The most pressing problem was cash flow. Stymied by Morgan Guaranty’s refusal of a $1 million line of credit, Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs had to do something the Shubert brothers never did — sell some real estate. But contrary to their enemies’ whispers, they did not sell theaters. Instead they sold off a parcel of land on Broadway between Sixty-Second and Sixty-Third Streets for $3.5 million.
But for the Shubert empire to thrive, it needed shows. So Schoenfeld and Jacobs made what would turn out to be one of the most important decisions of their reign. They would begin investing Shubert money in new productions. They would also start meeting with writers, directors, and performers to discuss new projects. After more than a decade of acting solely as a landlord, the Shubert Organization would start producing again. Jacobs took over the company’s booking department. He began reading scripts instead of just contracts. Here he had another ally, his wife, Betty, who it turned out, was a good script reader herself. On Friday nights, he’d take a pile of scripts out to his house in Roslyn, Long Island, where he and Betty read them over the weekend. Their kitchen table became the Shubert booking office.
The first show the new management invested in was “Pippin,” which they booked into the Imperial Theatre. Stephen Schwartz, a young songwriter fresh out of Carnegie Mellon University, had fashioned a freewheeling musical loosely based on the life of Charlemagne’s eldest son. The show was of its time — more a “happening” than a traditional musical. But the score was tuneful and contemporary. In his memoir, “Present at the Creation, Leaping in the Dark, and Going Against the Grain,” producer Stuart Ostrow wrote, “From the moment he played ‘Corner of the Sky,’ I knew Stephen was the new voice I was looking for.” Ostrow worked with Schwartz on the script for over a year. In the meantime, Schwartz had an unexpected Off-Broadway smash called “Godspell,” which produced the hit tune “Day by Day.” Ostrow asked Bob Fosse, with whom he played poker, to direct “Pippin.” Fosse transformed Schwartz’s “sincere, naive morality play,” as Ostrow called it, into a cynical burlesque narrated by a character called the Leading Player. For that role, Fosse cast his friend Ben Vereen. Schwartz was aghast at what Fosse was doing to his show, but Fosse ignored him. He told a reporter that Schwartz was “talented but not as talented as he thinks he is.” There were flare-ups during rehearsals on a daily basis. At one point Schwartz said, “I’m getting out of here.” Fosse replied icily, “You can get out, and you can stay out” — and banned him from rehearsals.
Though he had Fosse as his director, Ostrow had difficulty raising the money for “Pippin.” It was an expensive show, and the country was still in the grip of recession. Jacobs and Schoenfeld decided to help. But to do so they had to ignore a stipulation in J.J. Shubert’s will that limited investments in shows to no more than $25,000. Ostrow needed more, so they gave him $50,000. “We did so timorously,” Jacobs recalled. The day before “Pippin” opened, Jacobs asked Ostrow if they could sell off their investment. “So much for faithfulness,” Ostrow wrote.
It was a mistake. “Pippin” was a smash, made even more so by a pioneering TV commercial, directed by Fosse, that, for the first time, featured performers doing an actual dance from a show. The announcer said, “Here’s a free minute from Pippin” — as Ben Vereen began to dance. At the end of the commercial, the announcer said, “You can see the other 119 minutes of ‘Pippin’ live at the Imperial Theatre. Without commercial interruption.” (Pippin detractors said the only thing you needed to see of the show was Fosse’s one-minute commercial.)
Pippin ran four-and-half years on Broadway and earned $3.5 million. Had the Shuberts held on to their investment, they would have made a nice profit. Still, they got the rent from a hit show in one of their largest theaters. They got something else as well: a lesson in producing. Schoenfeld and, especially, Jacobs spent a lot of time at the theater watching Fosse work. What Jacobs grasped was that a director-choreographer of Fosse’s stature is essential to a musical’s success. He had no illusions about the script to “Pippin.” The music was fine but this show was not built with the precision of “My Fair Lady.” Fosse took what many of the newspaper critics dismissed as second-rate material and turned it into first-rate entertainment. If the material was the horse, Jacobs was looking for the jockey who could ride it to the finish line. As his friend Manny Azenberg would say, “Bernie Jacobs learned to bet on the jockeys.”
Another decision the new regime made was to change Shubert curtain times. For years, Broadway shows opened at 8:30, which gave people time to have a couple of martinis and dinner. But that was a tradition from a safer Times Square. By 1972, “the neighborhood became unsafe after seven thirty,” Jacobs recalled. “We realized we were chasing our customers away.” The new curtain time would be 7:30. Producer David Merrick, however, set his curtain times at 8:00, so he could scoop up whatever business remained after the other shows had started. Eventually, everybody else followed and the curtain time was established at 8:00 p.m.
Excerpted from “Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway” by Michael Riedel. Copyright © by Michael Riedel. Published by Simon & Schuster.