Jennifer Tepper on working with her idols at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below & on USOB

Interviewing Jennifer Tepper was kind of surreal for me. For those who don’t know, Jen is my boss. I have been interning on her book The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 3 where I transcribe interviews she’s conducted. So all I’ve done since last October is listen to Jen interviewing other people. Now I’m interviewing her. It’s a full-circle moment, something which she says she experiences often when working with her idols at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, where she’s the Director of Programming. She is known for producing many insanely amazing concerts and shows as well as for her work as a Broadway historian. My favorite thing about Jen is her relentless positivity and promotion of everything theatre. She grew up in Florida, surrounded by theatre.

jenniferandichicago

From a Theatre Nerd to a Broadway Historian

“I grew up in Boca Raton, Florida. South Florida was definitely very influential on my love of theatre. I feel like South Florida nurtures theatre kids in a very specific way because there’s so many snowbirds, older people, who want to attend musicals and go see shows. Our local high school sold out 12 performances of our musicals every year because there were all of these elderly people in the community. And there’s all these touring houses and regional theatres and just theatre stuff going on, which I think largely has to do with having that population,” Jen says, and then her eyes flicker with a new thought.

“I went to a summer theatre camp and that was life-changing,” she says, a preface for a story. “My mom and I always joke about this. My parents are both in medicine, but they love musicals so we’d go to touring productions of A Chorus Line and Fiddler on the Roof when I was young and I liked them, but the real reason I kind of got involved in theatre was because [of what happened] when I was 9. My best friend from school and camp [was a girl named] Rachel and her and I loved each other, we were best friends, but like 9 year olds do, we would just fight because we were together all the time. So our moms, who were also really good friends, were like, ‘Well, you can go to school together all year, but you just can’t go to camp together this year. So either Rachel has to go to sports camp or Jen has to go to theatre camp.’ I think they literally flipped for it, and I went to theatre camp when I was 9 and that’s really what sparked everything: being in Annie when I was 9. Every summer at camp was really influential because, not only did we get to do shows, but I was surrounded by people who loved theatre and we would become obsessed with cast recordings and we had this community of nerds together.

“‘Then, I counted down the hours until I could start going to this high school, Olympic Heights. I had babysitters and camp counselors who had gone there and I was like, ‘All of their shows are so cool!’ And they would do individual songs and take them around to the community and also participate in competitions, which was amazing to me. Once I was there, I was President of our drama department my senior year and competed in a lot of theatre competitions. That kind of shaped my brain a lot because, not only did I love performing in them, but after a little while, I realized that I didn’t want to perform for a career, but I loved picking other people’s songs and finding out what the new musicals are that everyone is doing at competition and researching new writers. That all blended into what I’ve ended up doing with my life in some weird blender way of things,” she says.

“Who influenced you growing up?” I ask.

“What’s really funny and crazy that I’ve been thinking about is that we have had an extraordinary number of performers that I kind of worshipped [as a kid] at 54 Below in a span of a couple of months. We had Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley who were my favorites, and then we have  Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal coming up, who I also loved as a tween and teen. That’s a really fun part about 54 Below is having those people come back into my orbit in a professional capacity.

“I also had a lot of influential experiences of seeing people do stuff in my hometown. At theatre camp when I was ten, the teen group did Hair and I remember seeing all four performances that they did and being obsessed with it and [thinking], What a crazy musical that does all these crazy things that I didn’t know musicals could do. And it was performed by all these teenagers who I thought were the coolest people ever. We did Hair at 54, it all comes full circle at 54 Below, and I was just like, I loved the revival on Broadway so much, but no matter what, Hair is always going to bring me back to being in this auditorium in Boca with these sixteen year olds who I was in love with because I was ten years old singing those songs. I have a lot of those experiences.

“As far as people I admired and was like, I want to learn more about what they do and have similar careers to them, I was obsessed with Ken Mandelbaum’s book Not Since Carrie, which is one of my favorite books. And then, Ted Chapin, who wrote Everything Was Possible, another favorite book, [who was] also the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and former head of the American Theatre Wing. Ira Weitzman, who was very influential in the development of new musicals. There were a lot of people like that who did specific things in the theatre that had to do with being a historian, producing, or making musicals happen, that were kind of their own jam, who I really admired and looked up to and learned more about from books.”

“What was your first Broadway show?” I ask next, thinking about what theater she saw her first show in and how that impacted the future Broadway historian.

