The transcript of Drama Desk’s panel, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” was transcribed by David Kaufman and edited by Edward Karam.
The panel took place on February 10, 2014, at Stage 72/Triad. It was moderated by Randie Levine-Miller and included critic Peter Filichia (a former Drama Desk President); veteran theater publicists Josh Ellis and Susan Schulman, as well as Leslie Badden Pappa.
Randie Levine-Miller: Today’s theme is “You’ve Got to Have a Gimmick… or a Star.”
Josh Ellis: I grew up at a time when stunts were all the rage. I worked for producers like David Merrick, who encouraged having stunts. You had to do whatever you could do, to possibly get your name in the papers. Miss Eva Le Gallienne was the most serious person on the face of the earth—she had no sense of humor. She was dead serious. But there was a live pig in the show [Alice in Wonderland], carried by Kate Burton. It was two weeks old. Sometimes you’re just handed the goods!
Peter Filichia: When Harry Rigby was producing a revival of Good News, every time Stubby Kaye came in, he brought in a bigger animal. He thought it would be a great idea if he brought in a “mad elephant.” And then, from upstage, you heard, “Thunk, thunk, thunk….” Needless to say, he did not go on that night.
Susan Schulman: I have a pig story too: When John Davidson was in State Fair, he wanted to have a live pig in the show. We rented three little piglets in Des Moines, Iowa, and they came with a little girl who was their minder. And John was singing “Our State Fair,” and the pig threw up on him. Needless to say, as a result of this, we did not have a live pig in State Fair.
Levine-Miller: Both Josh and Susan worked with the most abominable showman of all time, David Merrick.
Leslie Badden Pappa: She worked with Barlow Hartman. Most recently she worked with Billy Crystal, on A Thousand Sundays.
Ellis: David Merrick had stipulations about what we could do with the press: he never wanted anything that said how long 42nd St. was running. The genius of David Merrick is that he wanted, on the set with the full orchestra [to] raise the curtain slowly, and raise it with 200 kids. He was willing to do that.
Badden Pappa: There are very few shows that now have very long runs. Wicked doesn’t have any stars. When they opened that show, they didn’t have star names, because you always had to replace stars with stars.
Schulman: The definition of major media has changed. Social media has a huge impact. It’s completely different. With the Internet, everything became everywhere. Every single contact that we had on our mail list was useless until we got an e-mail address for them. That’s thousands and thousands of contacts.
Levine-Miller: Who compares with David Merrick today?
Ellis: Cameron Macintosh.
Badden Pappa: I worked on another Off-Broadway show, Secrets of a Soccer Mom, and it didn’t sell. Someone would have to be willing to put a lot of money into it to put up the message.
Levine-Miller: Wicked and Motown did not get good reviews. How did they become such brilliantly successful shows, without star power?
Schulman: Wicked became about “girl power.” It tapped into something. They had found their voice. And The Book of Mormon has tapped into something.
Filichia: In the old days, Rosalind Russell was in Wonderful Town. She left. By the time she left, it was a hit. Now it’s hard, because you can’t make your money back in a year. So I understand the point of view of not having stars, because replacing them really is hell.
Ellis: Yul Brynner was an amazing person to get on the air. The Andrew Sisters were apparently very difficult when they were doing Over Here.
Levine-Miller: The “immigrants” that come here and don’t have the theatrical savvy. How do you get them to adapt and cooperate? And what do you do when they don’t?
Schulman: It’s a challenge even when they cooperate. George C. Scott was an angel, as far as I was concerned. He was very helpful. But it’s a challenge. We all have battle scars—emotionally, not physically. On the other hand, it’s called “show business.” Generally stars have a percentage. So it behooves them to cooperate.
Badden Pappa: Billy Crystal was lovely. You couldn’t leave that theater without being charmed by him. He didn’t need to do press, though. Now, it’s written into contracts that you need to do a certain amount of press. And it’s in their best interests to do press.
Schulman: Dream was a challenge—using Johnny Mercer’s lyrics as the basis of the show. For every number, the cast came out and danced to the song before they sang the lyrics. So right away you knew they didn’t trust the lyrics to the songs. So the concept to the show was a little off.
Ellis: I had a closer relationship to Yul Brynner than I had to my own father. He was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. The most wonderful part of it was the adventure of Yul Brynner. He was a Renaissance man. There wasn’t an area he didn’t know about, or people in show business he didn’t know. The sad part was witnessing his declining health, and announcing his death was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do. He lived three months longer than the doctors predicted. The irony was that I lived through his jumping up from his deathbed every day in The King and I.
Filichia: Critics have no friends. We don’t get to be close to anybody. There was a very difficult entertainer, who drove me crazy in so many interviews,
Schulman: We’re all in this together: press agents, journalists, critics. That’s my philosophy. We’re not adversarial. The same thing with a critic. You write something terrible about my show, I know it’s not personal. I might even agree with them. We all know where the bodies are buried.
Ellis: Certain members of the press had a sense of entitlement that drove me crazy: Nicholas Nickleby was maybe the most fabulous smashes of the 20th century. Did I need to get a gossip columnist to get in, when the show was completely sold out? They’d had three months to get in! That became the end of that relationship.