Roundabout Nurtures Artists and Audiences
MAY 5, 2014
Quality and variety: That’s Roundabout Theatre Company’s goal for each theater season.
“In a single year our audiences can get everything from a familiar classic to a rediscovered gem, plus a musical and a thrilling new play too,” says Todd Haimes, artistic director of the company since 1990. “Every production we mount has the best artists in the business working both onstage and backstage. And it is essential to keep our audience on their toes. I think that’s what keeps our audience coming back season after season.”
From its humble beginnings in the mid-1960s as a neighborhood theatre in the basement of a supermarket, Roundabout Theatre Company has transformed itself remarkably into one of New York’s major theatrical institutions. Currently operating three Broadway theatres, an Off-Broadway house, as well as a development space to incubate new work, Roundabout can proudly claim to be the largest nonprofit theater organization in the city. For the season just wrapping up, the company is basking in a slew of honors, including 10 Tony, seven Drama Desk, 14 Outer Critics Circle, and five Lucille Lortel award nominations, for productions as varied as Cabaret, Violet, Machinal, and Bad Jews, both on and Off-Broadway.
“We started out solely producing revivals, and it’s something that I continue to love to do,” Haimes continues. “Sometimes we get to do great new productions of some of the best plays ever written, like The Importance of Being Earnest [which starred Brian Bedford] or next season’s The Real Thing [starring Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Cynthia Nixon]. But I also enjoy the times that we do lesser-known work, letting the audience discover a classic as though it’s new. That was the case this season with both The Winslow Boy and Machinal, and they were incredibly rewarding productions for us artistically.” The latter revival, of an almost-forgotten expressionist drama from 1928 by playwright Sophie Treadwell, is competing for four design Tony Awards next month.
Under Haimes’ leadership, Roundabout significantly raised its profile on Broadway by restoring and renovating two historic Broadway houses, the Selwyn Theatre and Henry Miller’s Theatre, now, respectively, the American Airlines Theatre and the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Roundabout also owns and operates Studio 54, the famed Manhattan nightclub, which was originally transformed to house their 1998 revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, a celebrated production that is currently enjoying a second lease on life at the same theatre.
“One of the great things about an institutional theatre like Roundabout is that you also get the opportunity to form long-term relationships with artists,” says Haimes, describing the organization’s Associate Artist program, which he says was inaugurated in 1995 as a means to keep New York theater from losing talented directors to the more lucrative world of television. “I wanted to do something to help them financially and also make sure that they always had a place in the theater to which they could return. The program is about giving a home to artists who I believe will do great things over time and letting them try new things with us,” Haimes explains.
Director Scott Ellis, the first member of the program, helped usher in a new phase of Roundabout’s evolution, directing the company’s first musical revival, She Loves Me, in 1993. “I gave Todd a recording of the show because it was a musical that I had always loved, and they said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” he recalls. “It was my first Broadway musical as well, and having that experience together was pretty remarkable. It was a little overwhelming for them, learning how to do a musical, and certainly it was more expensive they ever thought it was going to be. We all just got extremely lucky that it was a success and that’s what spawned the musical theater part of Roundabout.” Ellis would go on to direct several well-received revivals of both plays and musicals for the organization, including the Tony-nominated productions 1776, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Twelve Angry Men. Of the latter, the director remarks, “I was so proud of that production, because we really did that play with just an ensemble of great actors in New York and no major stars and it was such a huge success. Then we went on tour and it was so successful in the first year, it went out again.”
Kathleen Marshall, another of Roundabout’s Associate Artists, was assistant choreographer to her brother Rob on She Loves Me. Rob, a former Broadway dancer, went on to establish his career as choreographer, director, and filmmaker — he is also the codirector and choreographer of the current revival of Cabaret — and so would Kathleen. She directed and choreographed Roundabout’s production of The Pajama Game in 2006 as well as their hit production of Anything Goes, which opened the new Stephen Sondheim Theatre in 2011. “What is wonderful about Roundabout and Todd is they are amazingly supportive — carefully picking their creative teams and then allowing you the freedom you need to create and imagine,” she reports. “They have a wonderful loyalty to the creative people they work with, and they also bring new people into the family and give them opportunities.”
Director Sam Gold echoes Kathleen Marshall’s words, saying, “If there is a word, it is family. I feel like it is my home here.” He adds, “What I love is that they put a lot of power in the hands of the artist. It is a very safe, very trusting environment to take risks and also to deliver meaningful work to audiences.” Now in his mid-thirties, Gold is the youngest and newest member of the Roundabout fold. He established himself as one of New York’s hot talents with a string of Off- Broadway successes, including the award-winning production of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. “Most directors in New York make their careers on new plays, and I love working with writers and developing writing. But the thing that got me involved in the theater and made me passionate about becoming a director were other generations of plays — the stuff I read when I was a student,” he says. “Those were the plays that I always wanted to return to, and the Roundabout really is the place where I have been able to do it.” In previous Roundabout seasons, Gold directed bold revivals of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and William Inge’s Picnic, and next fall will direct the new Broadway revival of The Real Thing. “Tom Stoppard’s play is a honest and deep exploration of falling in love and the fears we bring to relationships,” Gold says. “It has inspired me since I was a kid, and to get in the room with that kind of play is a very rare opportunity.”
As the organization looks toward its 50th anniversary, which is coming up next year, Haimes takes pride in what makes Roundabout Theatre Company special for its subscribers and audiences. “It’s the breadth of work at our theatres that keeps things exciting, especially when our audiences get to see artists they love shifting gears and trying new things,” he says. “Just as the performers and other artists are getting to flex their creative muscles in a variety of ways, the audience is getting to do the same.”
Production photography by Joan Marcus.