“The first Broadway show I ever saw was The Full Monty which is funny because David Yazbek was here [recently] and I was thinking about it. That was really exciting and important and validating for me as someone who wanted to work in the theatre because it was my first time in New York and I knew that I really wanted to see a new show that I hadn’t seen, that had its original cast, and that had a new score. My mom had gotten us tickets to something that didn’t fall into any of those categories and we begged her to sell them and we got rush seats to Full Monty instead and I’m really happy that was my first Broadway show. I remember sitting in the front row of the Eugene O’Neill and like looking back at the audience and being like, ‘This is what a Broadway theater with an audience looks like.’”

“I love that,” I say. “So how did you choose NYU and how did moving to New York for college influence your career?

“It’s so funny because [I’ve been thinking about this lately] because I moved to New York in August 2004. I only applied to NYU. I knew that I really wanted to be in New York for school. I had only visited New York three times before I moved here but I knew I was going to learn the most from being in New York because I was so interested in studying what the Broadway industry was. So if I had wanted to study acting or directing, it might have been a different choice, but I wanted to learn, What is New York theatre? What are the theaters? So I applied to Dramatic Writing, because I did a little bit of playwriting in high school and I liked it, but mostly I really liked writing in general, especially writing about theatre, so I thought it would be a good fit for me. I spent 4 years at Tisch being an oddball in Dramatic Writing because I wanted to talk about musical theatre documentaries and write about New York and mostly people just wanted to watch The Godfather and write Indie films. But, I also ended up shaping my own curriculum: by taking a lot classes outside my department and through internships and going to a million shows and taking notes and teaching myself and reading a lot on my own. It was very much like New York City was my campus,” she says.

Working at Feinsten’s/ 54 Below

 

Next, I asked Jen to described her job at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below. She summed it up with a series of questions she must answer. “I essentially answer questions like, ‘Should we book this person? What should the ticket price be? What kind of content should be in their show? How many performances should it run for? Do we want to do this musical, who could we talk to that might want to direct if or who can we talk to that might give us permission?’ It’s deciding what our audiences will see and how much they’ll [pay to] see it. It’s a half and half between people reaching out to me and me figuring out how to piece their show together or it’s me thinking, This person would be good, maybe we could get this person to play a week, or This would be a good musical, and then asking people.”

“What’s it like to be working with people you look up to?” I ask, referring to her job at 54 Below, where she works with numerous performers each week, some who are Broadway legends and some who are still in college.

“You know, it’s so funny,” she begins, “I went to see Jeremy Morse as Ogie in Waitress and Jeremy and I lived across the hall from each other freshman year of college, so we go back all the way to 2004. We’ve been friends ever since. It blends together now of the people that are your [friends] who are doing such cool things like being on Broadway and going on for a principal role, and the people who you looked up to from the time you were a kid, who you now get to be friends with and work with. It’s this weird combined thing at this point, but I still get, not intimidated, but really excited around people. We just had Norbert Leo Butz, oh my god, he’s another one that I listened to so much as a kid. It’s really an honor and you realize that that’s what makes theatre great: this nurturing of generations and me getting to talk to someone six years older than me and then me getting to talk to someone ten years younger than me. Theatre is really passed down from person to person, and I think that working with these people that I looked up to really drives that point home. I have a lot to learn from being around them and they learned something from people before them that I can have passed onto me, so it’s always really cool,” she says, excitedly, and I smile thinking about how she’s the person ten years older than me who is passing down her theatre knowledge. She’s so right about how amazing the cyclical aspect of theatre is.

Being a Female in a Man’s World

Full disclosure: I didn’t know what a producer was until Smash. I also didn’t know women were producers until Eileen Rand. That may be fictional, but Jen is a real life example of a woman who is blazing her own trail in the New York theatre community.

“What is it like to be a female in a predominantly man’s world of theatre?” I ask.

