Transcribed by Yaffi , Edited by Sarah
I had a chance to chat with Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who is Director of Programming at Feinstein’s/54 Below and author of The Untold Stories of Broadway series. We discussed her upcoming book, how she comes up with shows for Feinstein’s/54 Below, and more.
Joy: You are a Broadway historian, right?
How did you start that? Did you go to school for that?
I have always said I wanted to be a theatre historian, but it’s more of a title you get after you have done a body of work. It’s not really like a job that you can “get”, per se. So a lot of theatre historians are also directors, professors, artistic directors, producers, etc., and they have different kinds of jobs. So I would say that the work that I do, including If It Only Even Runs A Minute, my concert series, is historian work. And other things I’ve been doing recently, like my TEDxBroadway talk or being part of panels or giving talks about theatre history, and writing my books, Untold Stories of Broadway, like all of that… those things make me a theatre historian, but it’s not like you can apply to be one. So it’s weird. It’s a title, but not a job in itself.
What made you start that, though?
I have always been fascinated by theatre history as well as theatre of the present, and I love studying how they connect. I grew up in Florida, and I studied theatre before I really saw it. I was fascinated by learning about it from afar, through cast recordings and through books and through, like, you know, the Tony Awards and other things that I saw on TV and on video. I think that kind of made me have a historian brain because I was teaching myself about it rather than actually seeing it firsthand — like, I didn’t go to Broadway and then want to learn about it. I wanted to learn about it and then I went to Broadway.
How old were you when you saw your first Broadway show?
When I saw my first Broadway show I was 14, but I started studying all this stuff intensively when I was 9.
What was your first Broadway show?
It was The Full Monty.
With naked guys and everything?
There are some naked guys at the end. Actually I was 14, but my sister was 9 so that was very interesting. And we were in the front row!
So what made you choose that show to be your first show?
I knew I wanted to see a new American musical that had an original score and I knew — you know, before I had ever been to New York I could have told you everything that was playing, who wrote everything that was playing, who was starring in it, what streets they were on. I knew it. I mean, I picked the first shows I wanted to see on my first New York trip and my mom was like, we will go see x famous show and I was like, no, you can see x famous show on tour. I want to see something new, that still has its original cast, that you can only see in New York right now! I refused to have my first Broadway show be something we could see on tour.
You are like the head producer here at 54 below?
I am the Director of Programming, which means I am in charge of everything that gets onto our stage, basically.
How do you pick what gets onto your stage?
It’s a combination of so many different factors. It’s figuring out what can essentially sell 147 seats, what can, you know, get the ticket price we need to get in order to keep our doors open and pay the acts enough. You know, we are a very Broadway-centric venue, so it’s saying, I think this musical in concert would be interesting. Who do we need to get involved in order to make that happen in a way that will be a successful production, and that will sell, and that will be exciting? It’s combining like a bunch of factors. And at any given time, I might come up with headliners that we could have, or new solo acts we can have, or writers we can celebrate. Or on the flip side, people might come to me, and then I might help them put the pieces together to figure out an idea that they have had and how to get that on stage. My job is negotiating all these puzzle pieces to make a show happen. Also, for example, like — I don’t even know who — like Cher obviously wouldn’t play here because if Cher was going to do a show, she would do a much larger venue, but even though Patti LuPone could do a larger venue, Patti LuPone says I love doing cabaret; I want to do 14 performances over two weeks of an engagement instead of having all those people see me one night, because it’s a different kind of art form. So there are certain artists we wouldn’t have because they are technically just too big for this kind of venue. And there are also artists we wouldn’t have because we aren’t the kind of venue where their audiences would necessarily come. As mentioned, we are very Broadway-centric. Although, we do some comedy, we do branch out into other genres as we can find audiences. We aren’t the most expensive or least expensive venue – we’re in that mid-range. We charge what we need to in order to pay what’s needed to the people we want to get to play here, as long as we feel audiences will pay that ticket price.
