Broadway Producer Scott Rudin: 'I'm A Complete Product Of Mentorship' Rudin, who started in theater at age 15, owes a lot to the producers who taught him his craft. "They were giants," he says. All five of Rudin's current shows have been nominated for Tony Awards.
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Broadway Producer Scott Rudin: 'I'm A Complete Product Of Mentorship'

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Broadway Producer Scott Rudin: 'I'm A Complete Product Of Mentorship'

Broadway Producer Scott Rudin: 'I'm A Complete Product Of Mentorship'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Broadway's big award ceremony, the Tony Awards, will be broadcast this Sunday night. My guest Scott Rudin is the lead producer of five of the nominated shows. In category of best play, "The Humans," best musical, "Shuffle Along" and best revivals, "The Crucible," "A View From The Bridge," and "Blackbird."

Last night, "Shuffle Along" won the Drama Desk Award for best musical, and "The Humans" won for outstanding play. Rudin was the lead producer of one of Broadway's biggest recent hits "The Book Of Mormon." Rudin is an EGOT, the acronym for the chosen few who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. He's produced dozens of films including "Steve Jobs," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Top Five," "Captain Phillips," "There Will Be Blood," and "No Country For Old Men."

Let's start with the new musical "Shuffle Along," which is about the making of the 1921 musical "Shuffle Along," the first hit Broadway show written and performed by African-Americans. The new show stars Audra McDonald and includes songs from the original 1921 "Shuffle Along" by composer Eubie Blake and lyricist Noble Sissle.

To get a sense of how the music sounded in its time, let's hear something from a new album called "Sissel And Blake Sing Shuffle Along," which collects 1921 recordings from the show featuring performances by Sissel and Blake as well as members of the original cast. Here's Blake and original cast member Harold Browning performing the show's hit "I'm Just Wild About Harry."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY")

HAROLD BROWNING: (Singing) I'm just wild about Harry, and Harry's wild about me. The heavenly blisses of his kisses fill me with ecstasy. He's sweet like chocolate candy and sweeter than honey from the bee. Oh, I'm just wild about Harry. And Harry's wild about (unintelligible). Harry's wild about me.

GROSS: OK, that was the composer Eubie Blake at the piano on that version of "I'm Just Wild About Harry." Scott Rudin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SCOTT RUDIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Let's start with why "Shuffle Along" was so important in its time.

RUDIN: Well, it was the first African-American musical, the first musical that used jazz. It developed ragtime into jazz. It's the first musical that was written, produced, created and played entirely by a black company. That was a really remarkable thing in its time. And it was the first show that was really a book show that had an actual story.

It had a love story between two African-American characters, which had never happened on Broadway before. And it was, in a way, the original DIY musical. It was made entirely by the people who starred in it, played it, created it, financed it. They did everything. And that, in its time, was a really remarkable thing. And it had an extraordinary level of success.

In a period in which shows routinely would run two months and be considered successful, this show ran well over a year. And that was really unheard of at the time.

GROSS: And there are several performers who performed in "Shuffle Along" who went on to become quite famous.

RUDIN: Yeah, Paul Robeson, Adelaide Hall, Josephine Baker, Hall Johnson, who created the choir that was in the original production of "Porgy & Bess." Really remarkable constellation of artists played the show, were in the original production, then came in as replacements, then came in revivals. It was a sort of locus of the major African-American artists of its time.

GROSS: So I think initially the idea was supposed to be a revival of "Shuffle Along." But the way it's worked out is that it's more of a backstage musical about the making a "Shuffle Along." And I'm guessing that the book itself for the original musical wasn't something that you all really wanted to revive once you reexamined it because it's based on a vaudeville act by...

RUDIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...By the two men who - men who...

RUDIN: Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller, exactly.

GROSS: Right, who worked often with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. And, you know, it's a vaudeville act from the late teens, early '20s about the mayor...

RUDIN: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Of Jimtown.

RUDIN: (Laughter) That's right.

GROSS: And, you know, going back and looking at it, it must have - in spite of the fact that it was written by two African-American men, it still must have had so many stereotypes because you kind of had to have stereotypes at the time, I think.

RUDIN: I think that's right. I think that's exactly right. I mean, in a way, it had aspects of a lot of things that came before it. Some portions of it were like a minstrel show. Some portions of it were like a kind of ragtime opus. It had a very thin story, a kind of interesting story but a very thin story with very few actual events. So it was very hard to start to figure out could you get from A to B to C to D and get through an entire evening on who's going to be the next next mayor of Jimtown?