“Well, what’s interesting is that I’ve become more aware of the why and what that means recently because I haven’t found that a lot of people have been discriminatory against hiring women. I’ve never had a situation where I felt like someone was hiring only men for a job, but there is this other layer, in that women don’t necessarily become producers because of the certain ways that things are structured and the certain things that come with jobs that have been predominantly male. A lot of jobs in theatre require years and years of pursuing them before you might get paid full time for them and a woman might not feel like that’s a path that she can take, and also pursue things like having a family. There are ways that women in society and their roles have conflicted with jobs in the theatre. I also think a big part of it is the world of internships that we’re in, I’ve done internships where I’ve had paid jobs at the same time to make it work. In general, you have to have some kind of support in order to do an internship and a lot of the advantages that come with progressing in the arts come with those internships and sometimes women or other people that don’t see themselves getting hired for the jobs don’t commit to those paths because they don’t know if they’ll lead [where they want them to]. So it’s all of these really weirdly complicated sources for there not being a lot of women doing something. I think it’s also a domino effect: if men are largely the producers, they’re going to produce plays that they identify with and those are plays oftentimes written by men and then if men are producing and writing the plays, then they’re going to pick a casting director who is a man and then that person is going to cast it the way a man casts a play. [On the other side of that] if you look at Fun Home, women writing that are choosing to hire other women to do things on that show, so it kind of takes the domino effect coming into play before you see a lot of change made.”

Working on The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 3

“Now I have a bunch of questions about The Untold Stories of Broadway,” I say, referring to her book series. Each volume focuses on eight Broadway theaters and Jen interviews people who have worked in various jobs in the different theaters. Then, she publishes their interviews, organized by each theater.

“You already know everything,” she says. I’ve been sleeping, eating, breathing USOB, Vol 3 for the past year. Interning on this book has taught me so much and I can’t wait for the masses to read it.

“I know a lot, but not everything,” I say, smiling. “How did you come up with the idea for it?”

“So part of it was spending so much time at the Lyceum during [title of show] and becoming so obsessed with that theater. It has so many things about it that are different from other theaters, from the abandoned dressing rooms, to the Shubert archive on top. It’s the oldest continually operating theater so it’s got a lot of details in the theater that are just old so you feel like you’ve walked into another world, like a time warp. Jeff Bowen and I would look up shows that had played there and we’d be like, ‘Oh, so and so probably had this dressing room when this show was here.’ So that really planted the seeds and then I met Brisa Trinchero and Roberta Pereira a number of years ago. Brisa had seen [a show I produce which highlights songs and stories from underappreciated musicals], If It Only Even Runs a Minute, and from that, she was like, ‘Oh, I’m starting this publishing company and would you like to pitch a book?’ The book that I had in mind had been percolating in my brain. I had thought that someday I’d write a book about the Broadway theaters themselves, so it had kind of been in there, but when they asked me to do that, I was like, This is the book I could pitch. It was something where I was like, I’ve been thinking about this and can probably write it in ten years, but, you know, you shouldn’t do that, you should do it now, because if you’re passionate about it now, you should do it now.”

If you follow Jen Tepper on any social media site, you know she’s obsessed with Hal Prince. In 2013, she interviewed him for USOB. “What was it like to interview your idol, Hal Prince?” I ask.

“Totally surreal and intimidating. Something about working in theatre and working with people now but also writing about history makes you very aware. When I walked into Hal Prince’s office, [I thought], I’m going to remember this moment forever. And forty years from now, I’m going to be able to say, ‘I interviewed Hal Prince.’ So it puts a weird amount of pressure on it and at the same time it makes you appreciate it more because you’re really aware of how special it is while it’s happening. So those are both pros, but it does make me nervous sometimes. It could not have been cooler. When I think about my interview with him, what I’m most impressed by is that, I love Hal Prince, like I worship him, I’ve read everything he’s written and then books about him and every bit of literature I could get my hands on about him and there were things that I asked him in that interview that he told me stories about that I hadn’t heard, which I was like, how crazy for this man who is probably asked the same questions over and over again to really come up with stuff that he hadn’t said. I just was so amazed by that. And I know there are some stories in Volume 3 that are going to come out about his time as an assistant stage manager prior to becoming a producer and director and I don’t think this story is anywhere else. So that was really cool. Sometimes when you interview your idols, you feel like you’re going to know everything they’re going to say, and it was really cool not to,” she says, fangirling over her idol.

“Do you have any interviews that surprised you?” I ask.

