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Rocco Landesman: From Broadway to NEA nominee*

May 14, 2009 |  1:00 am

Rocco If somebody told you that America’s point person for the arts would be devoted to baseball, country music and playing the ponies, in addition to holding a PhD from Yale and having run an investment fund, you might respond that you’d be interested in seeing that show when the playwright had finished the script.

Well, the show is now just a Senate confirmation from having its true-life premiere — not on Broadway, but in Washington, D.C. Rocco Landesman is all of the above, but mainly he’s a veteran showman who has helped produce 15 Tony Award-winning plays and musicals, including “Angels in America” and “The Producers.” President Obama announced his nomination Wednesday to chair the National Endowment for the Arts.

“He’s sort of fabledly impatient, and I think he will be a really interesting fighter for the arts,” says Steven Lavine, president of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and a member of the National Arts Policy Committee that advised Obama during his presidential campaign. “He’s seen as someone who’s willing to place big bets, who wants to accomplish something, and has this sense of not being very interested in business as usual.”

“He’s a very vibrant personality, and I can’t say that anyone who’s worked for him dislikes him,” says John Connolly, executive director of Actors’ Equity, the national union for stage actors. Connolly had a chance to watch Landesman operate during his early days on Broadway, when he produced the 1985 hit “Big River,” a show that merged the country music of composer Roger Miller with a story drawn from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Connolly, who succeeded John Goodman in the role of Huck Finn’s pap, recalls a hands-on producer who “really nurtured the piece. He’s extremely smart and kind of a quirky, fascinating person.”

Roccolandesman Landesman, 61, arrives at a promising but difficult moment for the arts. Obama, in contrast to George W. Bush, who partially rebuilt the agency’s budget from a Clinton-era low, is seen in the arts community as a president who fully “gets it” when it comes to culture and creativity. But the nonprofit arts, which the NEA fosters via grants from a $155-million budget, have seen their private and public sustenance perilously diminished amid the economic downturn. So Landesman, who was not available to be interviewed for this article, arrives with heady expectations as a change agent but under straitened circumstances that could inhibit ambitious initiatives.

“There’s going to be an awful lot of immediate and instant claims on anybody who steps into that chair,” Connolly says. “The first task is going to be to reduce the din so they can have a reasoned conversation about what can be done with the funds at hand, then build a program to convince society that $155 million a year is just insufficient for this country to invest in the arts.”

Landesman grew up in St. Louis, where in the 1950s his parents ran a cabaret that featured the likes of Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. After undergraduate studies at Colby College and the University of Wisconsin, he earned his doctorate in dramatic literature from the Yale School of Drama, where he also has taught. In 1978, he left to run a private investment fund and own race horses. In the early ’80s he joined former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff and others as a founding partner in Dodger Theatricals — which hit it big in 1985 with “Big River.” In 1987, Jujamcyn Theaters, the smallest of three theater-owning chains on Broadway, hired Landesman as president and he became its owner in 2005. Around that time, he tried unsuccessfully to buy the Cincinnati Reds Major League Baseball team.

Now, among the questions he’ll have to answer are: Can a leader of the commercial theater shift to a job with a nonprofit constituency? And can someone used to being the boss — and a notably outspoken one in a world that often speaks in not-for-attribution, backstage whispers — be politic and diplomatic heading a government agency that answers to the Oval Office and Capitol Hill?

Connolly, the Actors’ Equity director, thinks that Landesman’s  record of working on shows that began in nonprofit theaters, then transferred to commercial houses on Broadway, bodes well for his ability to bridge  gaps between commercial and art-first sensibilities. Landesman has enjoyed noting in interviews that he’s championed not only shows such as the dramas of August Wilson and “Caroline, or Change,” Tony Kushner’s musical about race relations, that stood little chance of earning a profit but embodied the artistic quality Broadway needed to support, but also mass-audience crowd-pleasers such as “The Who’s Tommy,” “Jersey Boys” and “The Producers,” which he also helped produce.

“He’s all kinds of things, and I think that breadth will be very valuable to him as a leader,” said Robert Lynch, president of the Americans for the Arts lobbying group.

CalArts’ Lavine thinks it’s important that Landesman push to reinstate NEA grants for individuals. They were a casualty of the 1990s “culture wars” that crippled the agency’s budget, as Congress insisted that the government not fund potentially offensive work.

“Just to have somebody who has produced Tony Kushner and August Wilson — he knows that it starts with the individual artistic voice, and if it’s not offending somebody ... it’s not doing its job,” Lavine said. He also hopes the NEA will help spearhead more cultural diplomacy, making a global statement that America’s cultural product is not just car chases and shoot-’em-ups.

Lynch says money and extending the arts audience will be the important measures of Landesman’s tenure. Can he use his post as a bully pulpit to rally more support from the private sector and state and local governments? With Obama proposing a 4% NEA budget increase next year, to $161.3 million, can Landesman push on to restore the buying power the NEA had at its peak in 1992 — $267 million in today’s currency? And can his tenure lead, Lynch wonders, to “more voices being heard, and more audiences served. That will be an even bigger metric the new chairman will be judged by.”

-- Mike Boehm

Top photo: Rocco Landesman in 2006. Credit: Peter Kramer / Getty Images. Bottom photo: Landesman in 1995. Credit: Joe Tabacca / For The Times

*UPDATED: A previous version of this post misspelled the first name of the president of the California Institute of the Arts. His name is Steven Lavine, not Stephen.

MORE: For a Critic's Notebook by Christopher Knight about the NEA and Landesman, click here.

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