And what happened as we were sort of playing with that was the more we got into looking hard at could you actually do "Shuffle Along," the story of "Shuffle Along" took over. So you hear a song that they were working on, you see them write it, see them teach it to the people who were in it in the performance and then repurpose it later in a different way. So the whole - the kind of ethos of the show, the strategy of the show is a kind of very meta experience of this musical talking to itself as an example of a show made in 1921, and that material then repurposed as a show about the creators of the show in 1921.

And what I think it's really about, the thing that I found very moving about it and really why I was interested in doing it, the most interesting part of it to me was they became successful based on their nerve and their drive and their grit. And they pushed and pushed and pushed, and they went on this crazy pre-Broadway tour where they're running out of money all the time. They came into New York $18,000 in debt, which is the equivalent of about a quarter of a million dollars now. That's more than shows cost then. So they were really on fumes. And they were so much in debt that the only thing they could do was keep going because if they ever stopped, they'd owe all that money. But the thing that I thought was so moving about it was they had the equipment to get in the room. And they taught themselves how to get in the room. What they couldn't do on their own was figure out how to stay in the room because it had never happened for African-American artists before and that's what broke them up.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song that's from "Shuffle Along." It's in the new "Shuffle Along," and it's of course in the original "Shuffle Along." And this is actually a 1921 recording. It's a recording from the year "Shuffle Along" " opened on Broadway. We're going to hear Eubie Blake, the composer, at the piano and Noble Sissle, the lyricist, singing. And the song is called "Love Will Find A Way." This is a very important song. Scott, why don't you explain the song's importance?

RUDIN: Well, it has a historical importance because it was the first time a love song was sung by a black man to a white woman and by a white woman to a black man. It never happened before.

GROSS: On stage - on a Broadway stage.

RUDIN: On stage...

GROSS: ...On a Broadway stage.

RUDIN: ...Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUDIN: Yes, that's right. Though in fact, when the put the song in the show, they weren't on Broadway yet. They were out of town. And they were out of town in the South, where the particular dangers of what they were doing were even more pronounced. So it was an active kind of remarkable bravery, and there were - I mean, numerous examples of black performers being tarred and feathered and being driven out of town and being arrested and being beaten for basically not essentially following the rules of - you know, what was available in terms of behavior for black people at the time.

So for these artists to say we're telling a love story. We're going to write a love song, and Lottie Gee is going to sing it to this guy in the show. And we're going to tough it out, and they did. But there was an enormous amount of tension about were they going to end up in jail at the end of the night?

GROSS: OK, so let's hear the song. And this is "Love Will Find A Way." And the composer's Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake are performing it, recorded in 1921.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE WILL FIND A WAY")

NOBLE SISSLE: (Singing) Love will find a way, though skies now are gray. Love like ours can never be ruled. Cupid's not schooled that way. Dry each tear-dimmed eye. Clouds will soon roll by. Though fate may lead us astray, my dearie, mark what I say. Love will find a way.

RUDIN: That's so fantastic.

GROSS: Isn't that - yeah. Recorded in 1921, that's Sissle and Blake. So if you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Rudin. And he's a movie and television and Broadway producer and a very busy guy. And he has five shows nominated for Tony's in which he's the lead producer. And those shows are the new play "The Humans," the musical "Shuffle Along" and the revivals of "The Crucible," "A View From The Bridge" and "Blackbird." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is movie, TV and Broadway producer Scott Rudin. He has five plays that - on which he's lead producer that are currently nominated for Tonys. And those are the new play "The Humans," the musical "Shuffle Along" and the revivals of "The Crucible," "A View From The Bridge" and "Blackbird." Let's get back to "Shuffle Along."

So part of the story of "Shuffle Along," you know, it's about the making of the 1921 musical "Shuffle Along." So part of the story is about what Broadway was like...

RUDIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...In 1921, the year "Shuffle Along" was produced.

"Shuffle Along" opened on Broadway in a theater that wasn't exactly a Broadway theater. It was on 63rd Street. It was incredibly shabby and run-down. There was no orchestra pit. The stage was a mess. There were no dressing rooms. So in your musical, one of them - one of the characters says well, what defines Broadway is the price of a ticket. So let's just raise the price of a ticket, and then we're a Broadway show. So is that what defines the difference between Broadway and off-Broadway?

RUDIN: No, I don't think so. I mean, it's a joke. There's obviously some truth to it. I mean, I think we're living in a time in which the price of tickets has gotten completely insane. And the thing that makes it very hard to wrangle as an issue is plays have - especially for plays - plays have limited shelf lives. So you end up with - you do a new play or you do a revival of a play and you've got 14 weeks or 16 weeks or, if you're incredibly lucky, 20 weeks. So the price - in order to make the venture make any financial sense, the price has to stay relatively high.

