Jordan Roth, 'Clybourne Park's' Broadway producer, makes West Coast swing
Broadway producer Jordan Roth was sitting in a downtown Los Angeles hotel lobby late Friday afternoon, laughing and giving a broad wave of his hand at the suggestion that he’d stumbled upon a new showbiz corollary to the “you break it, you bought it” rule of commerce.
Earlier this month, Roth, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, bought the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Clybourne Park” to save it from breaking. At the time, It appeared that Bruce Norris’ satire might not make its planned transfer to Broadway after the Feb. 26 conclusion of its run at the Mark Taper Forum, because of a sudden $1-million hole in its $2.5-million New York production budget.
But Roth saved the day by anteing up an unspecified amount of Jujamcyn’s cash and recruiting several other investors, whom he declined to name for now.
“Clybourne Park,” which also won a 2011 Olivier Award for best new play on the London commercial stage, will begin previews at Jujamcyn’s Walter Kerr Theatre on March 26. It opens April 19, in time to be eligible for the 2012 Tony Awards.
The show needed a bailout for reasons possibly unprecedented in the history of backstage friction between theater artists and their bankrollers. Lead producer Scott Rudin’s late-January decision to drop “Clybourne Park” had nothing to do with the play itself. Norris is also an actor, and Rudin wanted him to play a part in an HBO adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, “The Corrections,” which he is producing. Norris refused the acting gig -- and Rudin retaliated by pulling his money out of “Clybourne Park.”
But on Feb. 2, Roth phoned the Taper to tell the cast that he’d come up with the money to save the show. He flew to L.A. on Friday -– with plans to fly back home the next day -- so he could see what he was saving.
Roth, who got his start in the theater business in 1999 producing “The Donkey Show,” a version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” staged in Manhattan nightclubs, is the son of theatrical producer Daryl Roth and real estate magnate Steven Roth. He joined Jujamcyn in 2005 and in 2009 bought a 50% interest in the company from its owner, Rocco Landesman, who had been appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and took the reins as president. The Princeton graduate is now in his mid-30s .
Since he became president of Jujamcyn, the theaters have been home to "Hair," "Fela!", "American Idiot" and last year's Tony Award-winning musical "Book of Mormon."
“I’ve always loved it, I’ve always connected with it,” Roth said of "Clybourne Park" in an interview a couple of hours before heading to the Taper. Until now, he’d only seen it in his mind’s eye, having read the script sometime before the April 2011 announcement that it had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Since its 2010 off-Broadway premiere produced by Playwrights Horizons, “Clybourne Park” has featured the same seven actors and the same director, Pam MacKinnon. The actors are not famous, but Times theater critic Charles McNulty found them “uniformly excellent.”
The show is a sequel of sorts to “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic about a black Chicago family, the Youngers, who struggle to muster the togetherness and courage they’ll need as integrators of the all-white suburb of Clybourne Park.
Norris’ play is set in the house -– unseen in “Raisin” -– that the Youngers bought. In the first act, set in 1959, Karl Lindner, the lone holdover from Hansberry’s drama (in which he tries to bribe the Youngers to keep out), is seen making a last-ditch effort to get the white owners, a deeply troubled middle-aged couple, to rescind the sale and find another buyer. Act 2 takes place 50 years later, as friction simmers over whether recently arrived gentrifying whites should respect Clybourne Park’s character as a formerly all-black neighborhood -– or at least not disrupt its modest contours by replacing the erstwhile Younger homestead with a McMansion.
Roth said he read “Clybourne Park” a second time several months ago when Rudin and his partner, Stuart Thompson, proposed renting the 947-seat Walter Kerr Theatre, one of five Broadway houses Jujamcyn owns, for a four-month limited engagement of the play. “I thought it was the most astounding piece of work," Roth said. "To be ferociously insightful and gut-bustingly hysterical, that’s a combination for me. I wanted it in our theater.”
Roth said he was surprised when Rudin called in late January to say he was dropping the show and to explain why. He takes a diplomatic tack about the Rudin-Norris tiff, saying he and Rudin are “longtime friends and collaborators…. I understand his position. This hasn’t affected our relationship at all.”
He said Rudin and Thompson have not objected to or tried to prevent the show’s rescue by others. But Rudin’s retaliation against Norris has raised some eyebrows.
“His yanking of funding … seems mercurial, even by his own fabled standards, and a bit churlish,” wrote Charles Isherwood of the New York Times. “Given his demonstrated commitment to high-quality theater over many years, it is dismaying that he has allowed personal pique to override his more far-reaching interest in keeping serious theater available in a Broadway environment increasingly hostile to such work,” especially when no stars are involved.
Was part of the motivation for saving “Clybourne Park” a feeling among Broadway insiders that a show -– especially one with an award-winning pedigree -– should not be derailed for such seemingly arbitrary and tangential reasons? Roth smiled, shook his head no and kept his answer strictly positive.
For the “Clybourne Park” bailout team, he said, “this is a special piece. It really comes back to [a] love of and belief in the play.”
Roth said he’d planned all along to see the show in L.A. and meet the cast here, even when Jujamcyn was preparing to be its landlord rather than a key producer. “Connecting with the production and connecting with the people” is important, he said. But adopting the play rather than merely taking it as a boarder does put things in a somewhat different light.
“I feel like I’m going to meet a part of my family that I just found out I’m related to,” Roth said.
While shepherding “Clybourne Park” on Broadway, Roth and Jujamcyn also will be co-producers of “Leap of Faith,” the musical adaptation, with a score by Alan Mencken, of a 1992 Steve Martin film about a shady evangelist. Roth said Jujamcyn has been among the show’s backers since before its 2010 premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre. Now it has a different director, Christopher Ashley in place of Rob Ashford, and playwright Warren Leight was brought in to help with what Roth described as “significant changes to the book.” Raul Esparza remains the lead actor. Previews begin April 3, a week after the first preview of “Clybourne Park.”
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: Top, the cast of "Clybourne Park' meets with Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, after Friday night's performance at the Mark Taper Forum. Pictured, from left to right, are Damon Gupton, Frank Wood, Crystal A. Dickinson, Roth, Annie Parisse, Brendan Griffin, Jeremy Shamos and Christina Kirk. Lower, Jordan Roth. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times