An Interview with Daryl Roth
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
October 31st, 2017
This past spring, during the usual post-Tony nomination period of shows posting closing notices, there was a surprise twist. The producer of the Broadway play Indecent, Daryl Roth, announced that the show was closing, and then, rather than close the show, decided to keep it open for six more weeks. Reportedly, it was the first time anything like that had ever happened on Broadway. Daryl Roth, now nearing the end of her third decade of producing, has become a staple of Broadway and Off-Broadway, and has produced seven Pulitzer Prize winning plays (a record for a producer), including her first collaboration with Paula Vogel, How I Learned to Drive. She’s also the owner of The Daryl Roth Theater in Union Square, is currently represented on Broadway with Kinky Boots, and will be speaking about her career with the League of Professional Theatre Women on November 6th. We recently talked with her about her outlook on producing, the story behind Indecent staying open, producing work by women, and more.
It seems like a lot of people still don’t really understand what a producer does, especially since there are different types of producers, and they do different things at different parts of the process.
It’s very true that it’s hard to actually define what a producer does. In fact, for the reasons you just said, because there are many kinds of producers in theatre. To describe what I do, and to give you a clearer picture of how I view myself as a producer, I try to be very hands-on in terms of all aspects of a production. And so, if it’s something that I’m birthing—for example, Kinky Boots, which was a film that I saw at Sundance that I optioned, and then put together the creative team and brought it to fruition—that’s a very all-encompassing kind of producing, which is one that I love, and the role that I love to play. And then obviously casting and staying with it throughout the run.
There are other ways to produce that I have done and enjoy also, which is to read a script that already exists and to option that script, and then put together the creative team. Another way that I like to produce is by seeing something that’s already been mounted, let’s say at a non-profit theatre, and realizing that I think it could have a commercial life, then approaching that theatre and the playwright and deciding amongst ourselves to move it and give it a commercial theatre life.
So those are three ways that I produce. There are some people that are producers just because they help in the very important aspect of raising money, and god knows we can’t do without those producers. But I consider myself more of an artistic producer, which is one who really does get involved with the actual development, formation, and continuation of the work.
When you are choosing a project, either something like Kinky Boots where you think, “That could make a really interesting musical,” or when you’re first reading a script and thinking about whether it’s something you want to get involved in, do you find you’re attracted to projects where you immediately can see how this looks on stage and know the people who would be involved, or do you find yourself more attracted to things where you think, “Huh, this really is interesting to me, and I have no idea how to do it at the moment, but it’s interesting”?
I think I’d have to answer that question somewhere in the middle of those two areas. I usually am attracted to something first because of the story that it’s telling. I don’t necessarily, in my mind, have it all worked out in thinking who I would want right away to direct it, or who I want right away to star in it, or where it should go Off-Broadway or Broadway. I don’t think of it that way at the first blush. The beginning for me is: does the story mean something to me? Is it putting a new look on a subject that we already know? Is it in the wheelhouse of things that I’m interested in, which over the years, I think that I see a pattern of things that I’m always drawn to and they have to do with gender plays, traditions of Judaism, plays about family, plays that have a strong woman at the core of the story. And those are the areas that interest me, so those are the areas that I look for work in. I don’t necessarily have it all planned out, no. I think, in my mind, it’s just: am I attracted to this story, and do I think other people would feel the same way that I do?
Once you’re in the development process, do you see the role of the producer as helping to get the creative team what they want to execute their vision, even if you don’t fully agree with it? Or do you see your role more as being somebody who has a unique perspective that is part of the conversation of what ends up on stage?
Theatre is the most collaborative business, really, and I think that as a producer, you want to work with the creative people who you believe in and where you are supporting their vision. So of course you would want to follow their lead. But if there’s something that you feel could be done a different way, or could be looked at through different eyes, I would expect and hope that there would be a back and forth dialogue, and usually there is that. I don’t think it’s a matter of saying, “Well, do it my way or don’t do it,” from either side. I think it’s an open conversation, it’s an ongoing dialogue, it’s a collaboration, because ultimately, everybody wants the best thing for the play. It’s like two parents raising the child, you only want the best for the child, and so you come to the agreement of what’s the best thing to do.
How do you like to work with a marketing team and a PR team? Do you like to be very hands on?
