Fynsworth Alley: Victoria Maxwell

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

Victoria Maxwell is one-third of the Momentum Productions, the producers of Bells Are Ringing. What’s more, Victoria is one of the last of an endangered breed — the independent producer on Broadway. In an industry that seems to be dominated by corporate producers like Disney and SFX, Victoria has carved out a successful career putting on shows as diverse as Damn Yankees, Jeffrey, Stomp, Play On!, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Dinner With Friends.

DL: How did you get involved in producing?

VM: Well, I’m partners with my brother, Mitchell Maxwell. He’s eleven years older than I am, and he was producing plays. He produced his first play in New York when he was 21. Then he directed in England, and soon he was producing more plays. In 1984, he was producing a wonderful play called To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, which starred Sarah Jessica Parker, Cheryl McFadden, and David Rasche. I was working at the Writers and Artists Agency as sort of an interim receptionist; it was not really a very fun job, but both the writer and the director on that project were represented by the Writers and Artists Agency. So, I had already read the contracts, I had already seen the play. So when they were staffing the show to move it from the Ensemble Studio Theatre to an off-Broadway theatre, I said to my brother, “You have to hire production assistants for the show anyway. I’ve already read the contracts and seen the project, why don’t you try me?” And I did really well – I did everything! I threw the opening night party, I closed the partnership, I spoke to all the investors… I was a one-man-band. I realized that it was really fun and really exciting. There was always a fire to put out, there was always someone to talk to, and then the thing that made it most exciting was at the end of the day, 350 people sat in a theatre and saw your work. The non-stop energy of it, and the immediate audience feedback, people were immediately touched or you made them laugh or you made them cry – it was exciting!

DL: Is there a regular path for someone to become a producer? Do people usually start as a production assistant and move up through the ranks?

VM: I guess, or at least I would think that would be the best way because then you really know how all the pieces come together. But I do think there are a lot of people who have had other careers and had great success in those careers who have brought their business talent to producing. Look at somebody like Roger Berlind – he was on Wall Street for a long time, but he always loved the theatre so he became a theatre producer. There are sort of two ways in.

DL: In the old days you might find one producer or one production office to produce a show, and that really doesn’t happen any more. Now when you have a show and you want to put together a production team, how do you go about assembling different producers to work together?

VM: As I said, I’m partners with my brother Mitchell, and we have a partner named Mark Balsam, and the three of us produce the shows together. We usually initiate our own projects. Occasionally, we’ll be asked by another producing office – for example, Richard Frankel has asked us to come in on a couple of shows with him, Stomp and more recently The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and they were our partners on Damn Yankees. So occasionally we’ll get a call from another office, or we’ll put out calls to other producers, saying we’re doing this show… like, our last show, Dinner With Friends, which we produced off-Broadway and which won the Pulitzer Prize, that show we were partners with a gentleman named Ted Tulchin, who’s one of the producers of Madame Melville and The Unexpected Man. We approached him and said, “Would you like to produce this with us?”

DL: And when you do partner with other producers, is it generally set up so that one producer does the “producing” and the others are just financial partners?

VM: It varies from situation to situation. You’ll find that if there’s a group of people billed above the title, often there will be a “lead producer” or it’s run out of one producer’s office. But I think these marriages are made because you can’t do as many things as you’d like if you have to do them all yourself. It’s nice when you have three or four working partners on a project, because each person can handle a different situation or bring different contacts, which I really like. It’s nice to have some fresh blood and new ideas.

DL: Let’s tell the life story of a Broadway production. Say there’s an idea – at what point does that idea get attached to a producer, and what do you do with it from there?

VM: Well, I can speak directly to my most recent experience on Bells Are Ringing. Nine years ago, my brother and I wanted to do a big Broadway revival, and we wanted to do Bells Are Ringing because we thought it was just such an unbelievably charming story. We went after the rights, and we found they weren’t available. We looked into a couple of other shows, and we ended up doing Damn Yankees, which was a big success for us and a very, very nice experience. But through the years, we’ve always wanted to do Bells Are Ringing; we always thought it was just so great, so New York, so romantic. We went after the rights a couple of other times – each time they weren’t available, or they were tied up with a producer who was looking for a partner, and we just wanted to do the show ourselves. In 1999, I was working on a show that I was going to do at Playwrights’ Horizon, and I was going to do the show out of town in Stamford, CT first. We decided not to go ahead with that project, but I still owed Stamford, CT a show. I had just read a wonderful review of Faith Prince’s nightclub act, A Leap of Faith, which she had just done at Joe’s Pub. Her reviews were sensational, so I booked her into this slot I had in Stamford. I went up to see her do her act, and she was so great! She did a couple of numbers from Bells Are Ringing, and I thought, “Why aren’t we doing Bells Are Ringing? Why aren’t we doing Bells Are Ringing with Faith Prince?” Again, we approached Betty [Comden] and Adolph [Green] about the rights, and this time they were available. So we optioned them, Betty and Adolph introduced us to Tina Landau, the director, we hired Faith because she was just the perfect choice, and then we went about with Tina and Faith filling in the other members of our production team. But, for example, there’s a novel I’d love to develop into a Broadway musical; I think it’s great, it’s a favorite of mine. I know that the rights are available, and I’m actually looking for a creative team to put together and develop that as an original work. I think there are different ways in. It depends on the material.