And what ends up happening - and we face this all the time. We faced this in the first couple of years with "The Book Of Mormon." It was an endless source of frustration and disappointment, which was, you know, we kept a low-priced ticket in the building. We had two or three rows of $69 tickets - this is when we were selling tickets, at that point, for $499. And the - you know, so we kept this low price. We put it on sale in a very specific way so we could keep it out of the hands of the brokers. And there was absolutely no way to get it to the audience. The single-ticket buyer could not get their hands on that ticket in the same way, I'm sure, "Hamilton" is having the exact same problem now.

It's very, very tough to beat back the scalpers. And on one hand, they are your customers. On another hand, they keep the single-ticket buyer - they keep the audience members who are the fans of theatre, who don't - who are sensitive to a price point and don't have the ability to spend $150 for one ticket or, for premium, substantially more than that - they keep those people out of the building. So it's a problem that every hit show, especially hit shows, face.

GROSS: Are the scalpers so vigilant that as soon as tickets open up, they buy them and then sell them for more?

RUDIN: They will buy them before they open up. I mean, here's an interesting story. There's a broker who has become a very close friend of mine who I met because it was the - trying to think when it what was. It was the year that "The Book Of Mormon" opened. It was at Christmas. And I was sitting in my office and a huge deli platter arrived...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah.

RUDIN: ...In my office, you know, followed by this endless parade of bagels and bialys and lox and cream cheese and all this with a note saying you bought me a house in Connecticut. The least I can do is buy you lunch. And it came from a broker who I like enormously, who had - who was in possession, at the time, of 30,000 tickets to "The Book Of Mormon." And that's just a remarkable - that's a remarkable thing. And he taught me how they work and what they want and also how to manage pricing.

GROSS: So tell us one of the tricks that scalpers use to buy up a lot of tickets that they could sell at higher prices.

RUDIN: They have thousands of credit cards. I mean, they run - it's all computerized. So when a new block of tickets goes on sale for a show, they frequently crash the system because they have so much ability to get in. You know, and the theater owners try to be as vigilant about this as they can. And they try to kick back purchases that come from area codes they know or ZIP codes that they know are broker area codes and ZIP Codes. But it doesn't work. They just - I mean, they get through.

And it's very hard to know what to do about them because, as I said, they are customers. They're buying tickets. They're keeping the theater full. But at the same time, you don't really want anyone else in control of your inventory. Your inventory is the lifeblood of what you do.

GROSS: Yeah, wow. So I have a theater question for you. And this is literally about the structure of the theater, the building itself. As a theatergoer, I love going to the theater. But the thing I really dread about it is intermission when you're waiting on that endless line to use the bathroom.

RUDIN: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: And you're hoping that the show doesn't start before the line is over and before you get to actually use it. And I think some new theaters are opening with more restrooms - you know, with more stalls in the restrooms and more stalls in the women's room than the men's room to take into account the longer time, et cetera. From your perspective of somebody who's been producing theater for a long time and who knows a lot about the history of the theater, do you think that the restroom problem has improved over the years? And why did it take so long for anybody to figure out that they need more?

RUDIN: Well, I think they've - I think everybody's always known that they need more. The problem is they're in these - they're basically in these old buildings that are all landmarked, that are very hard to change. Slowly, for example, the Shuberts have tried to redo all of the bathrooms, all of the lounges, get more stalls for women and do all that. But the only time they can do that is when a theater's dark. And the good news and the bad news is that most theaters are not dark anymore. There's an enormous amount of product. Shows close. A new show comes in a minute and a half later. They don't have the time to keep a - to take a theater offline.

And that's the issue. I mean, now you're looking - it's very interesting. In the next two or three years, three of the biggest musical houses are going to go offline because the Palace is being raised so they can make retail space in the bottom of the building. The St. James stage is being extended 8 feet to make room for "Frozen." And there's one more - I can't remember what the third - oh, the Shuberts are building a new theater on 45th Street next to the Imperial, which is going to require that the Imperial go offline. So you're looking at three of the best theaters in New York that are going to be dark for the next few years, which is going to create an enormous booking jam in the theaters that will still exist, which means no renovations for a long time.

GROSS: Well...

RUDIN: By the way...

GROSS: Yeah?

RUDIN: By the way, when we had the Larry David play at the Cort, which is one of the worst theaters for ladies' rooms, the ushers would send women across the street to Chipotle.

GROSS: You're kidding. That's so funny.

RUDIN: That's what they would do, yeah, all the time.

GROSS: Glad I asked. OK (laughter).

RUDIN: Exactly (laughter).

GROSS: So you're the lead producer on five shows nominated for Tonys now. What does it mean to be the lead producer? Like, what is your job? How do you define it?