I do. But again that goes back to my feeling that the joy for me of producing is actually being hands-on. I feel that the marketing and the advertising of a show is a very important aspect of keeping it going. First of all, just introducing it to the world in the way that one decides to do. But then it’s the ongoing work, keeping it going in a way that you’ve branded the show. I think we can talk about Kinky Boots in this way, because it’s had a wonderful five-year career of being alive, both here and in other countries, and across the U.S. What we’ve tried to do was keep that initial branding, keep the initial messaging, which we have always said is acceptance, love yourself, love others, change the world, change your mind. And so those are aspects of our marketing and advertising campaign that started at the very beginning, and that we’ve tried to build upon. Of course, we try to do new things, we try to use new phrases, new catchwords, but basically our messaging is feel the joy, feel the acceptance, be who you want to be. These are the things that make Kinky Boots uniquely Kinky Boots.
So, it’s my job to make sure that our marketing and advertising teams are all on the same page, that we’re all speaking the same language, that we’re all pursuing the same truths about this piece. And that we are able to visually—on social media, radio, television, in those different mediums—tell the same story, and make that story work for being organically true to what the piece is.
How early do those marketing conversations start for you? Because you’ve definitely been involved in some productions that on paper seem like they would be tough sells.
I’ve done a lot of shows that are tough sells, not only on paper, but in real life. That doesn’t make them any less worthy. A good example of that is Indecent, which is a brilliant and beautiful play by Paula Vogel, directed by Rebecca Taichman, who actually deservedly won the Tony award this year, and I’m so proud of her. It was a very hard sell, and I think in retrospect, it was a play that had so many layers and so many beautiful aspects of the story being woven together that it was hard to just get one simple pitch line. It was hard to get that tagline that told people what it was. And we tried so many different things in the beginning. The marketing starts right at the beginning, as does the advertising. We weren’t sure how to visually tell our story. We weren’t sure what the right words would be that would bring people in and not put people off. And it was very difficult. The thing that worked the best for us was just having people come and see the play and tell other people that it was remarkable and that it was an extraordinary theatre experience. And word of mouth really worked the best for us, in this case. It was a very difficult play to decide how to sell. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes you can have a play that just sells itself no matter what you say, and it’s interesting how that happens.
When it comes to word of mouth, have you noticed that that’s something that has changed, particularly in the 10 years, with social media? In thinking about those marketing campaigns and what happens organically and what doesn’t happen organically, do you feel there have been changes in how people process information, or how much time they’re given to process information?
Social media has changed everything. In theatre, we could call it word of mouth—it’s just in a different form. Because everybody’s talking online, and everybody’s giving their opinions online, and everybody is responding to those. So in a sense, it’s word of mouth in the new day. It’s difficult to have a show open and have social media descend upon it before people have actually had a chance to come and see it. I deeply resent people who talk about a show online when they haven’t even seen it. Or they’ll pick up a comment that somebody has made and they’ll spread it to their followers and viewers in ways that are not actually true, honest, or from their own eyes and ears. And I don’t think that’s fair.
I think what’s wonderful about social media is how fast you can get a message out. And especially if it’s a message that actually is the message you want the show to be sending. So by building a fan base, and by keeping your social media alive but orchestrating it from your own auspices, from your ad agency or your social media group of people that you’re working with, by being able to edit the messages you want, and by being able to speak about the play in the way you want it spoken about and sending that out, because it’s going to travel as fast as the wind. You want it to be what you want it to be.
The negatives are what they are. There’s always people that might go to an early preview and decide that they’re critics and have to discuss the show that has been open for a day. And I think that’s terribly unfair, and I think that it’s cruel, in way. It doesn’t give the actors a moment to settle in, it doesn’t give all the work that’s been done the chance to gel. And I wish people would step back a bit and think about how much it takes to put on a show, and how many people’s lives are involved. I’m not saying people can’t have freedom of speech and have their opinions—of course they can—but there needs to be a bit of respect for the work. And that’s the part of social media that’s problematic for me.
Would you mind talking a little bit about what a producer does when a show is open and running, especially when it’s been running awhile?
I speak about it often, because now I have the wonderful experience of having a long-running show in Kinky Boots. Every day we think about how can we make it feel new, and how can we keep it fresh. Some of it has to do with recasting. We had the great opportunity to bring in Brendon Urie, who was one of our Charlies, and he brought in a wonderful new audience that came from the music world. So building new audiences is often related to who’s in the cast.
Being able to attract people from different groups. You always have a targeted audience, and then you go beyond that, and beyond that, and beyond that. And you keep trying to think about how to engage new audiences. We think about promotional opportunities. We’re running a very interesting ad campaign now, which is tying in with four restaurants in the neighborhood, and we take a full page ad in the newspapers, and we say, “They will fill you up, and Kinky Boots will raise you up,” because “Raise You Up” is one of our songs.