“Definitely. It’s always funny and surprising when I know more about a short-lived show than the person I’m interviewing, when I’m so excited to ask this person about an obscure show and they’re like, ‘Wait, what? Who wrote it?’ because they did it for like two months, while I’ve read about it for years. That was surprising to me at first. The Walter Kerr is in the upcoming book and there’s a musical that I was really fascinated by called Soon that played three performances and I was really excited to ask Barry Bostwick about it, and he had so many great stories and memories about other shows that he had done, but he was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, tell me about Soon.’ So that’s been funny and surprising, but once it happened a few times, I was like, Oh, this makes sense. The life of the artist is doing a lot of shows and if you only do a show for a moment, maybe you don’t remember it as well. I think a lot of people have been surprising in that, there’s his sense that people love doing their work but are not as interested in the history as I might be, but I’ve found for the most part that people are. Four of five people I interview will be like, ‘I was so excited to be at the Barrymore because this show was at the Barrymore.’ I found a lot more nerd-dom than I expected and that has been lovely.”

“That’s so cool,” I say, nerding out just like the Broadway artists she interviews.  “Do you have a favorite chapter that you’ve done for any volume?”

“What’s so funny is, I haven’t been able to stop talking about the Schoenfeld, and everyone is like, ‘Oh, that’s your favorite theater.’ And it’s not, but I’ve been so in it because I’ve been writing about it. When I was writing about the Nederlander, I was so in the Nederlander. I feel like that’s the thing with working on eight theaters at a time, you really get to know them better. I started thinking yesterday about exactly which eight theaters are in the fourth book, like, ‘It’ll be really cool to focus on the Imperial,’ not that I don’t know the Imperial, but when you’re going there thinking about a specific thing you read about from 1942, it puts this new layer of respect on the theater. So I wouldn’t say I have a favorite chapter, but it’s really amazing how much each one gets you while you’re working on it. I will say, I think I had favorite theaters before I started writing the books, but now I really love them all so much for different reasons. I would say, ‘Oh the Alvin and the Winter Garden are my favorites because of Follies and Merrily,’ you know, they were both in the first book. But then you start kind of digging into the Belasco, and you’re like, ‘That’s so special!’”

“I totally understand. Transcribing interviews about the Edison really got me, I loved working on that for the book,” I say, and Jen agrees. “Okay, this is a really silly question, but how do you pick the colors for the covers of the book?” I ask.

She laughs and says, “For the first one, we picked it and we liked it, the second one we picked it and we liked it, the third one I’m kind of like, you have to match it to the first two. But also, when we looked at the green cover initially, it had a red center and I was like, ‘That looks like Christmas.’ So we started trying out different colors for the center part. I think, we’ve always thought, ‘Oh, they’ll be red and yellow and blue and green’ for the initial colors, so I think we were like, ‘Okay, this one can be green,’ but we’re still experimenting with the detail on it.”

“I’ve always wondered that,” I say.

Jen finishes with some insight into what she has been thinking about when writing Volume 3.

“Your question about women made me think about this, I feel like, whether this is true or not, I feel like I am a better writer and a better listener and interviewer since the books started and a new focus of mine when I started interviewing [for Volume 3], was to interview the oldest people possible to make sure each chapter started as far as back in history as it could get and hopefully capture some stories from the 40s. I’ve gotten better about trying to make sure I can fill in the gaps by finding as many people to interview as I can. I think I have a ways to go, but have come a certain distance as far as inclusion of people of different races and people of different genders. It’s really interesting, I think when I started Volume 1, I didn’t think about how I should have female musicians because I should show that there are female musicians on Broadway, I just thought I wanted to represent each theater and that was it. And now, because of the world we live in and all of the conversations that are happening, I’ve started going like, ‘Okay, let me try really hard to get a female house manager,’ or  ‘If I’m talking about this show, I have an Asian actor because this show was about something that happened to the Asian community.’ What’s really hard is that it’s not my choice who says yes to doing an interview, but I’ve tried really hard to be representative in Volume 3, so that’s hopefully something that will be even better in Volume 4.

“The things I’ve heard about the book that I love the most are when someone is like, ‘I got your book because I love theatre and I didn’t understand how cool it was to be a house manager or a box office treasurer or a lighting designer,’ or these jobs that are not performing that people don’t know about as much. I love that and I want to make sure that is in the book as much as possible. There’s some info in book three on what it means to be a vocal supervisor or what it means to be a music supervisor. Then my other favorite thing is like when people say, ‘I’m going into the Richard Rodgers so I read the chapter about the Richard Rodgers.’ That is so cool. I just try to keep in mind what I want the books to do for the people who read them. It’s a responsibility that if people who are students are going to read the book, I need to represent theatre in the best way possible.”

You can purchase Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 1Volume 2 on Amazon.

 

 

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