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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Roy A. Somlyo

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-24

Roy A. Somlyo is building the stage for Broadway's next generation.

"Theater doesn't only mean actors," the veteran producer and manager said yesterday. "It means producers, writers, set designers, stage hands, accountants, box-office personnel, lighting experts, make-up people, musicians, composers - it's a long list."

His list consists of 23 different disciplines.

"Few people are aware of this," Mr. Somlyo said. "Theater is an extraordinarily intricate and complicated business. You can learn it by being in it, of course. But I feel it's far better to begin to experience how these disciplines unfold on Broadway while you're still at school."

He's developing a program under which high school and college students from all over America will travel to New York. They will spend two or three days under the tutelage of Broadway veterans. They will attend the theater, and go backstage. And then they will be given the opportunity to maintain continuing contact with the industry in the expectation that the students will want to pursue careers in theater.

Mr. Somlyo will be their mentor, sharing his experience of producing or managing more than 100 Broadway and touring shows. He will share, too, his experience of working in both theater and television: Mr. Somlyo was affiliated as a producer with the annual Tony Awards telecast for 35 years, and currently is responsible for arranging the broadcast of the prestigious Drama Desk Awards on public television. A producer of many television specials, he also served as president of the American Theater Wing for five years.

"I have always enjoyed training young people," Mr. Somlyo said, reflecting on his career.

The people who have benefited from his benevolence - many of them now top producers and managers - characterize him as a living legend, even if a tough and demanding one whose smarts extend to every nook and cranny of theater.

"I don't know if I could call it 'smarts,' but I do know that I became familiar with every aspect of a theatrical production since my college days," Mr. Somlyo said.

His reference was to the time that he spent at Wayne State University in Detroit as an economics major. During those four years, Mr. Somlyo - one of five children of Ben and Irma Somlyo of Detroit - joined a band of students who'd formed a theater group called the Actors Company. With his training in economics, his leadership traits, and his willingness to work long hours without significant compensation, Mr. Somlyo quickly became the group's business driving force.

He also developed enduring friendships with colleagues who went on to achieve stardom in theater and television - Lloyd Richards, America's leading black director on Broadway and a dean of the Yale School of Drama; actors Clement Fowler and Michael Tolan; writer Russell Beggs; and James Lipton, who helped create the Actors Studio Drama School.

Those friendships came in handy when, like his colleagues, Mr. Somlyo moved to New York after graduation.

"Everybody helped one another," he said. "It's not that there wasn't competition for jobs. But actors traded information about what was available. It was just a more genteel time."

It was also a time of pinching pennies.

"We were so broke most of the time that we usually shared meals," Mr. Somlyo said. "That's how I learned to use chopsticks. The cheapest restaurants were Chinese - we ordered family style, and dishes would be put at the center of the table. Everybody would dig in. If you didn't know how to eat with chopsticks, you didn't get to eat."

Mr. Somlyo's fortunes improved considerably when he found work in summer theater on Cape Cod.

"We worked round the clock," he said. "In the mornings and afternoons I sold tickets. Then I collected tickets at the door. Then I moved scenery on the stage. At times, it was necessary to do walk-on roles. Then at the end of the show I painted scenery for the next show. Early the next morning, I distributed posters, flyers and advertisements. Then I helped the theater pay its bills. Then it was back to selling tickets."

It may have seemed like indentured labor, but for the young Mr. Somlyo summer theater offered an invaluable opportunity to learn about the business of theater.

"There aren't opportunities like that anymore," he said. "As business manager, you're pretty much left to yourself. It's not considered a particularly glamorous job. But as I saw it, what could be better? I had a job that I enjoyed, I got paid, and it was summer on the Cape."

There was another bonus, too - the opportunity to meet and mingle with stars. Among Mr. Somlyo's assignments was to receive actors at the local airport. It was also his task to give them drama reviews when they were published in the Boston newspapers.

As he would discover during one such delivery run, being a messenger was fraught with perils.

"One Monday morning, I walked to the cottage that Luise Rainer occupied," Mr. Somlyo said. "Here she was - the first actor to receive back to back Oscars, and now her career was not so flamboyant. I knocked on her door, and told her that I had the latest reviews."

"Come in, the door is open," Ms. Rainer said.

Mr. Somlyo walked in. The actress, a petite beauty, stood there completely naked.

"Should I come back?" Mr. Somlyo said to Ms. Rainer.

"No, no, sit down, read the review out loud," Ms. Rainer said. She had played the role of the ethereal Ellida in Henrik Ibsen's "The Lady From The Sea."

"I started reading the review, and she continued standing in front of me totally nude," Mr. Somlyo said. "I was aghast. Suddenly, she started beating her breasts."

"What do they say about me, me, me?" Ms. Rainer shouted.

Mr. Somlyo raced to the reviewer's assessment of the actress - which was positive - and then dashed out.

Did he really, now?

Mr. Somlyo smiled.

"It was, shall we say, a revealing moment," he said.

His stint in summer theater led to jobs as company manager and general manager on Broadway. Among the producers and organizations he worked with closely were David Merrick, Gilbert Miller, the Theater Guild, and Alexander Cohen for two decades.

Mr. Somlyo still works with Peter Brook, the celebrated director - an association that he considers "my most privileged and proudest."

"It used to be that a Broadway producer not only financed and put together a show, but also had considerable creative input in the production," Mr. Somlyo said. "But now, regrettably, the producer is primarily a fund raiser. With as many as 20 producers on a typical musical production, no producer is really a creative partner."

One partnership he found while at Merrick's office on Broadway was with Nancy Rifici, who worked at the time for impresario Sol Hurok.

It was a creative partnership that has resulted in a marriage of nearly 50 years - and has produced two spin-offs, David, a record producer, and Lauren McGowan, who works at Channel Thirteen. And they, too, each have a boy and a girl.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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