DL: So what is your involvement as producer in the creative life of a show?

VM: Well, the producer oversees the formation of a creative team, tries to choose a director whose vision of the work matches theirs, or whose vision of the work turns them on. When we met with Tina, her ideas were so great! They seemed to make the show seem so fresh and fun, and bring new life into it. I think the producer is the creative shepherd, if you will, making sure the creative team has what they need to realize that vision, and trying to make financial decisions that will serve that creative vision. How much can we afford for costumes? Well, we can afford this. And then you work with the costume designer to make sure that budget will serve their creative vision. I think you have to be there both to oversee things, to make sure they’re paid for properly – not over-budget, not outrageously budget – and to make sure the show is the vision you want it to be.

DL: At what point does the producer’s involvement in a show end?

VM: The producer’s involvement goes all the way from the optioning of the material to the closing night of the show and beyond. Once the show closes, the partnership that was formed to produce that show has subsidiary interests the producer has to oversee and distribute the money to investors, there are touring opportunities, licensing opportunities – all of those rights are controlled by the partnership, and the producer is the general partner of the partnership, so they’re responsible.

DL: Is producing on Broadway different from producing off-Broadway?

VM: The skills are the same, but it’s a slightly different playing field; it’s a slightly different audience that you’re going for. It’s a different kind of theatre-goer. I think someone who’s going to see a serious play off-Broadway is much more intellectual, a much more avid theatre-goer than somebody who goes once a year and wants to see a big musical. That’s not to say that one’s more valuable than the other, it’s just a different kind of audience. The audience that goes to see plays off-Broadway is the audience that goes to see movies at [art-house theatres like] the Angelika or the Sunset Laemmle, versus an audience that only goes to see big blockbuster movies. It’s like trying to find the audience that reads new novels by up-and-coming writers as opposed to more mainstream fiction.

DL: It seems like in today’s economy and with the massive scope of the musicals on Broadway now, so few shows run long enough to return their investment. How do producers stay in business under these circumstances? It seems like any producer can only have so many hits per season, or per career even.

VM: It’s hard! I think that’s why you see a lot of people who have money in their lives from other careers [becoming producers]. It’s easier if you do that. If you’re a producer who relies on your day to day royalties, day to day office charges, day to day producing fees to make your living, I think it’s hard. We’re blue collar Broadway producers – we’re rolling up our sleeves and doing the work every day ourselves. That’s how we make a living. I can’t say that you don’t go through leaner times. There are leaner times and there are flush times. The goal, of course, is that you have a show running off-Broadway, a show running on Broadway, maybe a tour, and the collective income from all those sources is enough to keep you going. Sometimes enough to buy a house or have a really good time. But on a successful project, the subsidiary income can generate money for a while, so if you have a couple of successful projects, they generate money for you for a few years. It’s not just the time they’re running in New York.

DL: This might be a fuzzier question, but as a producer, at the end of the day are all your decisions financially based?

VM: No. I think that you make decisions based on the money that’s available to you, but sometimes you say, “Well, we’ve got to have that piece of scenery because that number looks terrible,” or “We absolutely must have a new orchestration for this number.” Sometimes you’re like, “You know what? This is going to put me way over budget, but the show is going to be damaged if I don’t spend the money on this.” The audience’s experience will be lessened – they’ll sit in the theatre and watch a scene and be bored, but they won’t know why. You try, as a producer, to work with your director and your musical staff to make the decisions that will enhance your material as best you can. If everybody said yes to everything, shows would cost twenty million dollars and you’d never recoup. So you try to use some financial judgment, but you also try to service the material as best you can and service the experience of the audience as best you can. Ultimately, even if a show gets good reviews, it’s the audience’s word of mouth that sells the tickets. It’s two or three people telling their friends, “I just went to see Dinner With Friends and boy, did I have a great time – you’ve got to see it.” If the work on stage is not going to generate that kind of response from the audience, it doesn’t matter. You try to make decisions to spend the money as wisely as you can to create that experience.

DL: In terms of the word of mouth, how important do you think awards are?