RUDIN: You run it. Usually, you incept it. Or you'll be the one who found it. Or you'll have the idea. Or you'll buy the source material that's involved. And you'll essentially fund the development or cause the development to be funded. You raise the money. Figure out who are the players you want to have involved in it. And you're essentially the leader of the process. And the risk is yours. In other words, you're on the hook for overage. You're on the hook for losses. The investors don't share that. That's yours. And you're in charge of the venture. So your job is basically to create - you create, essentially, a kind of cradle for each show you do in which the people who are responsible for making it good can work well. And that's different for every show.

GROSS: So you're on the hook for overages. So if the show loses money, does Scott Rudin write a personal check? Like, where does the money come from?

RUDIN: Yep.

GROSS: Really?

RUDIN: It comes from Scott Rudin in that instance, yes.

GROSS: Wow. That's stress-inducing.

RUDIN: You think?

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Yeah. I just - on my way here, I had a meeting about exactly that. I was quite stressed.

GROSS: So how active a role do you play in the development of the show?

RUDIN: It depends on what it is. I mean, if it's something we're growing from scratch, very. But some shows - I mean, for example, "The Humans," which is one of my favorite things we've ever done - I think it's an amazing play, really beautiful play. I literally went to see in this engagement it was playing at the Roundabout. So they - Roundabout grew it. It was their commission. They hired Joe Mantello to direct it. He did it brilliantly. They got this astonishing cast to be in it.

I want to see it and thought I think I could make this play work on Broadway. This play deserves to be on Broadway. It's the best American play I've seen in a really long time. It would be very exciting to try to make a play work on Broadway that doesn't have movie stars in it and has a great cast of, kind of, theater animals.

So everything about it, although it was very challenging, was also really enticing. And in that instance, what I really did was I kind of caused it to happen and guided the selling of it. But I'm - you know, I'll tell you I'm as proud of it as anything we've ever done because I love the play. So you've got - it took a long time. I used to - when I was doing only movies for years, I used to think if I wasn't doing everything, I wasn't doing a good job. And that was sort of terrible producing because, realistically, you have to know where you're needed. And it took me a long time to figure out where I was needed. And that - and the answer that frequently was not everywhere.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: You know?

GROSS: Now, I was reading that only 20 percent of Broadway shows get back the investment. If that's true, the odds are really against you when you're producing a show.

RUDIN: Yeah. It's very tough. I mean, there's a famous saying by the playwright Robert Anderson, who wrote "Tea And Sympathy" and "I Never Sang For My Father." And his famous line was - you can make a killing in the theater, but not a living. And it's kind of true.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So all or nothing at all?

RUDIN: Yeah. I mean, you get these - you know, these bonanzas happen. And they're thrilling when they happen. But we've also had - we've had a run of plays that did really, really well. I men, when we did "Fences" and "Raisin In The Sun" and "Skylight" and "Fish In The Dark" and "God Of Carnage." I mean, there were many of them. And they don't turn out crazy amounts of profit, but they're profitable.

GROSS: My guest is Broadway and movie producer Scott Rudin. After we take a short break, he'll tell some great stories from when he was a teenager working on Broadway and producers' offices and casting the show "Annie" on Broadway when he was 18. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Broadway and film producer Scott Rudin. He's the lead producer of five shows that are up for Tony's at Sunday's award ceremony, "The Humans," "Shuffle Along," "Blackbird," "The Crucible," and "A View From The Bridge." He was the lead producer on one of Broadway's biggest recent hits "The Book Of Mormon."

He's also produced dozens of films, including "Steve Jobs," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Captain Phillips," "The Social Network," "No Country For Old Men," and "There Will Be Blood." Let's talk about your story. You started working on Broadway when you were 16. How did you get to do that?

RUDIN: I was actually 15. I went to work for a summer in the office of two producers named Manny Azenberg and Jean Walsk (ph). And Jean Walsk has since died. Manny Azenberg is still remarkably active and brilliant and a kind of legendary figure. And I wrote them a letter saying can I come and work in your office? I'll answer the phone. I'll do anything. You don't have to pay me.

I'll be there for the summer. I'll be there as long as you want. And I did that for them, and I just loved it and never - really never looked back. And I - I mean, I'm honestly a complete product of mentorship because I then went to work for Kermit Bloomgarden, who had been Arthur Miller's producer and produced "The Most Happy Fella" and "The Music Man" and "Diary Of Anne Frank" and "Death Of A Salesman" - I mean, really remarkable array of shows.

And then I went to work for Bob Whitehead, who had a similarly distinguished, really remarkable career. And I was incredibly lucky because I arrived at the last gasp of that kind of producing career. And I think those guys had careers you really couldn't have now, especially Whitehead and Bloomgarden because they came up in the '40s and '50s when the business was so different than it is now.