Yes. That’s a big part of how it works. So if you see a show that’s $35, that act is getting paid less than an act that gets $75 because they say I need x money to play here, and we figure out that we have to charge $75 to pay them. Then we figure out yes, audiences will pay that much to see x person, and there we are. We can do the show.
Right. That makes sense. I was always wondering why is this one so much more money. Like of course, always the ones I want to come to are the ones that are tons of money.
If you think about it, if someone is flying in, if someone is paying for hotels, you know, if someone is paying seven band members versus three band members, all of those things cost more. Some artists have more people to pay than others–or even more things to pay for: orchestrations, rehearsals of new material, etc. There are plenty of really exciting acts that want to play here and we want them to play here, but we don’t feel like we can get audiences to pay the dollar amount it would cost to have them play here.
Have you ever had someone booked that you were, like, really excited for and then it didn’t do that well?
Oh, all the time. The thing is that like, you know, it’s so tricky. Like we have shows that sell out constantly that feature artists people never heard of and we have shows that do badly constantly that are filled with really famous people. So you can’t predict a show will do, based on level of fame or following! You also can’t predict it based on talent. Sales are a combination of so many factors. While fame and talent are two of those factors, there are so many more. How often is that person performing in New York City? Have they performed somewhere recently in the area with a similar audience base to ours, at a cheaper ticket price? How many outlets have picked up the information about their show? Is there a storm that night? Is there a large group sale that night, independent from the artist? Is there big news about that artist that happens right around the time of their show? Was their show put on sale last minute? Did a famous person attend and tweet about it? Do they have one fan who happened to buy 30 tickets? There are any number of factors that contribute to sales.
Like BroadwayCon this year it snowed.
Totally. That was crazy!
And they had like a million people they had to give money back to.
They handled all of it so well.
That was ridiculous but it was fun.
What is your favorite show that you worked on?
You know, there are so many shows I’m proud to have worked on here. There have been literally thousands since I started, so it’s not possible to pinpoint a favorite. I love working with artists who I have looked up to and admired for years, like Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, and on the other side, I love working with artists who I have kind of come up with and collaborated with for years. One example of that was this past Sunday, when Julia Mattison did a show here. Julia is someone I have known for many years – we worked on Godspell together, which she made her Broadway debut in.
You were the producer on that, right?
I actually was the Marketing & Communications Director, for Ken Davenport, who was the producer of Godspell. I was a “People of Godspell”, which is what we called our community of producers, so I guess technically I was a producer on it as well. Julia does this show called Ruby Manger where she is this fake cabaret and Broadway star named Ruby Manger, and she does an entire show that’s like a fake career retrospective. It’s just one of the funniest things that you have ever seen. So a thing like that, where I get to work with Julia, or with people like Charlie Rosen or Joe Iconis, that I have collaborated with for a long time, to make new things happen here — that’s really exciting.
You have a lot of posters on your walls. Which one is your favorite, and how do you choose which shows to put up?
I picked these posters because when we moved into these offices, I grabbed my favorites of all the extra posters I had in my apartment. So these are special shows to me, but they’re not necessarily top 10, it was a bit more random.
Who would you like to work with in the future that you haven’t worked with yet?
That’s a really good question. There are certainly a lot of people that I would love to do solo shows here that haven’t done them yet for whatever reason. One that I always think of is Krysta Rodriguez. She and I have spoken about it a number of times, and I know that when the timing is right, it’ll happen. And then there are people I’d love to work with someday, in some capacity… like my favorite actress of all time, Elizabeth Moss, is right there on the Heidi Chronicles poster. I’d love to work with her someday, on something.
That’s cool. Krysta though did perform here. I have seen videos of her.
Yes. She has performed here a lot, which is awesome.
And I saw her at the Spring Awakening one. I don’t really come that often here because, like, the food charge that’s annoying because I keep kosher.
Totally. Totally. We have lots of talks about trying to have kosher options, and it’s just been not possible so far — we are always trying to figure out if we can, and having that discussion.