VM: I think they’re important, I do. I think people who don’t work in our business and don’t see every show – someone who goes to work every day and reads the paper and says, “Gee, I think I’ll see a show this weekend…” They’re going to want to know that for the cost of the tickets, which are quite expensive these days, they’re going to see something that’s going to be good. I think that’s why the reviews are important, that’s why the awards are important. It’s another seal of approval. Ultimately, I really think it’s the recommendations people hear from their friends that carries the day. That’s my opinion.

DL: How do you think the field of producing has changed since you first got involved?

VM: The business has become much bigger, much more dominated by corporations. You have Disney as a huge force on Broadway now, you have SFX, which is huge, Full Monty was produced by 20th Century Fox. All of the Dodgers’ shows are financed by a huge Dutch television conglomerate. I think it’s become harder for the independent to make their mark, because advertising budgets are so enormous. But ultimately, it’s about people wanting to go and have a nice experience. In that way, I don’t think the experience of the theatre-goer has changed that much, and our job as the producers is still to ensure the audience has fun. And on all my shows, that means when they go to the box office, the treasurer should be friendly; when they buy a piece of merchandise, a t-shirt or a program, the vendors should be friendly and the merchandise should be sold with some style. Everything about it should make for a nicer experience.

DL: Other than your brother, do you have mentors or heroes in your field?

VM: I think Scott Rudin is extraordinary, simply because of the number of projects he turns out, the daring he brings to the projects that he does, and the fact that he can produce five movies and four Broadway shows at the same time is amazing. I was fortunate enough to be partners with him on The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and I thought he was a great brain, a great mind… and a great wit, too. (And tell him I said that!)

DL: You’ve also had you forays into the world of film. How did that come about?

VM: Well, the biggest movie that I produced was Jeffrey, which came about because of a show I was involved with, Paul Rudnick’s play Jeffrey. I loved the play so much, thought it was about such wonderful, real, valuable, heartwarming things. Paul is a wit non-pareil, he is about the funniest man you’ll ever encounter. I just thought it was a play that’s right for anybody, straight or gay or whatever your situation was. The themes of it and the embrace of life and romance was so right, I just wanted to do it as a film. And the vignette nature of the material seemed right for kind of a crazy romp through Manhattan. We approached Paul and convinced him that we’d do a great job. We wanted him to write the screenplay and be the co-producer on the film with us, so he could supervise and make sure it was serving his vision. He was into it! So we had a really unique experience on that movie, and because of Paul and the material, we were able to get fantastic, fantastic actors to appear. Literally every scene has some fun little movie-star cameo.

DL: How did producing the piece as a film differ from producing it on stage?

VM: Well, the skills are always the same. But there’s something about being out on the street – we shot a scene in Jeffrey on Park Avenue at 54th Street on a Friday morning, during rush hour, in the middle of July – 95 degrees. Bryan Batt was wearing his cat suit, Patrick Stewart, Steven Weber, and Michael Weiss were out on the street walking on Park Avenue. That was the most insane day I’ve ever had – what a circus we created! There’s something about that – the traffic control, the police, the people and the heat and the city and the cameras and the actors… You don’t have that in the theatre – in the theatre, everybody’s housed in one nice, safe building with a union doorman looking after you. You don’t have that kind of circus madness. But I think the skills are the same. Being in post-production on a movie is sort of like being in tech rehearsals and previews on a show. It’s the same skills. It’s looking at the thing over and over and over and figuring out how to make it better, what needs to be cut, what music needs to be added. On a show at least you can change the costumes if you’re not happy with them; on a movie, you’re stuck with them.

DL: Looking back over all the different shows you’ve been involved with, do you have favorites?

VM: Well, I think the shows I’ve talked about are my favorites. Jeffrey and the movie of Jeffrey. I’m so proud of Bells Are Ringing and the way it looks and feels, and Faith’s performance. I was thrilled to be involved in Dinner with Friends, to work with Dan Sullivan who’s a genius and a real gentleman, and to be involved in a play like that when the material is so universal and prompted so much discussion afterwards from the theatre-goers, that’s always exciting. I’d say that those projects are my favorites.

DL: For our last question, if someone came to you fresh out of college and said “I want to be a producer,” what would you tell them?

VM: I would tell them to become anything else.

DL: And if they persisted?

VM: I think that show business is a very difficult field. It’s not really a science, it really is a meeting of hearts and minds, so it’s really a way to get your heart broken. You’re out there – you’re just out there every day. What you do is so public, and the choices that you make are written about in the newspaper. I wouldn’t do anything else, but I would hope that if it was my child or my nephew or niece who asked me that question, I hope I could convince them to do something that might be a little more stable.

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