So we try to be clever. We find that it’s interesting to be on different websites, so we’re on Open Table, for example. We go to Travelzoo. We try to target tourists coming into the city, and what would they be looking at. We buy Google AdWords, and we try to be creative, but we try to branch out as far as we can. We get into the retail world—we’ve done promotions with shoe companies and other retailers. MAC, for example. We tie in with philanthropic partners—True Colors is Cyndi Lauper’s charity, and we’re very involved with Live Out Loud.
And we’re very involved with politics, in a way. When North Carolina had their crazy bathroom policy going on, we did a great video that went viral. The song from Kinky Boots is called “Just Be,” and we did our version of it, which was “Just Pee,” where you want to pee. And it really attracted so many viewers and put us in the political discussion, which I think is very important for a show like Kinky Boots to be relevant, and to speak out, and to speak up. And we’ve done that in many instances.
So I guess the idea in a nutshell is to keep it fresh, keep it feeling new. We have people that have come to see it many, many times. We have superfans, people who have come 30, 40 times over these last years. And the other thing for us is being able to keep our audiences engaged. So it’s not only bringing new people in, but it’s once they come, having them have that same experience as if they were there the first month we opened. And I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve done that well. We keep thinking, and we keep casting ideas coming and marketing ideas coming. And it’s always on my mind, 24/7, because I don’t want it to end, ever.
In terms of development of new work, how do you think the new play, new musical development system can be improved?
I am developing a new musical as we speak. It’s called Between the Lines, based on the book by Jodi Picoult. It’s a wonderful story of a young girl who’s in high school, very much an outsider, and she finds her love and her passion and her peace by reading, and she’s reading this wonderful fable over and over again—that she’s probably aged out of five years before—and she’s in love with the prince in the book. The prince in the book wants to get out of the book and be in the real world, and she—her name is Delilah—she wants to get into the book where everything is wonderful. It’s a story about adolescents finding where they belong in the world, and having the ability to write their own story if they don’t like the story that they’re in. I love the premise of it.
So we’re developing this, and the way we’ve done it is, I put a wonderful creative team together. But we’ve just had our first production up on its feet, out of town in Kansas City, and so we can really see what we have. We have a wonderful young team of composer lyricists—two women, Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, who I think we will really be hearing from in the future. They wrote wonderful music for this show, and I feel very excited for them and for the show because they’re so talented. And I feel part of my job as a woman, and as a producer, is to kind of reach into the treasure trove of creative young women and try to incorporate them into the work I’m doing. I’m sort of the mother now, in years and in every other way, and I just feel very lucky to be able to find new, young talent, and try to offer them opportunity. Between the Lines is a very good example of that. And hopefully it will also bring in new, younger audiences. It’s very exciting.
Do you wish that there were anything about that process that was easier, or could be improved?
I guess I wish it were less expensive to develop a new musical. We’ve done readings and workshops before we went out of town—there’s a whole process before you even put it up on its feet on a stage. And that can be costly. But do I wish there were a way to do it more economically? Yes, I do. I’m not quite sure what that is.
Speaking of the economics of theatre, recently there have been a lot of conversations about that. How do you lower ticket prices, how do you pay people a living wage, which are obviously a little bit in conflict with each other, because the money has to come from someplace to do all that. From your perspective, do you see any way for the economics that go into making a show changing? Or do you just see it as being something that’s so entrenched that it would take a huge revolution?
Well, the big secret about ticket price, if we could just talk about that for a moment, is that there is always a wide range of tickets available for people. You just have to be aware of how and where to get them. Yes, premium tickets have kind of taken the front seat of all the conversations now, but we always offer TDF tickets, we always offer group ticket prices, we offer student ticket prices. And there are always discounts during previews and throughout the run. But that never gets talked about in the media, it’s always about the most expensive ticket, and how it’s so impossible to get a ticket. I’m not denying that the ticket prices have gone sky-high for some shows. It’s supply and demand, and I totally understand that, and everyone is entitled to make their fair share of money. But I just want it to be known that there are many ways to buy affordable tickets for theatre. And we mustn’t forget that Off-Broadway and the non-profit theatres offer amazing prices for seeing really fine quality theatre. And I think people should be highlighting that more when they talk about ticket prices. But the other part of your question is how to do things for less. I don’t have the answer, I don’t know.
You’ve been the producer on many shows that have gone on to win the Pulitzer.
Happily, yes. Seven.
You’ve stated in other interviews that that was never the goal.
No. And I don’t really take credit for the Pulitzer Prize, the writer takes the Pulitzer Prize. I can take credit for choosing that play. But the Pulitzer belongs to the writer, and I’m just honored to have chosen those plays to produce.