So like, one time I came and I didn’t even order a drink because I wasn’t thirsty and I still paid 25 dollars.
But the same time when I do come, every time I come I am like wow, this show is really cool.
That’s good to hear.
So your books that you wrote — how did you get people to give you stories, and how did you find the people?
Some were people I already knew, and then a lot were people I just reached out to cold to ask for an interview.
I never tweet asks like that, if I have any other way of reaching someone, because I don’t want to put people on the spot to say yes or no publicly.
Oh, so I did that to you. I’m sorry.
No, it’s different because you and I know each other. It’s totally different. That’s fine, but I always e-mail or I write notes and drop them at stage doors or at offices. I do it that way just because I don’t want to put anyone on the spot. And then some interviews came because people I knew connected me to others. The whole interview process with the books is a puzzle, because I might know: Okay, I need a stagehand from the Lyric, or someone who worked at the St. James in the 1940s, or a woman’s perspective on this decade, or a person of color’s perspective on this Broadway show. I try to fit all of the pieces together to tell the fullest story possible.
And it obviously worked out well. Are you going to write another book?
Jen: Yes. I am working on book three right now, which is supposed to come out in November, so good luck to me.
Good luck. You have it already mostly organized, I guess?
Yes. As I’ve been interviewing people for 3 years, I’ve been cataloguing what they say about theaters that I have yet to write about. So, I have a lot of existing material that I’ve had for years. Then it’s just a matter of shaping it, doing research and editing, and my own writing, and really creating a book.
Have you been to every theatre and on their stage and everything?
No, I haven’t been backstage or onstage at every theatre. In fact, I kind of like that. I don’t want to have been backstage at every theater, because I don’t want that to be over. I want to save some. And it’s always special when your first time seeing something backstage is because someone or a show you care about is working and happening there.
That’s cool. So like when your friends are in it, you don’t always go backstage to see them?
No. I kind of like to save some theaters for later. I know I’ll get to them.
I have never been backstage at the Golden. I have never been backstage at the Imperial. I don’t know. There is a good bunch that I have yet to see.
A good bunch?
Interesting. I figured you for sure have been in like every theatre because you are involved.
Yes, no. It’s like you want to save some things.
How do you describe your job in one sentence?
A lot of artists, a lot of shows. That’s one sentence but I guess it’s also — I am very lucky to be able to work with so many people that I admire on shows that I think is important and should be seen every week. That’s really what it is.
It’s true. Everyone is like, when I am working in the city and I haven’t gone to see a show that day, so what show are you seeing today, what show did you see yesterday? I am like, I don’t see a show every day. Like, that’s what people think I do. I don’t. I really don’t.
Not every day.
Do you have a motto for your life and your job?
That’s a great question. I always try to give 200 percent. I think people who succeed are those who take things all the way. My goal is to always put the most effort possible into something, because I don’t think it’s worth doing otherwise. And even if that thing is something you kind of don’t want to be doing, you should still give 200 percent. If you do a really great job at it, then maybe you don’t have to ever do it again, or maybe you just showed everybody you are really good at that thing and can move onto the next. Either way, I think putting in a lot of effort is always going to get you very far. I try to live by that.
I agree with that. What’s the best advice someone gave you?
That’s a good question too. I’ve been told this by a lot of different people in different ways. Embrace what’s unique about you and about what you want to do. Don’t try to fit in any existing mold. You have talents that no one else has. You can make your own path and it might be a job or a combination of jobs that no one else has ever done before in quite the same way. If you just do what you are passionate about, and cultivate your talents, you will find the right people and projects and they will find you. Every job I’ve ever gotten has been because I was doing something on my own and someone said: oh, she’s good at that, let’s pay her to do it. So there are so many unconventional paths to jobs and you just have to stick with what you believe in and be persistent.
Exactly. I was not getting Broadway jobs and I was like, you know, I am just going to create my own job.
That’s amazing. I think that’s so great.
I mean, I don’t really make so much money from it.
But you will, or maybe something else will