And they were crazy risk-takers, these guys. They would - you know, I mean, when you think about it now, now we know what "Death Of A Salesman" is. But they didn't know it then (laughter). So he read a play called "Death Of A Salesman" and decided to do it and got Kazan to do it, who was probably, you know, historically the most important theater director in the history of the American theater, before or since, and took this crazy flyer on this play that now we look at it as one of the two or three greatest plays in the history of the American theater.

And these guys did this as a matter of course. I mean, I grew up kind of wanting to be them. And the guys who were doing that in the generation that followed them were huge heroes of mine - David Merrick, Hal Prince, even Stuart Ostrow, who I worked for for a while. They were giants, and they took these astonishing leaps.

And when they had flops, they picked themselves up and they moved on. And when they had hits, they picked themselves up and moved onto the next one, too. They were these really remarkable guys.

GROSS: So you have a reputation of being, you know, a very demanding boss and of sometimes having quite a temper. When you were 15 and 16 and you were working with these theater giants, how did they treat you?

RUDIN: Some great, some not so great. But honestly, I didn't care. I mean, it was better when they were great because it was easier. But the quick pro quo of the exposure to what they were doing against being batted around a little bit, who cares? I mean, it was meaningless to me. I mean, (laughter) when I worked for Kermit Bloomgarden, he had had cancer a few years before I was there.

And he had an artificial leg. And he was unhappy with the way the leg was bending. And he called me into his bedroom, took off his pants, took off his leg and told me to go and get it fixed...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUDIN: ...And wouldn't give me cab fare - made me take it on the bus (laughter). So - but you know what? What do I care? I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: ...It was probably the greatest day of my life (laughter). I can't think of anything that's been better than that, honestly. I used to have to pick tomato worms off the plants in his garden. But you know what? He was producing "Equus." He had produced...

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: ...All these extraordinary plays. I learned more from him than I probably learned from anybody in my life for years since then. I mean...

GROSS: So you didn't go to college. You decided to stay on Broadway...

RUDIN: That was college (laughter).

GROSS: ...Where you wanted to be. My understanding is your parents weren't so happy with your decision.

RUDIN: No.

GROSS: And they told you if you were going to do that, it was your decision. But it also meant you had to move out of their house. So...

RUDIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...At 15 or 16, whenever they gave you that ultimatum...

RUDIN: Sixteen, I was 16 then.

GROSS: Sixteen - was it hard to fend for yourself?

RUDIN: When I think about it now, I guess it was. But it never felt hard then. It was so romantic. I was doing the thing I had dreamed about doing since I was 8 years old. I mean, I - you know, I grew up wanting to be a producer was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I never had a fantasy of doing anything else or being anything else.

It was always being a producer in the theater. And, you know, I would read Arts & Leisure and obsess over, you know, David Merrick has five shows running on Broadway. What could that be like, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Or, you know, Saint Subber's doing this play with Neil Simon and Mike Nichols and George Scott and Maureen Stapleton. How would you get to do that? So when I had these jobs, I was in the door. And that's all I cared about. And I used to - I would go in the office, you know, at 5 o'clock in the morning. I would take the train, and I was living at my parents' house.

I would take the train in, like, the 3:40 train from Long Island to get in. I'd go to the office, and I'd read the files because the files, to me, were everything. And everybody knew I was doing it. And they were all - they were very transparent with me about saying whatever's here, you can have access to. Don't take anything. (Laughter) Don't take it out of the office.

So I got this crazy education.

GROSS: One of the first things you did along the way to becoming the producer you became was to be the casting director. So how did you get into casting?

RUDIN: I had a huge amount of experience in seeing things. So because I was a really very passionate, dedicated theatergoer as a kid - I would commute, come in all the time, take my father's train ticket - I saw every play on Broadway from the time I was like 9 or 10 years old and many, many plays off-Broadway. So I had a big background of seeing people's work.

And I went to work for these two casting directors who were starting an office. And it was an amazing job to learn in because the entire basis of casting is to take your own sensibility and your own tastes and your own judgment and filter it through the needs and the wants of the director, the producer, the playwright, the star and deliver what they want, which is - it's remarkably actually close to producing.

GROSS: My guest is movie, TV and Broadway producer Scott Rudin. And right now, he's the lead producer on five Broadway shows that are nominated for Tony's. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is movie, TV and Broadway producer Scott Rudin. Right now we're focusing on Broadway. The Tony's are coming up. He has five shows on which he's the lead producer that are nominated for Tony's. Those shows are the new play "The Humans," the musical "Shuffle Along," and the revivals of "The Crucible," "A View From The Bridge" and "Blackbird." You were involved with the casting of "Annie." And I'm interested in that because first of all, you are very young. How young?

RUDIN: Eighteen.

GROSS: OK, and you're casting - I don't know if you cast Annie or any of the substitutes for Andrea McArdle...