Going back to what you were saying before about your role in shepherding the production and the marketing and how the show is seen, do you feel that that plays a role in the Pulitzer, in terms of positioning something to be taken seriously and as Pulitzer-worthy?
I don’t think so. I think the Pulitzer committee reviews all the plays, they make their short list, and they see everything, and they make their judgment. I actually don’t know that anything I could do, advertising or marketing-wise, would change anyone’s mind. If they think the show is worthy, it gets consideration. And I don’t think any amount of advertising would change that. I think positioning a play and giving it the quality production that you hope to do, and putting all the elements together that you are responsible for, certainly will help shepherd the play to a certain level. But remember, the Pulitzer is really based on writing. So you could almost read the play and not see the play, in a sense, although that’s not how it’s done. But the Pulitzer is really about that.
I want to go back and talk about Indecent a little bit more, because obviously it was very newsworthy when the show posted its closing notice and then took it back.
Well yeah, it’s a good story, and I hope that will be part of my legacy. To be honest, I’m very happy with the way that happened. And it was torturous actually. I loved the show so very much, and I just thought it deserved a longer run. But we got to the point where business was less than glorious, shall we say, and even though the word of mouth was wonderful, people weren’t rushing to buy tickets. There were a lot of other shows that were competitive at the time we were running, and there were shows that had big stars, and we had just an amazing ensemble cast, but nobody really in the star category. So we weren’t necessarily the first on the list for people when they were thinking of what play to see. But it was the most magnificent play, written beautifully and acted magnificently and staged just beyond. I was in love with it. And what happened is, we got to the point where we had really not met our minimum sales during the week, and we didn’t see the end of the rainbow. It was very depressing. Everyone said, “Look, I don’t know how we’re going to turn this around, it looks like this has to be the end.” And so, with a heavy, heavy heart, we posted a closing notice. But I did it with a gracious amount of time so that everybody who I thought wanted to see it would have the chance to see it.
There’s a period of time that you are allowed to rescind that closing notice, and from the moment I posted the closing notice, I really didn’t sleep. I was so sad, and I was so forlorn, and I would be up at night crying, and my husband would say, “What’s the matter?” And I said, “You just understand, I just can’t close this show. I feel it’s the wrong thing to do. I know in my heart that people want to see this play, and it deserves a better life.” So, making myself crazy for two weeks, I just decided that I would go with my instincts, and I told my co-producers that I would be responsible for the losses, because no one else wanted to take the risk. We had already run through our finances. I said, “I really believe in this, and whatever it is, I don’t want it to end yet.” So I went to the theatre, and I literally pulled down the closing notice and ripped it up. I said to the cast, “Just stay with us. We’re going to extend for six weeks.”
We were already off sale, because we had decided we were closing. This was on the weekend, and on Sunday, the performance that we were meant to close on, I asked one of our actors, Richard Topol, if he would do a curtain speech and please tell the audience that we are extending for six weeks, and please tell everyone they ever knew because we did not have one ticket sold for that Tuesday. He did a very beautiful and impassioned speech, which I asked him to continue every night that we were on stage, and he did. Of course, it was reported in The New York Times that I took down the closing notice, so people knew that this had happened, and apparently it had not happened before. I think people just wanted to believe in it, and they were very supportive. And we started selling tickets.
The six-week extension run was amazing in every way. First of all, more people got to see it—that was my goal. Second of all, we did not lose money on any given week. In fact, we made more money in the six weeks than we had made in the entire run before. The third thing that happened, which I’m so proud of, is that Broadway HD and Great Performances from PBS then had the chance to film the show, which, had we closed, they wouldn’t have been able to do. So now the show will live on—in fact, it’s being aired on November 17th on PBS. And people who have seen it can see it again, and people who didn’t get a chance to see it can experience it. So all in all, I think for me, it was following my heart, going forward with an instinct that I had to believe was the right thing to do, and it worked and it was just great.
Do you feel like now that there’s a precedent for that, it might be tried again? As an actual tactic?
No, I don’t think. It can’t be a trick. It has to just happen organically. And the thing for me, really, was that fortunately I was in a position to cover the losses had there been the losses that we all expected would happen. I just made it my commitment to do it. I’d been very fortunate with Kinky Boots, and I just said to myself, “Look, I really want to do this, it’s not about the money. If I have to be prepared to cover it, I’m prepared to cover it. And we’ll see what happens.” I don’t think many people will do that. And it doesn’t work if it’s not true and honest. I don’t think it’s a ploy, I don’t think it would work that way, honestly.
I read some older interviews where you mention that when you first started producing, gender didn’t really factor into your thinking in terms of whether people were open to you as a producer or not. Is that correct?
