Why is theater so meaningful to gay people? Broadway's Jordan Roth, interviewed.

Why Is the Theater so Meaningful to Gay People?

Why Is the Theater so Meaningful to Gay People?

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
June 5 2015 12:11 PM

Why Is the Theater so Meaningful to Gay People?An Interview With Jordan Roth.

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Jordan Roth.

Photo courtesy of Jujamcyn Theaters

At 39, Jordan Roth is one of the most powerful men in the New York theater world. As president and majority shareholder in Jujamcyn Theaters, he controls five Broadway houses, making him the New York theater world’s third-biggest landlord, and as an openly gay man, he’s also one of the city’s most prominent out businessmen. I spoke to him on June 1, just after Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover was revealed, about how the theatergoing experience is changing, why theater can be especially meaningful to gay people, and whether Broadway is too reliant on the Tonys.

What does being a Broadway landlord involve?

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Our core business at Jujamcyn is the theaters, the physical spaces. Because so much of your experience of coming to the theater is defined by how you feel about where you are, we look at a curb-to-curb experience rather than a curtain-to-curtain experience. It starts coming down the street when you see the marquee and the theater: What does that make you feel? What is the energy under the marquee as you come in? How are you greeted? How do you come to know where to go? What do you feel, smell, see when you walk into the lobby? How do you get to your seat? All of this happens before anything occurs on the stage, and if done correctly we feel we can prepare you for what you're about to experience. Particularly for new people, who haven't come to Broadway before, helping you feel welcome and helping you know that this is where you belong is really important. The people that you meet can either be telling you: If you don't know the rules, you shouldn't be here. Or they could be telling you: Let me take you by the hand and welcome you. You're going to love this. We have engaged in a very deliberate process of remaking our company as a hospitality organization.

I know you pushed to get the weekday Broadway curtain time to change to 7 p.m. It took some doing.

We are a mature industry, so we do many things that may or may not be relevant at this time. Our job is to constantly evaluate that and listen to our audiences. It's a little like sleuthing.

In your theaters you can get a drink at the bar and take it to your seat. That was a little controversial.

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We talked earlier about our hospitality effort. What was happening is the very first thing that an usher had to say when they were first seeing a patron was, "You have to throw your drink out." So we're trying to create a different dynamic, but then we're giving the usher rules that they have to impose and basically forcing them that the first thing out of their mouth is going to be “No!” This is not good. Second, people want it. So we don't want to keep saying no. But at the same time, we want to preserve the experience for everybody. So a couple of things: As you know, we serve drinks with a lid on top. That's because you put your drink down, it spills. Our theaters are beautifully carpeted, there's velvet on all the seats, and we want that to be beautiful and fresh for the person right after you. That's about preserving the experience for your neighbors and for the next person. So, OK, you can bring the drinks to the seats if we can put lids on them. Then, we started observing that the ice is a problem. The ice is loud. So we found a special ice machine that makes pellet ice, small pellets instead of big cubes. By the time you’re finished with your drink, most of the ice will have melted. Still keeps your drink really cold—so you're happy, but your neighbor doesn't have to listen to your ice. 

Another thing the ushers have to say no to is photos

Taking pictures used to just be what you did on a trip. Taking pictures has evolved to be a really important and meaningful way in which we process our experiences. And for us to just say, “No, no, you can't take pictures” at this point is to ignore the culture, and you ignore the culture at your own peril. But it's very disruptive for anybody around you to be watching you take pictures, even without a flash. So, can you take pictures before the show and after the show, and is that a place of compromise where you can say, "I'm here" and be heard and create something visual that that you can share but doesn't disrupt the show? That sounds good to me.

Your mother told New York magazine that she took you to the theater because you were gay, and she thought theater would “ease your path.” Were you aware of what she was doing? Did it work? And do you recommend it as a parenting strategy for someone who thinks their kid is gay?

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Was I aware of it at the time? Probably not. Was I aware of it in retrospect? Absolutely. Did it work? One hundred percent. Does it work now? Yeah. I think we are able to communicate a lot to each other in silence. I think a lot of people will reveal themselves today as they talk to their families or friends or people on the street about Caitlyn Jenner. And I think parents of wisdom know that you don’t have to say, “Hey, Joe, is this you?” You can just say: “Wow, look at that amazing person. How wonderful.” And that’s it. You’ve just said everything. And I think theater is an amazing way to do that. A lot of parents bring children to Kinky Boots because they want them to see that and hear that message.

What is that message?

Just be who you want to be. But I think the message is actually a layer beyond that, because it’s not just watching the story. It’s also watching the audience react to the story. You watch everybody on that stage have a journey. And at the end, you feel 1,400 people stand up in rapturous applause. And to a young person—any person, frankly—who thinks, I wonder what anybody would say if I ever said, “This is me,” the answer is 1,400 people are standing up and applauding. The theater is a great way to talk without talking. It’s a great way to begin a conversation, because you can just talk about the show.

What’s the biggest myth about Broadway?

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One is that all tickets are $500. Now, I know that many tickets can be expensive for many people, but there are many ways to come to the theater, and I think we continue to have to do a better job at making sure those [more affordable] price points exist for everybody, but equally important, making sure that everybody knows about those price points.

The Tonys are on Sunday. How are you feeling when you arrive at the ceremony?

First of all, it's really exciting. It’s the Tony awards! We’re all in this business because at some point we were 7 and watching the Tonys on TV and thought, I’m going to be there. That was certainly me. There’s also a fair amount of anxiety. How will it go? But everybody in the room is anxious. And then the third piece is my husband and I met at the Tony Awards, so there’s always an anniversary experience, where we know we’ll be dressed up and anxious.

Is Broadway too dependent on the Tonys? I mean, so much is predicated on them: When shows open, how long they run, advertising budgets. Is Broadway a little too reliant on that Tony boost?

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The Tonys are really an opportunity to share with the world what’s happening on Broadway. Other awards in other industries are often the cherry on top, and ours are the beginning. So, at the Oscars, the movies have come out, they’ve had their journey, and while, yes, a best picture award will maybe make that journey last for another act, for the most part, it’s the cherry on top. But an incandescently small percentage of the television viewing audience have seen the shows. So the Tonys are really a way of introducing the world to the new shows. And I think in the last couple of years, the Tonys have gotten really great at being a celebration of Broadway. So if you’ll notice, now all the new running musicals will perform, not just the nominated musicals.

It’s not so good for the plays.

It’s always been a challenge to translate the plays to television. Musicals, you do a song, that’s a natural section: A two- to three- or four-minute section is a song, and it has its own arc. Plays are not built in those sorts of two-minute sections. So that continues to be a struggle. In the last couple of years the presenter walks you through the nominated plays, and they create a visual life for them. But the message of the Tonys is: Here is what’s new and exciting on Broadway. Come join us.

CBS will air the Tony Awards on Sunday, June 7, at 8 p.m. ET.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.