RUDIN: I cast many Annies (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah, how...

RUDIN: ...Not Andrea McArdle. I came into the show...

GROSS: How do you cast children? That must be especially hard because for a lot of reasons. First of all, their voices aren't developed yet and you don't know how their voices are going to change - even girls. And also, you're involving their parents.

RUDIN: The parents were always very complicated because I used to get letters from mothers saying dear Mr. Rudin, my daughter is 8 years old. She sings really well. We also have a dog who could play Sandy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUDIN: So they were selling any member of the family indiscriminately. They didn't care who it was. If you want the dog, they'll supply the dog. If you want the kid, you can have the kid. So it's funny you bring up the singing because what happened with "Annie," the specific case of that, was it really changed the way girls sang.

So once it became a hit, every girl wanted to sound like Andrea McArdle. So it was very easy to find girls who could belt "Tomorrow" because that's all they wanted to do. The thing about "Annie" wasn't so much the children, but it was the first time I ever worked with Mike Nichols. That was probably in a way maybe the most important relationship of my career. And that was where I met him. And he was a gigantic, unquantifiably important mentor of mine and then partner of mine for a long time. And it all - it started there.

GROSS: What are some of the things you learned from Mike Nichols either through him giving you advice...

RUDIN: Trust...

GROSS: ...Or just by watching him?

RUDIN: Trust, I mean, process - that everybody comes into a room wanting to be good, they don't always know how to be good. You have to create a safe place for people to be good. They have to have room to fail. They have to have room to be slow. They have to have room to be in a process.

You know, when we did "Death Of A Salesman," we started previews and we were I thought pretty good but not great - not as great as I hoped we would be or thought we could be. And I'd go to up to Mike's house every day before we had rehearsal, and we would talk about what the day's work was. And many times, he would say to me I don't need to say that to him. He'll figure it out. He knows what he's doing. He has a process. He'll get there.

Now, if you're a producer, your job is to be (laughter) to be result oriented. So having somebody tell you to wait is not really a thing you're particularly happy about. But he was right about every single thing. And he was this completely remarkable artist.

And he wanted to do the play because he had had a reverence for Kazan. And he wanted to investigate what Kazan did with the play. And that was such a great reason to do it. I mean, Kazan made him want to be a director. He wanted to be in a conversation with that. And I thought - well, you know, Mike Nichols wants to be in a conversation with Kazan, my job is to make that happen.

GROSS: So getting back to, like, casting children. What kind of audition piece do you give them?

RUDIN: They all sang "Tomorrow" and "Maybe."

GROSS: OK.

RUDIN: But, I mean, the toughest thing about "Annie" situation was there was a ruler backstage on one of the walls. And when somebody hit 5 feet, they were gone. I mean, didn't matter who it was, Andrea McArdle or somebody playing Pepper - you know, they were just out of the show when you hit that height. And it was merciless. And so, I mean, there were a lot of crying girls and crying mothers.

GROSS: Wow, that's really interesting.

RUDIN: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so you tend to be I think in the active range of producer, taking a very, like, active role and making suggestions and watching what the directors and actors are up to. If you are the director, would you want someone as active as you being the producer, or would you want them, like, out of the room (laughter)?

RUDIN: Well, sometimes people do want you out of the room. Depending on who the person is, sometimes being out of the room is great and entirely appropriate. I mean, you know, when I make movies with the Coen Brother, they don't want anybody in the room. You know, we work on the script, but really the script is theirs. I take care of my portion of it, which is making sure that it's financed. I'm making sure that we're selling it and organizing what the financial structure of it's going to be, sometimes finding the material, sometimes working with them on the cut. It can vary, but you don't need to be everything.

I mean, sometimes it's really great not to be in the room, and sometimes your value is that you're not in the room, that you come in to see the thing when it's formed. I had a really interesting experience this year on "The Crucible" because we did two shows with a Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. One was "View From The Bridge," which I saw in London and loved and brought here, and the other was "The Crucible," which was the first production he did that was done specifically for Broadway.

And we had a run-through of "The Crucible." I haven't seen any of it in the room because he got behind in rehearsal. And there was a run-through. And the run-through was the same night as the invited dress of "Shuffle Along." So I went to "Shuffle Along," and some of the people on "The Crucible" team went to "Crucible." And I had said to them just come back to "Shuffle" when "Crucible's" over and find me and tell me what kind of shape we're in.

So two hours go by, nobody, three hours go by, nobody's there, three and a half hours go by, nobody's showing up. At, like, four hours and 20 minutes, they all walk in, and they're looking so shell-shocked and so terrified that I thought what the hell did you see that did this to you? And they said it's endless. It doesn't work. It's amorphous. It doesn't have any drive.

