The first time I ever met Tom Viertel, I thought, "Wow. This is the producer of The Producers... showing new producers how to get to Broadway." It sounds like a funny idea at first, but for The Commercial Theater Institute (CTI) and The Broadway League, it's a very serious mission which is changing the landscape and future of professional Broadway theatre production. For us theatre lovers, this mission makes it possible for great plays to find their way to the Great White Way, and who doesn't love that?
Committed to the development and training of emerging producers, CTI is a joint venture of The Broadway League, the trade association for the Broadway industry, and TDF, the leading non-profit organization that supports commercial theater. CTI's Executive Director since 2013 is none other than one of the most experienced and successful Broadway producers in the business, Tom Viertel.
With more than 34 years of producing some of Broadway's most notable works, including original Broadway productions of The Producers, Hairspray, Young Frankenstein, Smokey Joe’s Café, Angels in America, Penn & Teller, The Parisian Woman, The Weir, The Encounter, and Swing, and a slew of successful revivals, he's covered just about every angle of the production process and offers invaluable insight into an otherwise mysterious industry where little was shared about the process until CTI came along.
Mr. Viertel is also Chairman of the Board of The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, America’s foremost development center for new theatrical work, in Waterford, Connecticut, winner of two Tony Awards and the National Medal of Arts, and no stranger to the dynamic challenges of taking a production from concept to fruition. I had the chance to interview Mr. Viertel about the state of commercial Broadway production, CTI's workshops (many of which I have attended), and insights he was very gracious to share.
Roger Gonzalez: CTI has always been very responsive to workshop’s attendee’s feedback regarding the type of workshops requested. What type of information are attendees asking for the most these days, and why do you think that is?
Tom Viertel: Attendees only occasionally ask for courses we haven’t given. The best example of such a request, which came from multiple people across a range of sessions, was for a course in the vocabulary of producing. We now provide that course, which covers vocabulary that arises in legal, general management, technical, financial and musical areas. Often participants ask for information that is available in established CTI courses other than the one they are attending. Participants also ask for breakout sessions, which are available in the O’Neill course.
Roger Gonzalez: Tom, you have an impressive, direct level of personal experience and success as a theatrical producer. What advice would you give your younger self given all you know now? What would you do differently?
Tom Viertel: My basic advice has never changed. Produce what you love. It’s a small business - try to have your relationships outlast your productions.
Roger Gonzalez: As an extension to the previous question, what advice or tip would you give to a first time Off-Broadway, or Broadway producer?
Mr. Viertel: My tip to an Off-Broadway producer these days is generally – don’t. Off-Broadway is extremely challenging, although it may be getting a bit better. It’s unfortunate because Off-Broadway used to be a great training ground for Broadway producers of the future. For Broadway producers, I would suggest they look closely at the moral/political content of their productions. That’s become increasingly important lately.
Roger Gonzalez: It's true that most success is based on the relationships we build, but is loving what you want to produce (even with relationships) enough? I'm sure some producers love the material, but also analyze the potential. Beyond the love, is there some working process outside of instinct you would suggest? And I have to ask. You pretty much say to avoid Off-Broadway. So what would you say are some alternatives to producing Off-Broadway?
Tom Viertel: I think there are a number of issues to consider beyond loving what you want to produce and each producer needs to decide what filters to apply. Musical audiences are largely from out of town so the breadth of appeal is one concern. These days political concerns can be meaningful. Is there a clear-cut starring role – and is that important to you or not. Lots of other things that a producer can decide are important or not. I still think being passionate about a project is crucial because a producer is going to live with it for a long time and sit through it dozens of times. If you’re not in love to start with, that’ll get very hard.
It's possible to produce Off-Broadway but success is still a long shot there. In recent times, a few projects have worked and that’s encouraging. I’d be the last person to write off Off-Broadway because it was the way I learned to produce. I hope the recent successes are the seeds of a renewal for Off-Broadway. We’d be much the poorer in commercial theater without it. Alternatives to Off-Broadway are tours or immersive theater that can be done in found spaces. Producing in London is also very viable but theater availability there is almost as difficult as here.
Roger Gonzalez: What are some hot buttons for theatrical production (specifically within the context of Broadway and Off-Broadway producing) for 2020 that producers need to consider?
Tom Viertel: Political/gender/POC issues have become hugely important in recent times. Our audiences want affirmation in these trying and divisive times. Don’t be on the wrong side of history.
Roger Gonzalez: CTI's workshops and courses are a very visible part of your organization, are there any other services or events happening at CTI you would like to share as we go into 2020?
Tom Viertel: CTI’s courses are important networking opportunities. Producing is very collaborative because shows are so expensive. Meeting other like-minded producers is a must for success and CTI courses are wonderful places to meet them.
Roger Gonzalez: Technology has changed the theatrical landscape. Would you care to share your thoughts on that?
Tom Viertel: There are many technological changes that affect our industry. Our ability to adjust prices to better reflect supply and demand is probably among the most important but the predominance of projections rather than painted scenery has also been a huge change. Our increased ability to capture data on our audiences together with the rise of social media has completely changed the way we speak to our audiences.
Roger Gonzalez: Last question. From your perspective, what’s the state of theatrical production as a whole, as an industry moving into the 20's?
Tom Viertel: I’m excited about theater going forward. So many exciting writers, directors, designers and actors are working in theater now. Good producers have the opportunity to work with wonderful talent on both sides of the Atlantic and Broadway’s recent success attests to the depth of our talent on all fronts.
For more information about Tom Veirtel and The Commercial Theatre Institute, and their workshops, please visit: https://www.commercialtheaterinstitute.com/