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Rick Steiner, '70

Rick Steiner, '70
Producing The Producers

When entertainment industry mogul David Geffen decided he didn't have the time to produce the stage version of Mel Brooks's musical comedy, The Producers, Brooks staged a reading to see if there was anyone else interested in the show.
There was.

"Everybody wanted to produce the show," said Rick Steiner, '70. "Wouldn't you want someone to do a romanticized, funny version of your life story? I mean, that's what we all dreamed about when we began - 'I wanna be a producer and wear a tux on opening night. I wanna be a producer and see my name in neon lights.'"

Producers, like Steiner, act as a show's board of directors. Usually, they initiate a project and hire the creative talent, as well as handle the budget and other management tasks. But Mel Brooks's project was partly finished, so Brooks was auditioning producers to negotiate contracts, manage the day-to-day details, and raise money.

He also was looking for a theater, which gave Steiner an edge over the competition—his business partner and childhood friend Rocco Landesman is president of the Jujamcyn theater chain that includes Broadway's prestigious St. James. Landesman approached Brooks during the reading's intermission and offered him the theater. Not long after, Steiner and Landesman were cast as one of the show's eight producing entities that raised a total of $10.5 million.

Now, of course, The Producers is the largest Broadway hit in history, with 12 Tony Awards, $38 million in advance ticket sales, and a weekly gross of $1.1 million. This is astronomical, given that a show is considered successful if—as Steiner put it—it recoups "the investment plus one dollar." Even then, 80 percent of Broadway productions flop.

Because of the dismal rate of return, Steiner—who has a talent for raising money—recruits investors who enjoy the prestige factor. "This is a fun investment for folks with a lot of money," he said. "This is not money you need in order to eat. You don't measure your return as, OK, I made 32.6 percent this year. This is the kind of investment you talk about at cocktail parties."

But The Producers blew away that conventional wisdom.

"We've started to use business school terms that we don't normally associate with theater, like inventory. What is our ticket inventory? We have this great problem, which is that we have limited capacity—1,720 folks a night—and unlimited demand. Even though we raised ticket prices to $100 after opening, we've had to cut back our advertising and marketing. It still just sort of rolls to us," Steiner said.

The black market price for tickets, he added, is $600 a pop.

Though he is also a successful venture capitalist and world-champion poker player, theater is in Steiner's blood. His grandmother was an actress in a George M. Cohan show; his mother's closest childhood friend was composer and lyricist Frank Loesser. Steiner himself did summer stock as a child and grew up listening to show tunes from Guys and Dolls and South Pacific. He peppers his conversations with snatches of dialogue and lyrics from Broadway past and present.

Steiner's producing career started almost 20 years ago, when he and Landesman tried to convince country music singer Roger Miller—best known for "King of the Road"—to compose a musical based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Miller was convinced and Big River won seven Tonys in 1985, including best musical.

"I lost 20 pounds before the Tonys that first year, I was so worried. I didn't even realize then how much was riding on them. If we hadn't won, we would have closed, and Roc and I would have been out of the business. We were lucky. We were good, plus we caught a weak field. And we got launched," Steiner said.

Steiner and Landesman followed that success with Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, their only show that has not yet fully returned its investment; The Secret Garden, based on the classic children's book; and Broadway's longest-running musical revue, Smokey Joe's Café.

Steiner currently is working on a musical based on the western Shane, but he knows that he never will repeat the success of The Producers. "We're very blessed. This show is a phenomenon, and it will never happen to us again in our lifetimes," Steiner said. "The idea is to stay at the top with this thing, but we'll never top it. Ever."

—Jennifer Vanasco

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