And I went the next night, and I thought it was one of the greatest things I'd ever seen. It was just too long. So sometimes you have a certain body of knowledge which is experiential, which is being able to look at something and say OK, the problem here is not a problem of execution. The problem here isn't a problem of it being qualitatively good enough. It's just too long. So get it to move faster, get the sets on and off faster, get the intermission shorter, get the scene changes shorter, drive it. And I felt I made a big contribution to that show by basically making sure nobody panicked because there was so much panic happening around it and none of it was necessary. And honestly, that's what I did.

GROSS: Right.

RUDIN: I did that and basically said to everybody this is going to be great. We have four weeks of previews. Relax and do your work.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about a chapter of your career that I imagine was pretty painful. I don't want to go into the details. But I know that you love Sondheim shows. You produce "Passion," which won at least one Tony.

RUDIN: Many, yeah. It won a number of Tony's.

GROSS: Yeah, many, and it was a beautiful show.

RUDIN: Yeah, I agree. Thank you.

GROSS: But then for his most recent musical, which has had various names, including Wise Guys and "Trunk Show."

RUDIN: "Bounce," "Road Show..."

GROSS: "Bounce" - yeah, yeah - "Road Show," that's what it is. I'm sorry.

RUDIN: It had all those names in there.

GROSS: All those names, yeah - yeah...

RUDIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Oh, OK. So he sued you. You countersued...

RUDIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Him.

RUDIN: Yes.

GROSS: And I was just thinking, like, reading about that, what a really painful experience that must've been for you. I don't know what happened. I don't want to get into the details. I'm sure they're...

RUDIN: It's a very interesting...

GROSS: ...Incredibly complicated. But to have that kind of relationship with somebody with whom you've collaborated and who as an artist I know you have the utmost respect and love for.

RUDIN: Well, not just as an artist, as a person. I was with him most of yesterday, and we're working together on his next show.

GROSS: Good.

RUDIN: So it's - I'll tell you there's a very interesting part of it which I learned a lot from, which was we fell out over the show because I thought it wasn't good enough and he was angry that I didn't want to continue on it. And it turns out I think he was right because when the show came to New York in a very different form than we did it originally, I loved it. And I thought it was one of his best scores, and I thought it was really pretty great.

And I wrote him a letter saying I completely see what you saw. I was an idiot for doubting it. I should've just gone along with it. And I really meant it. And I felt, you know, I had been an - and I was inexperienced. I mean, part of it was, you know, I hadn't done as many shows as I've done now. I wasn't that comfortable with the process that didn't look like it was going anywhere.

And we sort of - we kind of reacquainted each other with ourselves and got to be friends again. And when he was writing his two-volume book about his lyrics, he called me and said, I'm writing about - I'm writing about "Wiseguys," and there are certain things I don't remember. Would you mind if we got together and let me tell you what I think happened and you can tell me where I'm right or wrong.

And we disagreed about almost all of it. But it was a fascinating thing to realize he was in his own process. He was in his own world of creating that show. And he was frustrated by the fact that it wasn't working and that - and he didn't feel he had the people around him to help it work. And I felt taken advantage of because we brought a bunch of people into a room to try to make a show. We had a plan to do the show. We were - we had a theater, we had dates. And we were simply both doing - we were doing two different shows.

And that's a thing that happens in the theater and it happens in movies, too, all the time, which is that you don't always know. You're not always on the same pages as your collaborators until it's way too late. So we had this dinner in which we talked about all these things that happened. And Steve would say well, there was that run-through, and I was furious that you didn't tell me how much you liked that new song. And I would say no, there was a run-through in which you didn't deliver the new song, and that song came two weeks later.

Now, I have, by the way - I have no idea who was right or wrong. It's entirely likely that he was right. But the fact that we could get so far apart when we were really in a very knitted-together process was really shocking to me. And I really learned - I learned from it how not to let that happen because once that's happened, you're kind of done. I mean, you're not going to recover it.

And, I mean, he was a huge, huge reason why I wanted to be in the theater. When I was a kid, I saw "Company" 12 times. I saw "Follies" 13 times. These were gigantic benchmarks for me, and not just in, like, my working life but in life. And to have fallen out with them for that period which lasted, like, two years was really painful. And - but, you know, we're working now. He's writing a new musical. I love what he's writing, and I can't wait to do it.

GROSS: What can you tell us about it, anything?

RUDIN: Yeah. It's based on two Bunuel movies - "The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie" and "The Exterminating Angel." And he's writing it with David Ives. And we're doing it - I'm partnered in it with The Public Theater with Oskar Eustis. And we're going to hopefully do it sometime in - I hope '17. And it's - I love what I've heard of it, really love it. And I think Steve's - it's really funny. It's very sophisticated. It's bracing. It's kind of shocking? It's very political. It's really smart. And I think it has a chance to be as good as anything he's done. I would like it to be done. I would like it to be finished.

