produce several off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Though neither had been a big country music fan, they saw "Lost Highway" last year at the tiny 140-seat Manhattan Ensemble Theater (MET) in SoHo and loved it. Like many New York shows, "Lost Highway" had made a long journey to New York. It opened in Denver, later moved to Los Angeles and then to Nashville for two years, and finally to Cleveland.
Its director and co-writer, Randal Myler, seems to specialize in musical biographies: His other credits include "Love, Janis," based on the life of Janis Joplin, which the Guttermans helped produce off-Broadway.
Gutterman has a background in investments and banking. One of his clients asked him to invest money in shows. That led the Guttermans to get their own feet wet as "silent investors" in some productions. Family ties to theater kept growing. Their daughter is an up-and-coming actress, something the parents have given grudging blessing to, even though they've warned her "this is a very, very rough [business]."
As self-professed "theater lovers" ("My mother was a devoted theater fan," Gutterman says. "She got me very interested"), they found themselves wanting to take a more "hands on" role. That desire led to their first producing gig, "Taking Sides," starring award-winning actor Ed Harris in 1996.
"Lost Highway" had done sellout business at the MET, but the theater was committed to another show. "Lost Highway" would either have to move or close. The Guttermans decided they would try to bring it to a larger venue.
That's when things got interesting. The sparkling new 499-seat Little Shubert had just opened Dec. 18 on 42nd Street with the musical revue "Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails." It was expected to make a long run, perhaps for years. But to wide surprise, it closed Jan. 5.
The Guttermans scrambled to put together the financial package to grab the theater, raising about $1 million. But another problem emerged: The rights to the show and its music belonged to Sony, the entertainment conglomerate. It had recently swallowed up Acuff-Rose, the longtime country-music publisher that had launched Williams's career more than 50 years ago.
For two anxious weeks, Gutterman tried to find out who at Sony was handling the Williams show. "It was a Marx Brothers episode," he says, which included some late-night meetings with Sony executives.Part of the problem was that Sony was well versed in making music deals, but less familiar with theater.
It was an unusual sequence of events: Usually producers get the rights to shows and then shop for investors and a theater. Now they were doing it backward ("not by choice," Gutterman says with a laugh). And time was ticking - the Shuberts, who owned the theater, were supportive but had made one request: The show must open before "Urban Cowboy," a big Broadway musical, did.
It took 10 days to move in. New sets had to be built and shipped in from out of town to fill out the much larger stage. That left a week and a half for the cast to rehearse in the larger space.
The day the first ad appeared in The New York Times, Broadway musicians went on strike. Gutterman pulled the ads temporarily. Then, within a day or two after they resumed advertising, the US bombed Baghdad.
Pressing on, they opened March 26 - one night before "Urban Cowboy," keeping their promise to the Shuberts. To make the deadline, they had to forgo the preview performances and even the press review night.
But now the US was at war. Theatergoers were staying home to watch the drama unfold on their TVs. New York in particular took on an air of the besieged. "We would go home to Hoboken [N.J., each night]," Gutterman says, "and you'd have the militia on both sides of every tunnel, every bridge."
Despite these challenges, "We said, 'We're going on,' " Gutterman recalls. The show had been selling out at the much smaller MET ("It always looks great when they turn away 75 people and tell people on the phone 'no seats,' " he says). Gutterman estimated it would have a "built-in audience of about 300" a night.
He was wrong. Crowds began in the 200s and grew only slowly. He knew they needed to fill more than half the house each night just to break even: They were at the largest and one of the most expensive off-Broadway venues in town. Another unanticipated annoyance: Audiences weren't sure where the new theater was. Ticketholders would arrive late, out of breath, explaining they'd gone to the similarly named Shubert Theater, several blocks away, where "Gypsy" was playing.
Other usual sources of tourists didn't pan out, either. Each spring, US Navy ships dock at Manhattan, usually disgorging about 20,000 servicemen and women who are looking to take in a show. But because of the war, few ships arrived this year, giving shore leave to only about 3,500 sailors.
"People in the show were a little despondent when the tourist buses would go by, and the only two people on board would give you the peace sign," he says.
Then there was the matter of reviews. A writer who wanted to do a review told Gutterman "I lost all my space to Iraq news." Reviews from out-of-town papers are still trickling in.
What about the powerful hometown paper? Bruce Weber of The New York Times had written a rave (what producers call "a money review") when the show was at the MET. But would the paper review it again now?
The Times' lead reviewer hadn't seen the production. "Ben Brantley is the crux of it all. He can destroy a show," says Morton Swinsky, a veteran producer and one of the Guttermans' partners. But the Times reviewer has stayed away, while other publications have been "95 percent positive," Gutterman says.
Gutterman's confidence that his team will overcome these early obstacles lies in his belief that he's got a great show. "We're very proud of it," he says.
Chief among its assets is its talented cast, led by Jason Petty, whose acting and guitar strumming bring the talented but troubled Hank Williams to life with uncanny accuracy.
A onetime pharmaceutical salesman, Mr. Petty had been discovered singing at Opryland in Nashville. Last month, he won an Obie Award as the Best Actor in an Off-Broadway Musical. The show, Petty, and director Myler have been nominated for numerous other awards. And a Zagat survey of theatergoers this spring gave it a 96 percent recommended rating, making it the No. 1 most recommended show in town, topping hits such as "The Producers" and "Hairspray."
Myler first met the Guttermans when they were two of the many producers of "Love, Janis." "They saw that show and got really excited," he says. "They had a good feeling about me. And I certainly had a good feeling about them."
Myler says it's important to him that producers really care about the show. "I love the ones that get excited about the project."
The Guttermans and their partners fit that description. "Jay and Cindy are beginners in terms of producing in many ways," says Myler, a veteran director of both New York and regional theater. "But they make up for it with heart, and they make up for it with real commitment. The cast loves them.... They know the cast, and they're always around. And the cast appreciates that and knows that. It's a team, you know."
That kind of commitment is necessary to compensate for the many unknowns that face a producer, says Frederick Vogel, executive director of the Commercial Theater Institute, which runs an annual training seminar for producers in New York.
"You have to be passionate about the piece that you want to produce." The opportunity for a financial bonanza is ephemeral. "I don't know what's going to make money," says Mr. Vogel, who's currently producing the Broadway show "Enchanted April." "I turned down 'Forever Plaid,' " a big moneymaker. He knows of "very astute producers" who turned down "Stomp," another winner.
The producer's job is to get theatergoers through the door. "Nobody knows how great it is until they get in there," he says.
Though "Lost Highway" isn't a box-office smash yet, it's doing well enough to play for a while. "No one is holding a gun to our head," Gutterman says. The Shubert organization has given them the theater through the end of the summer. Then the Guttermans and their partners hope to extend the run to the holidays and send another cast out on a national tour. They are already planning a tour with "Love, Janis," which, despite shaky times around 9/11, ended up faring well overall.
Meanwhile, the job is to keep weathering the daily surprises of New York in 2003, Gutterman says. "Every time they knock you down, you have to have the resilience and the staying power to not throw in the towel."