I didn’t really feel that being a woman was going to be my challenge. I felt being new at it was my challenge and that I’d have to prove myself. And I spent many years hearing hurtful comments about, “Oh she’s a dilettante, she’ll be at it for a few months and she’ll be out of it,” that sort of thing. But that didn’t deter me at all, it just hurt me more than anything. Because I’m very determined to do what I have done over these almost 30 years. And I didn’t get too much encouragement in the beginning from other people in the theatre world. And I don’t blame them, they didn’t know me from anybody, and I didn’t come up through the ranks. And I wasn’t young, I was doing this in my 40s when I started. So I wasn’t exactly the new kid on the block, but I was the new lady on the block.
I was able to put blinders on and just say to myself keep going, you can do this, you know you want to do it. You have good taste, you have good instincts, don’t listen to the noise. And I kind of still have to say that to myself every day. There are always naysayers, and there are always people that are jealous of your success, and it’s unfortunate, because it’s such a small industry that you really wish everybody would be supportive of everybody else. But that’s often not the case.
Looking back, do you think, had you been a 40-year-old man, that perhaps people’s attitudes would have been a little different?
I’m not willing to take the gender card on that, no. I think it was just that I was new, and I was unknown, and I came to the industry as an independent person. I think it was more that.
In other interviews I’ve done with people of your generation who started in the industry when there was less conversation about gender, some have said that they actually think that might have helped them, in the sense that because they thought about it less it was not a mental block in their head. Do you feel that way at all?
I really didn’t think of it that way. I think women are wonderful producers, and I think they have a real instinctive quality for knowing how to nurture people, knowing how to put things together, knowing how to care for a company of actors, or a “family” of any given play. I’ve always thought that that was actually an advantage of mine. And whether that’s in my head or whether it’s true, it’s what I believe. I don’t necessarily think that there aren’t wonderful male producers—my son [Jordan Roth] is one of them, so I would have to say that if you’re a good producer, you’re a good producer. I don’t care what age you are, I don’t care what sex you are. If you have what it takes to produce and to be an empathetic listener, to be a collaborative person, to respect the people you work with, you’ll be a good producer.
You mentioned before that you were working with two new female writers, composers. Certainly in musical theatre, there’s a big divide in the number of women composing.
Why do you think that is, and what do you think can be done to help remedy it?
Well more women have to see other women finding a successful career in that world of musical theatre. I think that there are a lot of talented women that just aren’t given the chance. They’re doing the work, but they’re not necessarily being produced. I think it behooves us all, particularly women producers, to reach back and bring out those talented women, and help them see their potential realized.
Do you feel like other people look at you and judge your choices through the lens of, because you’re woman there’s a greater obligation to produce work by women, in a way that they might not with a male producer?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that question because I don’t know what people think of what I should be doing. I know what I think I should be doing. I do look for good plays, whether they’re written by women or men. But I have to say, if I’m in a position to produce a play by a woman, I will do that. But all the other aspects have to be there. I have to feel emotionally connected to the story, I have to think it’s well written, I have to love it, and I have to feel passionate about it. Would there be a slight edge because it’s a female writer? Yes, there would be.
The Harvey Weinstein story has been in the news so much over the last few weeks, and the theatre community has been very quiet about sexual harassment. AEA eventually issued a statement saying that they would condemn that behavior in the theatre. At the same time, we know that sort of thing does go on in the theatre [Editor’s Note: this question was left in the wording used during the interview. However, while sexual harassment does occur, there has not been reporting on a singular Weinstein-like figure in the New York theatre community]. Why do you think the theatre community has been so quiet in saying anything about it?
I really can’t comment on that. The only Harvey in my life is Fierstein.
Yes, I saw his funny tweet about it. It was clever.
I thought so.
What’s something you think can be done to help improve gender equality for women in theatre?
I think it’s the responsibility of women to bring in other women, whether they be writers, directors, designers. I think we have to be at the forefront of that, and I believe that. I’m not a feminist. But I’m a person who believes in doing the right thing, and that is the right thing to do. I believe that there’ll be men following, as well. A good play written by a woman is a good play. But I do think we have to be at the forefront of helping other women be heard, be seen, be hired. I always keep my mind open to that, and I actually am very cognizant of the fact that at this point in my career, I can make a difference in other people’s careers. I have often said that my definition of a producer is a person who can facilitate other people’s dreams. I think that is a responsibility, as well as an honor, to be able to do that.
May I ask why you don’t consider yourself a feminist?
Because I consider myself open minded, fair minded, and I don’t really want to be labeled. No labels. I am however, in the near future, doing a play about Gloria Steinem.