GROSS: Right, oh, I'd like to see it.

RUDIN: Yeah, I'm sure you will.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Rudin. He's the lead producer of five shows that are up for Tony Awards Sunday night. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Broadway and film producer Scott Rudin. When we left off, we were talking about working with Stephen Sondheim. Do you want to choose a Sondheim song maybe from a production you worked on, like "Passion," or just something that you heard before you started working with him that you'd like us to play?

RUDIN: Maybe "Loving You" because it's from "Passion," because it was - it came out of a very difficult preview period.

GROSS: So my understanding is this song was written during previews.

RUDIN: Yes.

GROSS: What was the problem? Why did you need this song?

RUDIN: The problem was that the audience was not emotionally engaged by the protagonist's kind of ferocious love for this young guy who had no interest in her. And the job was to essentially dramatize that she - that her love for him was in a way kind of an illness or an infection and that she wasn't going to stop, that she was going to keep going until she had him or killed him.

And it turns out she did both. And - well, she didn't do both. That's actually not accurate. She dies. But she has him. And the whole - the kind of really remarkable journey of the show is that she starts out as a kind of figure of scorn and derision for him and thereby for the audience. But this song was really designed to turn the audience towards her.

And it's, I think, kind of a brilliant song because it takes a person who you've been told to relate to in a very specific way, which is she's not a person to admire, she's a person - she's a fearsome character, she's someone to be afraid of, and suddenly you're given this kind of remarkable insight into what drives her. And it's really what - I think it's what musicals do. I mean, it's lifted up by the fact that it's sung.

GROSS: OK, well, let's hear Donna Murphy from the original cast recording of "Passion," the Stephen Sondheim musical that was produced by my guest, Scott Rudin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "PASSION")

JERE SHEA: (As Giorgio) Fosca, you have to face the truth. Please, you have to give me up.

DONNA MURPHY: (As Fosca, singing) Loving you is not a choice. It's who I am. Loving you is not a choice and not much reason to rejoice. But it gives me purpose, gives me voice to say to the world, this is why I live. You are why I live. Loving you is why I do the things I do. Loving you is not in my control. But loving you I have a goal for what's left of my life. I will live and I would die for you.

GROSS: That's Donna Murphy from the original cast recording of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Passion." My guest, Scott Rudin, was a producer of that musical. He's the lead producer of five shows that are currently nominated for Tonys. Those shows are the new play, "The Humans," the musical, "Shuffle Along," and the revivals of "The Crucible," "A View From The Bridge" and "Blackbird."

How do you keep the joy in the things that you really love - like movies, television and shows - when there's so much at stake and there's so much stress involved with the work? I mean, like, as much as you love a show, you have your money riding on it, you have investors' money riding on it and you have the careers and the futures of everybody in that show riding on it.

RUDIN: Well, it's an interesting question. I mean, one of the reasons that I went into movies was because I frankly thought at the time - and I was really young when I did this - I thought I love the theater too much to be - to ever be unromantic about it. And I didn't have that feeling for movies. I love individual movies. I love making stuff. I like making movies. I like working with great collaborators. But movies as a form never were a big thing for me. And I thought, I'll be good at this because I don't care about it, you know?

In other words, not that I don't care about what I'm doing, but I don't have a passionate interest in the form. I have a deeply passionate interest in the theater, which made me worry that I wouldn't be good at it. So it took me a long time to want to produce in the theater because I was afraid of it. And I was afraid that I would be too in love with something to be good for it. And what I learned was I was wrong about that, and at the same time that my love for it has an actual, kind of provable value.

Yeah, the risk is intense and the stress is intense, but I think the chance to make something great so balances the equation in its favor that it honestly is never much of an issue for me because I don't really start to do something that I don't think is going to work and is going to be really good. By the way...

GROSS: ...Yeah?

RUDIN: By the way, you can start something and say, I think this is going to be great. It can be great and also not commercial. So, you know, really there are two steps to it, which is is the thing good enough to work, and then can you make it work? And the answer to both of those things is not always the same answer.

GROSS: Well, good luck to you.

RUDIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you. Scott Rudin is the lead producer of five shows that are up for Tonys on Sunday - "The Humans," "Shuffle Along," "Blackbird," "The Crucible," and "A View From The Bridge." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, the Supreme Court a hundred years ago, when Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish justice. I'll talk with Jeffrey Rosen, whose new book about Brandeis describes him as the most farseeing, progressive justice of the 20th century - relevant today as the court confronts regulation in a time of economic crisis and preserving constitutional liberty in a time of technological change. We'll also look at the court today after the death of Justice Scalia. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Stanishevsky (ph). Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

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