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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Fifty years in, the Roundabout Theatre Company wants to keep taking risks

Laurence Fishburn and Stockard Channing in "The Lion

Laurence Fishburn and Stockard Channing in "The Lion in Winter" (1999). Credit: Joan Marcus

This is one of those stories that slips away with the everyday crush of headlines and the dwindling of people who remember what happened yesterday -- or, more specifically, 50 years of yesterdays.

From the outside, the Roundabout Theatre Company is a monster of a 21st century institution. It has a $58 million annual budget, which artistic director Todd Haimes authoritatively tells me is the largest of any nonprofit theater in the country. It controls five bustling Manhattan theaters -- the American Airlines, Studio 54, the Sondheim, which the Roundabout does not own but "curates" with its own productions or with rentals, and farther east on 46th Street, the Pels Theatre, officially Off-Broadway, and the Black Box, a 62-seat off Off-Broadway incubator for new plays.

The Roundabout threw itself a 50th anniversary cocktail party on Sept. 10. And, from the look of the bright young crowd, few in the room knew any of the circuitous and serendipitous and, yes, roundabout routes that led to this unlikely empire with its 29 Tonys, an educational wing, an associate artist program and a new-play initiative that has nurtured such gifted new voices as Joshua Harmon and Pulitzer finalist Stephen Karam.

Surely, playwright-director Gene Feist (who died at 91 in 2014) had no such thoughts in 1965 when he hounded friends and neighbors for $10 each to open a repertory company in the basement of a Chelsea supermarket. (Imagine what he might have done with crowdfunding.)

By the time I moved to New York from Chicago in 1980, the Roundabout had moved several times. And whatever happened in those intervening years, the Roundabout I first knew was mostly known for earnest but dull revivals of worthy 19th and early 20th century classics.

Admittedly, the Roundabout of today also produces its share of those. But, increasingly, much of its work has been remarkable. Aside from my ongoing dismay that the handsomely renovated old Selwyn on 42nd Street had its name sold to an airline, however, I cherish this institution for an unforgettable 1993 revival of "Anna Christie," in which we actually watched Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson fall in love.

And the deliciously decadent "Cabaret," starring Alan Cumming, that persuaded Haimes and his board to buy Studio 54 in 2003. And the 2014 rediscovery of "Machinal," Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionist masterwork in a brilliantly uncompromising production. And Scott Ellis' terrific recent staging of "On the Twentieth Century," plus "The Winslow Boy," starring the emotionally exquisite Roger Rees, and Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" starring Viola Davis, and Tom Stoppard's "India Ink" starring Rosemary Harris, and Joe Mantello's revival of Sondheim's "Assassins," and . . . well, you get the idea.

Haimes, who joined the Roundabout in 1983 and became artistic director six years later, has his own list of favorites. Admirably, except for my objection to the sale of the naming rights to American Airlines, he doesn't argue with me about my less-than-favorite reviews.

This is the man who, ultimately, picks the plays for the five theaters. "Someone has to say yes or no," he tells me in a quiet alcove a floor above the slowly dispersing partygoers, "and that's me."

At 59, Haimes would not even make a casting call for a Broadway showman and mogul -- even one from Broadway's less glamorous nonprofit sector. He has a thoughtful, almost self-effacing demeanor. "I'm not an artist," he insists.

Yet he is the one who gets "to do what I want to do." Although surrounded by what he calls "great associates" and responsible to his board, ultimately, "It's just me in a room making that decision. Sometimes I think about it for five years, sometimes not. But it is such an incredible feeling to make it happen."

This is the best part of his job. He has two least favorites. "First, I have to say no to people I love and respect," he says, sadly. "It's really painful to have to separate the personal and the professional." And the other least favorite? "Fundraising," he says without hesitation. "I don't resent it. I'm just not good at it. I just find it so hard."

He says it would be easier to ask for money for cancer research "because everybody understands why you want it. But it is hard to explain the importance of the arts, that they are the foundation of civilization."

Given the size of the operation, clearly, someone is good at it. But he, like other nonprofit producers, has reason to worry. When he began in the theater, he says tourists made up 30 percent of attendance. "Now 70 percent is tourists," he says soberly, noting the negative effect on serious, adventurous theater.

"It's not like we have double the number of people going to theater," he adds. "The pie is just sliced differently." Roundabout, traditionally a heavily subscribed institution, has what he describes as a "stable" 30,000 subscription rate, but this has fallen from 40,000 over the years. "Subscribers used to buy for the discount," he explains. "Now the Internet discounts everything. . . . This makes us more dependent on single ticket sales and contributions."

If Haimes sounds like a businessman, there is a reason. Although he also applied to go to the Yale School of Drama, he chose to go to the business school. "It turned out to be exactly what I needed," he says, confiding that, even then, "I envisioned myself the managing director of a nonprofit theater. . . . Theater is an art form. But the day you can't meet the payroll, it's a business."

When he joined the Roundabout, the company was in Chapter 11 and loaded with debt. "My obligation was to get them out of the hole." After he was promoted to artistic director, he admits, "I kinda sucked at the beginning. Slowly I got better at the job."

In 1992, the company moved to a sprawling, unorthodox space called the Criterion Center on 44th and Broadway. Times Square was still a depressed area, but the house was officially on a Broadway contract. "It wasn't my dream to open on Broadway," he recalls, "but we lost our lease. The board asked if people would even come. But we were on Broadway, which meant Tony eligibility, which was attractive to actors."

In walked Natasha Richardson, whom, as he remembers it, "most people didn't even know." She wanted to do Eugene O'Neill's elusive and creaky "Anna Christie," and "everybody else had turned her down."

So the first Broadway season opened with a smash -- "can you imagine," he jokes, "who thought 'Anna Christie' could be sexy?" It won the 1993 Tony for best revival, which, he says, "put us on the map." Then Scott Ellis directed a revival of the gentle "She Loves Me," hardly a musical blockbuster, which got eight Tony nominations and an award for Boyd Gaines.

"Frankly," says Haimes, "I didn't know how to produce a musical. I actually thought you do a play and add an orchestra and you have a musical. If 'She Loves Me' hadn't been successful, we never would have done another musical. . . . Now I get pitched for every musical."

Thus, the upcoming revival of "She Loves Me" is a special favorite for this anniversary year, a season that includes Harold Pinter's "Old Times" starring Clive Owen, and Keira Knightley in a new adaptation of Émile Zola's 1867 novel "Thérèse Raquin." Both big-star Broadway debuts reflect Haimes' desire to do serious work, but with a need to boost those single-ticket sales. Mamie Gummer stars in a new work, "Ugly Lies the Bone" in the tiny Black Box, and, in the spring, Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr., will explore the abyss in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."

A documentary is in the works. "So few people remember where we came from," he muses. "They just think of us as this big evil nonprofit."

And the theater's educational wing is coproducing the nationwide world premiere of "Prospect High: Brooklyn," with 23 productions scheduled at high schools around the country, including at the Long Island High School for the Arts in March.

As for his legacy, Haimes says he wants "to leave the theater truly stable with an endowment so artists can take whatever risks they want without worry." The revelers have left the building, but he is watching the store.

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