Meet the producer: an interview with Seth Greenleaf
Wed. January 27, 2016 by Gregg Shapiro
I don’t want to make it sound like Chicago is a talent pool for New York. But the truth is that there is a great exchange between the two cities.
Matilda producer Seth Greenleaf talks theater
Even if you don’t recognize the name Seth Greenleaf right away, you will probably be familiar with the titles of some of the Broadway shows with which he has been intimately involved. Greenleaf, a producer, is responsible for bringing the critically acclaimed 2016 revival of Fiddler On the Roof to Broadway. He can also include Matilda and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (starring Audra McDonald) in his extensive list of credits. Two new shows, a musical based on the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel and subsequent film American Psycho, adapted by Tony winner Duncan Sheik, as well as the Bill Gates/Steve Jobs musical Nerds, are waiting in the wings, so to speak. All of this is taking place just as the national tour of Matilda is stopping in several cities. I spoke with Greenleaf about his career as a producer and more in January 2016. [Tickets are now on sale for Matilda, running from March 22-April 10, at the Oriental Theater.]
Gregg Shapiro: Seth, I want to begin by offering my congratulations on the well-received Fiddler On the Roof revival you are involved in producing on Broadway.
SG: Thank you!
GS: Why was the time right for a Fiddler revival?
SG: (Director) Bartlett (Sher) had created this concept of framing it in modern day as a comment on the current refuge situation. That was actually before the Syrian boy washed up on the beach and it became a real international conversation. He was very ahead of the curve. As we’re seeing with Donald Trump running for President and the kind of rhetoric we’re hearing from certain candidates in the upcoming election, this issue, in some parts and with some people, has not evolved very much since the time Fiddler was written and the subject that Fiddler was about. (Even) with more people being conscious, we seem to be reliving the same patterns again and again.
GS: A pogrom is a pogrom, no matter when it occurs.
SG: Yes! It seemed like this was great time to do it (the revival). Fiddler is such a wonderful musical. It hasn’t had a first-class production in a very long time. The last version that was done on Broadway was a little bit stripped back. Our feeling was that rather than do something that was in any way competing with something that people could see regionally, let’s go all in. It’s certainly the most expensive revival that’s been done in a while. It’s a beautiful, lavish production. Bartlett Sher has developed a niche for excavating and revinventing classical musicals. He breathes a new life into the material. The one comment people tend to make when they see his work, whether it be South Pacific or The King and I, and now Fiddler, is that they feel like they are seeing the show for the first time. He has a way about him where he approaches the material as if it’s being produced for the very first time. You feel that aliveness in the production.
GS: I’m glad you mentioned that earlier production of Fiddler from more than 10 years ago. It was quite the topic of theater talk as it featured non-Jewish actors such as Alfred Molina and Rosie O’Donnell in lead roles. As a producer, how important was it to cast this production of Fiddler with members of the tribe?
SG: I think the authenticity of this production has been well-received. I think that that’s just more that the intelligence that goes behind doing something authentically gives it a different atmosphere with the audience. Bartlett has created something that feels so rich and authentic that, as an audience, you respond to that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the other idea. Look at Hamilton, for example.
GS: Right, an actor is an actor and they should be able to portray any kind of character.
SG: At the end of the day, Fiddler is a story about family. We have all been immigrants at one time or another. (The actors) don’t have to be Jewish. Fiddler has a wide range. On some level it’s a comedy. It’s kind of a broad, silly comedy to some degree. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s a very emotional and heartfelt family drama. I think their production tended to swing towards the comedy. Tevye can certainly be a funny, boorish character. I think our production has a very nice balance between the two. But in act two, it definitely becomes a family drama.
GS: Was theater part of your life when you were a child?
SG: Yes. I didn’t find this out until much later, but my great-grandmother was a big theater fan and used to take my father to see one show on his birthday every year. She didn’t know how to choose one show from another, so she would take him to the Tony Award-winning musical every year.
GS: That’s a good way to start.
SG: Yes, and lots of people do that. So he grew up only knowing the best musicals out there. He had a passion for the business and had an opportunity to invest in and eventually produce a musical when he was working in the textile business. That launched his career as a producer. I was eight at the time and I grew up watching him. We learned how to produce theater together.
GS: Did you also do theater in high school?
SG: Yes. I was an athlete and a performer. I was always split between those two worlds. To this day, my two favorite things are musical theater and football [laughs]. It’s a good balance.
GS: There is something theatrical, almost choreographed, about football.
SG: There’s something theatrical about sports. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s typically an arc to the action and there’s a finale. Someone is gloriously victorious and someone is tragically defeated. Sports are very theatrical.
GS: You studied theater and film in college and, according to the IMDb, have appeared in a few movies, most recently as “handsome guy” in 2006’s A-List.
SG: [Laughs] That seems like a lifetime ago.
GS: Do you prefer to be behind the scenes or would you someday like to be in front of the camera or onstage again?
