Speaking with a Broadway producer is always such a pleasure, and always an empowering conversation. To produce a Broadway show means believing in a project, a group of people, and investing in an industry where 4 out of 5 shows fail to recoup their initial investment. In the face of months and years of blissful doubt they follow a project with the simple faith that what they are working on is something that the world needs to see.
Barbara Whitman is no exception when it comes to inspiration, in a short time her career has seen 9 Tony nominations and 3 wins. She is one of the people behind bringing Audra McDonald to Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun; she believed in young writers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey of Next to Normal giving it life; and most recently she brought us Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the 2015 Tony Winning Best Musical Fun Home. Last week she made time before running to her matinee to speak with us.
My first impression of Barbara was Tuesday night after the Tony Awards still in full post Tony glow when she walked onto the stage pre-show to rapturous applause to announce slight technical issues with the set. I remember thinking her absolutely adorable, this time I saw another side of her. She meant business, but then again she did grow up in New York and theatre has been her game since the get go.
“As early as 5 or 6 I remember seeing Clark Kent coming out as Superman and thinking instantly that this is it, this is what I want to do with my life.” A charming image of a young girl wanting to be an actress, but also a superhero and making a difference in the world. Becoming a mother let her step away from being an actress and led her into finance, from there she combined her business degree and was producing on Broadway before she even graduated from Columbia.
“I’ve done a lot of different things in my life but they all led me to be a producer you see.” Now with another Tony win under her belt her love and intuition in producing good theatre is the benchmark for any aspiring producer. “It [winning the Tony] is the ultimate acknowledgement and the stamp of approval on a show that you just don’t get anywhere else. It really says something to the world. It’s really an amazing experience.”
FUN HOME, playing now at Circle in the Square.
Fun Home follows the story based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir and features music by Jeanine Tesori with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Through Alison’s memories of her family, her coming out, and her father’s death we see an integrity lost to many Broadway shows that are created for ‘show’. Fun Home is a truthful conversation on what it is to be human as we discover who we really are, what our relationships with our family mean, and where we find our place in the world. When Barbara first heard the score, now almost entirely changed, and completely overwhelmed with work, she said “I know what you’re thinking, this is ridiculous, but I just can’t say no.”
Barbara describes the theme of Fun Home even simpler: “It shows you that people are just people and everyone is everyone. Everyone has their own journey but we can learn from each others story. This story is remarkably specific and yet remarkably universal at the same time.”
You only have to listen to the first few seconds of the music to hear Sydney Lucas sing ‘Listen to me’ to realise this musical is about our need to be acknowledged in the world, and a search for meaning in our own stories, a search that doesn’t always turn up with an answer.
I asked a delicate question I usually wouldn’t put to a producer, but one I think is relevant. I asked if Broadway was too commercial, and if theatre was loosing its belonging to a diverse community to the tourists flooding Times Square.
While acknowledging the tourist market is the next direction for Fun Home we realized in our conversation that New York has a stronger audience for quality theatre than people might think; Fun Home is the proof. “I think something like Fun Home and Curious Incident are such great examples in proving that there is room for plays that don’t have stars, that there is room on Broadway for unconventional musicals, the we need these musicals just as much as we need Aladdin and Phantom.”
A few months ago Alan Cumming introduced me to Will Carlyon who he worked with on the Roundabout revival of Cabaret. Will ended up being one of two handsome, talented sons of Barbara, who inherited a gift for being well spoken like his mother. Hearing from him about this powerhouse of a woman who was his mother in a way I rarely hear a child speak of their parents really inspired this interview in the first place. So I had to ask Barbara about what being a mother meant to her and her producing career.
Barbara Whitman with her son Will Carlyon at the opening of Of Mice and Men on Broadway.
“Both my sons and I have so much in common, I love that I have both of my kids working in the industry. It’s great to see them stand on their own. You know, there’s a lot about being a producer that is like being a parent. You need to know when to say yes, and when to say no. I find it incredible, its such an important skill for a producer. There is definitely a lot to being a parent to being a producer.”
Before we parted I sneakily asked her favourite lyric from Fun Home. She giggled, and told me to listen to ‘Changing My Major’ the song in which Emily Skeggs sings of her new found lesbian world view by saying she’ll take up college credit in studying the girl who helped awaken her.
“I don’t know who I am, I’ve become someone new, Nothing I just did is anything I would do.”
— Changing My Major, Fun Home
I think it is just as much a reflection on our own ability to surprise ourselves with what we are capable of as it is a reflection on how Barbara and her team have been able to achieve something they never knew they could, by bringing Fun Home to Broadway and charming the world.