Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg knows good theater. Need proof? His Broadway productions have earned him eight Tony Awards.
He added a ninth to his office shelf last June when he received a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
“If you chose plays that constantly fail, that’s a reflection on you as a producer,” he says.
One of the most consistently successful producers in Broadway history, Azenberg will speak to University of Utah theater students as guest lecturer at noon Wednesday, March 27, in the Babcock Theatre.
“A producer has two main choices: what to produce and when to close. He must make a tasteful and aesthetic judgment on what plays to produce,” he explains. “But the second choice is probably even more difficult than the first one because you commit so much time and energy until it fails or runs out of gas. Everything else, more than gifts and talents, is just mechanics.
“Shows that work have a word-of-mouth, and that’s what propels long-running shows. It doesn’t have to do with the marketing or the producer. No show has enough money to genuinely market itself. ‘Sound of Music’ had bad notices when it first opened but it ran for 200 years.”
Azenberg is most closely associated with Neil Simon, after producing 20 of the writer’s plays over the last four decades, and Azenberg first became renowned for this professional partnership. But in total he has served as producer or general manager of more than 215 Broadway shows. That list includes “Children of a Lesser God,” “The Wiz,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Long Days Journey Into Night.” Along with a little show called “Rent” — and a current hit, “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
The shows he produced have received, in total, 49 Tonys and more than 150 Tony nominations, according to the trade groups that produce the annual awards.
“If you look at the shows I’ve produced, it’s a pretty good track record but at least 40 percent of them fail,” he says. “An artistic life is filled with failures. Success can be a trap, and there’s the trap of being a celebrity as well. Artists need to take chances; they shouldn’t listen to those who say they are taking too big a chance. If he didn’t take a chance, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor.” Pause for laughter. “His work would have been rubbed out and disappeared within a few weeks.”
When artists experience failure, they need a support system. And he believes great support can be found in a strong family.
“I know how pedestrian it sounds but family is the strongest support system, in times of stress and even good times,” he emphasizes. “Very often the support you get from husbands and wives and family is more reliable and valuable than from fans and friends. That’s true of parents to children but also the role reversal, of children to the parents.”
Azenberg recalls a painful evening in 1979 when he had to announce the early closing of a now-obscure play he produced called “Devour the Snow.” “Fortunately, I have a large family who gives me a hug when I need it,” he says. “It was my daughters Karen and Lisa, who comforted their father.”
Karen Azenberg helms Pioneer Theatre as its artistic director, and her father is in town to see her production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” Each of his five children is in some way professionally involved in the arts. (“Not one doctor! I wanted a doctor!” he has said with mock horror.)
It was particularly agonizing when his 2009 revival of “Ragtime” closed after 65 performances. His wife, Lani Sundsten, turned to him and said, “Nobody died.”
“What is happiness?” he asks. “‘Happiness is equilibrium,’ Tom Stoppard wrote in 'The Real Thing.' I believe that happiness is equilibrium between your personal life and your professional life.” Azenberg was a producer of “The Real Thing,” which earned a Tony for Best Play, along with Tonys for three actors, at its 1984 Broadway premiere.
Anticipating the U. lecture, Azenberg says “working with students is what I have enjoyed more than any other thing in the theater. It’s a place where I can be totally honest. Any training in theater should be accompanied by an academic education.”
After teaching at NYU and Yale, he established a connection with Duke University when his daughter Lisa attended the university. For 25 years, while his plays were in production on Broadway, Azenberg traveled from his Manhattan home to the North Carolina campus, becoming a legendary adjunct professor along with his status as a prominent producer.
One of those former students, Preston Whiteway, has already earned his own Tony, at age 25. With Whiteway as executive director, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., received a 2010 Tony for Best Regional Theater.
Whiteway credits many of the opportunities he has received to “the one and only Manny Azenberg.” A theater production course Azenberg taught “was far and away the best course I took at Duke, and his classes often took a turn into discussions of life. He was a tough teacher, but we all adored him,” he has said.