SG: I have way too much energy to be an actor. I loved acting and performing, but you’d only get to do it for a very small percentage of your time. I have way too much nervous energy to stand around and wait. That amount of time to wait before you’re working again – I was losing my mind. I was always editing, directing, producing, helping friends with their projects. Eventually, when I got back into producing and directing full-time, I finally felt like my energy was being used. This was a much better fit for me.
GS: You mentioned learning about producing from your father – is that what you would consider to be the launching pad for your interest in being a theater and film producer?
SG: I think producers have a natural ability to facilitate things. When you have a group of friends who are thinking about a trip or talking about one thing or another, there’s the friend who says, “OK, we need to book the tickets, so we need this much money…” I have always had this kind of innate ability to facilitate. When I went back into producing full-time, I was surprised at how much innate ability I had, how much I had picked up growing up in that environment, how much I had learned by osmosis as a child. Acting was a struggle. It was a tearing down of walls. It was great for me emotionally. I think acting is a wonderful exercise. I seemed to have come into my own when I was producing and directing.
GS: So, to make a theater reference, you are sort of a Dolly Levi, a person who arranges things.
SG: [Laughs] A little bit, sure. But never looks past a happy accident. I don’t believe in controlling things, to some degree, either. You control the boundaries, but not the circumstances.
GS: As a producer, how do you know when something is worth the investment of your time, money and energy?
SG: I don’t. I do all of the analysis of its place in the market. But at the end of the day, it’s absolutely a gut instinct to say I’m absolutely fascinated by this material. I would want to see this. I don’t have a better way of doing it. You can analyze and cross-reference and research and test market and do all those things to death and I think any producer will tell you that the majority of our success is blind luck.
GS: You have produced many shows, but do you have an all-time favorite stage musical in which you didn’t have a hand?
SG: Sure. There have been lots of shows that I’ve loved. I’m a huge fan of Les Miz and Rent. Those are certainly two of my all-time favorites. Nine was the one my father produced, the one I grew up with, and that’s my all-time favorite musical.
GS: The original production with Raul Julia?
SG: Yes. And I’m sure that it’s partly because that was such an intense experience for me. But I also happen to love every lyric in that show. And probably relate to some of the dynamics [laughs].
GS: Matilda and American Psycho, two productions with which you are involved, are based on books that were later made into movies. How did you know they would transition well into musicals?
SG: One of the things that American Pyscho does, as does Matilda, is that it's material that alters your reality a little bit. It filters out certain things and it heightens others. It creates an experience that is unique and special. For me, that is a constant in my attraction to material.
GS: You are also describing a theater experience.
SG: I am. Theater is a heightened experience and a heightened reality, a specific look at a topic, a slice of life. Both of those shows do that. I was not a part of the original inception and creation of Matilda, but what happened was that it started out as a family Christmas show at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) and people had such an overwhelming response to it that my partner André Ptaszynski and Matthew Warchus, the director, knew that something important was happening. It was speaking to something in people. That’s where it expanded into the show you are seeing now. From very humble beginnings.
GS: The Matilda tour is going to be making a stop in Chicago this spring. What do you think of the Chicago theater scene?
SG: I think it’s great! In terms of commitment to theater, I think it’s second only to New York. I have many good friends who work in Chicago theater. We took our production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directly from Steppenwolf.
GS: The one with Tracy Letts.
SG: Yes, directed by Pam MacKinnon. I don’t want to make it sound like Chicago is a talent pool for New York. But the truth is that there is a great exchange between the two cities.
GS: The musical Hairspray, began as a John Waters movie, was adapted as a stage musical, and then was made into a movie musical. Are there plans to do something similar with Matilda or other shows?
SG: There are conversations about that for Matilda. Once you get the movie industry involved, you never know. Things could be in development for 20 years or they could happen very quickly. It is a conversation.
GS: Do you have an original musical or play in you?
SG: I don’t know if I will ever have the patience to write. I certainly have many ideas that I will develop with writers, We’ve got one musical, Nerds, that we are about to announce. Nerds is about the rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. It is adorable and hilarious.
GS: It’s a musical?
SG: It’s a musical. It’s a lighthearted spoof on their lives, but it’s also tethered in reality and offers a sweet perspective on these guys, starting from long before they became mega-billionaires and masters of the universe. When they were just nerds trying to find their place in the world and learning about themselves. It’s written by two Emmy-nominated writers (Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner) in L.A. who are actually Tisch School of the Arts graduates. They did The Bomb-itty of Errors. It’s a young and enthusiastic creative team. The show’s been in development since about 2005. It had an incredible run at the Philadelphia Theater Company where it broke box office records. We did a production at the North Carolina Theater and it was the highest-rated musical in their history. It was time, now, to give it its shot in the sun. It’s risky because it’s new material and it’s even new subject matter for Broadway. But it’s a wonderful show.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.