Sunday, June 03, 2001

'Producers' primed for Tony Awards

Walnut Hills grad thrilled to be involved in historic Broadway production

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The last time North Avondale's Rick Steiner was all tuxed up for the Tony Awards, it was for Smokey Joe's Cafe in 1995. Odds-loving Mr. Steiner figured it didn't have a chance of winning.

        This year the chances of Mr. Steiner's show losing are about the same as an asteroid hitting Fountain Square at high noon.

        Mr. Steiner is one of the producers of The Producers,the show that holds a record 15 Tony nominations. The show that broke The Lion King'sone-day ticket sales record. The New York Times seems to report on it daily. It's SRO nightly and selling tickets for November 2002.

        “Anything can happen,” Mr. Steiner hedged last week as he checked the latest box office report ($1 million-plus for the week).

        Mr. Steiner knows about “anythings.”

        His first foray into producing came as part of the Big River team in 1985. They were the new guys; it was hard going. If the Huck Finn musical had flopped, muses Mr. Steiner, “we (including producing partner Rocco Landesman) would have packed it in.”

        Happily, it won the Tony for best musical. Mr. Steiner stayed in the biz with shows including Into the Woods and The Secret Garden.

        If entertainment mogul David Geffen hadn't stepped back as lead producer during the development of The Producers, there would have been no room for Mr. Landesman (president of Jujamcyn Theaters since 1987) to step in with Mr. Steiner, SFX Theatricals and the brothers Weinstein (Bob and Harvey of Miramax Films fame).

        And who'd have thought that a gleefully politically incorrect musical comedy based on a Mel Brooks cult film could suddenly be a phenomenon?

    Favorite sites for keeping up on Broadway (and beyond):
        Who could have guessed that critics and audiences would go mildly insane over a brilliantly over-the-top musical satire? (For anyone unfamiliar with Mr. Brooks in his heyday, the plot follows a scoundrel of a producer and his sniveling accountant who concoct a plan to bilk investors by producing the worst Broadway show ever, so appalling it will close on opening night. Voila, show-within-a-show Springtime For Hitler.)

        Mr. Steiner is happy to just “savor, protect, enjoy” a “mind-boggling,” once-in-a-lifetime ride.

        These days he has to step around large cardboard boxes piling up around his office. They're filled with press clippings about the show. “I've become an historian,” he says mildly.

        Tonight's big question isn't will The Producers win, but how many Tony Awards can it win? Enough to tie the Hello, Dolly! record of 10? To top it?

        Mr. Steiner cautiously utters “backlash.” At the same time, he admits that he and his fellow producers are having a hard time sleeping.

        “We're so pumped,” he says. “It's distracting and exhilarating.”

        Best musical, director and choreographer awards for Susan Stroman, best actor (Nathan Lane as the astounding Max Bialystock), set and costume design and book for a musical (Mr. Brooks and Thomas Meehan) are as close to a sure thing as you can get.

Stiff competition

        From there it gets tricky.

        The Producers has three nominees in the featured actor category. It's possible they'll cancel each other out in the voting, leaving room for old pro Andre DeShields.

        Mr. Steiner also suggests vulnerability in the featured actress category. Cady Huffman is a showstopper as a blond bombshell in The Producers, but another old pro, Polly Bergen, might get a sentimental vote.

        Neither of these things have happened in preliminary Broadway awards, including Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle Awards.

        If Ms. Huffman and Gary Beach as the outrageously queening director of The Producers' musical-within-a-musical prevail, it may all come down to Mr. Brooks' music and lyrics.

        The Tonys have a solid voting block of road producers, and there may be an inclination not to leave the soon-to-be-touring The Full Monty empty-handed. Mr. Brooks' playful melodies could lose to David Yazbek's playful melodies.

        If Mr. Brooks loses, Mr. Steiner will be miffed on his behalf. To the score's critics he responds, “Horsefeathers! Wait 30 years, look back and tell me this isn't a great score.”

        Like the Oscars, the Tonys can be good for business. Some shows are hanging on by their fingernails hoping some of its shine will reflect on the box office. Several musicals closed in early May when Tony closed them out.

        Ironically, there's not much Tony can do for The Producers.

        When you're selling tickets 18 months out, the biggest problem you're facing, says Mr. Steiner, is what you do when people show up at the theater with tickets that are the right date but the wrong year. (There was some consultation with The Lion King management on that question.)

        What Mr. Steiner would love to do, he laughs, is “bank all the awards and reviews. The next time we have a clunker, it would be nice to say, "Apply it to this show, please.' ”

        A clunker isn't any part of the plan.

        A musical based on Shane has been in the works for a few years. Several potential composers came and went before former Cincinnatian Mike Reid signed on. “He's hard at work, but it's still early,” Mr. Steiner says.

        Over the past couple of weeks Mr. Steiner has been sitting in on backers' auditions of musical adaptations of The Night They Raided Minsky's and Hairspray.

        “Other people produce for a living,” he says, “I produce shows I love. I have to think a show is commercially viable as well as liking it” because Broadway is only rarely a place for big and quick return on investment.

        The Producers will pay back its investors by the end of the year. There was so much early (and big money) interest that Mr. Steiner had to limit investment in the show to longtime friends from the Walnut Hills High School class of '64 and investors in his beloved Big River.

        While Mr. Steiner “actively limits” his producing activity, what The Producers gives him, he says, “is currency” to move in some different directions.

        Like the conversation he started a couple of weeks ago. He was with his family in Central Park when he spotted Reba McEntire. He hurried over to add his compliments to her mountain of raves for her performance as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun.

        Then he put on his producer's hat. “You need to do a Broadway album,” he told her.

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