THEY USED to call us "The Girls,'" snorts Elizabeth McCann, a consummate snorter, after several male producers have paid obeisance to her table at Sardi's. "Now they call us 'The Ladies.'"
And well they might. Today's producers are either firms -- the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, the Kennedy Center -- or, for the most part, men.
But McCann and her partner Nelle Nugent have a record that would be the envy of any organization: four hits in four times at bat.
It's a rare accomplishment for women, and even more extraordinary for a Broadway producing team which got its first billing less than four years ago. The duo came up with "Dracula," which ran on 45th Street for more than two years, during which time three other companies started traveling.
Next came "The Elephant Man," which won top awards and presently boasts two American companies.
Last season the pair turned a 40-year-old play, previously admired but never by packed houses, into the most admired ensemble production of the season, "Morning's at 7." Before the season had ended, they brought up from Off-Broadway a black drama which had its partisans for both Pulitzer and Tony awards, "Home."
In her early 50s, McCann is the older, seemingly more cynical partner -- her white hair cropped short with bangs across her forehead. Her father was a New York subway motorman.
"As a girl I knew more about the third rail than I did about theater," she says. "I got hooked, though, early. When I felt I wasn't getting anywhere in my 30s, I earned a law degree. That's why Jimmy Nederlander hired me. He'd always wanted to be a lawyer himself, but theater is his Detroit family's business."
Nugent, a dashingly elegant blond in her early 40s, didn't have any theater background either. Her father was a New Jersey lawyer and her early career found her stage-managing such plays as "Any Wednesday," "After the Rain" and "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg."
Although they do not come from theatrical families, McCann and Nugent are hardly new to Broadway. For a dozen years before teaming up, they'd worked as executives for the Nederlander organization, getting experience the hard way in all phases of production, becoming both knowledgeable and respected.
About 10 years ago, "we went at a cocktail party. I think," says McCann with that vague air of trying to recall how a longtime relationship began.
Nugent recalls that "after Skidmore, I'd done graduate work in theater with the sole intention of getting involved somehow. I was an assistant stage manager when I went to that party. Already managing director for the Nederlanders, Liz got me into the firm, where I became associate managing director."
"We did everything," McCann says, "because the Nederlanders had a lot of theaters to keep lighted. In a single day we'd work with such different types of creative people as Hal Prince, Roger Stevens, Liberace and The Who. We had a lot to do with Washington because at that time the Nederlanders were booking both the National and the Post Pavilion at Columbia."
"I got to be the backstage one," says Nugent, "from my stage-managing expreience, dealing with stage equipment, casts and production. Liz was the front-of-the-house expert, coping with contracts, producers, unions and finances."
"It was the experience which gave us the guts to tack out on our own," says McCann. In the mid-'70s, "We did tours of the D'Oyly Carte company and 'Porgy and Bess.' We managed 'Sherlock Holmes,' 'London Assurance' and 'Other-wise Engaged.'
"I'd worked with such managers as Maurice Evans, Saint Subber and Hal Prince and when I insisted to Jimmy Nederlander that 'My Fat Friend' had a chance, he made me its co-producer."
That doesn't mean that team won't be working as managers with other producers. This season they'll have chores with those two warring factions, the Shuberts and the Nederlanders. With the former, they'll be associated on Peter Shaffer's National-bound "Amadeus" and with the latter on another British import.
"What we enjoy, really enjoy," says Nugent, "is getting recognizable quality for our own productions. That was evident in our first independent venture, those 'Dracula' settings by Edward Gorey. That was a class production, though no other producers wanted any part of it. So we moved in. Because we'd worked with Richmond Crinkley before, he called on us to join him with 'The Elephant Man.' Roy Larsen has been a faithful partner on our four shows but gives us leadership credit."
Neither McCann nor Nugent describes herself as a feminist, though they're increasingly looked to as leaders.
"I don't think anything happened to us one way or the other because we were women," says Nugent. "Getting started in theater in any capacity is hard enough. We're rooted entirely on sheer professionalism. We've gotten along because we do good, solid, finished work -- and, of course, a lot of worrying.
"What are we most proud of?" says Nugent. "I guess it's always what we're doing now. We've taken a big chance by moving the Negro Ensemble Company's 'Home' to Broadway because we have faith in it. Spent a small fortune on Felix E. Cochren's new set, too. And we're wildly proud of our 'Mourning's at 7' production [coming to the Eisenhower next spring].
"Director Vivian Matalon revived that one, twice a New York failure, last summer in Illinois. I'd been stage manager for him on 'After the Rain' and he pressed us to go out to see it."
"It's that cast we're most proud of," says McCann, "everyone in it and Bill Rittman's set. I can't believe that our stars and everybody didn't sweep the Tonys but I guess that in the voting they canceled each other out. Still, our 'most successful revival' category didn't even get air time on the Tony cast. Now that, I think -- I damned well know -- is unfair. Is it because we and those stars are women? I don't know."
Women have a long and venerable tradition in the theater. Eva Le Gallienne created the Civic Repertory Theater and the American Repertory Theater to produce scores of plays. Irene Selznick, daughter of Louis B. Mayer, produced such stage works as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Bell, Book and Candle" and "The Chalk Garden." And Cheryl Crawford, a casting director for the Theatre Guild, was a founder of the Group Theater and for 40 years independently produced such works as "Brigadoon," "Camino Real" and "Paint Your Wagon." With Le Gallienne and Margaret Webster she was a founder of the American Repertory Theater.
Theresa Helburn, Helen Westley and Armina Marshall were on the producing board on the Theatre Guild for years, stretching from its beginnings to "Absurd Person Singular."
Where did all the women producers go after those illustrious trail-blazers set such standards?
Admittedly, Maxine Fox, with several associates, did co-produce "Grease," the long-lived smash which introduced such names as Barry Bostwick, Richard Gere and Judy Kaye. Adele Holtzer did produce several unmentionables and wound up in the law courts.
Starting as a publicist, Jean Dalrymple veered into independent producing, introducing Sartre to America with "Red Gloves" and becoming a vital force for the New York City Center Theater Company and its musical counterpart. f
Away from the Broadway game of chance, Zelda Fichandler of Washington's Arena Stage has inspired far more men than women, as did her Texas predecessors, the late Nina Vance and Margo Jones.
As associate producers in recent years you've noted such as Gladys Rackmil, Judy Manos, Cyma Rubin, Diana Shumlin, Mildred Alberg and Caroline Swann. But until McCann and Nugent, there was no one to compare with the Le Gallienne, Crawford and Zelznick independence.
And now another feminine team is forming for a new musical next season.
It will be produced by Mary K. Frank, an Ohioan whose multi-faceted career includes wartime service as instructor in navigation to Navy and Army personnel. She also has been a reporter, a dress designer, and insurance salesman and a cattle rancher.
Back in the 1950s, Frank was co-producer for such plays as "Tea and Sympathy," "Too Late the Phalarope" and "One More River." Now she's selling her Arizona ranch to get back to stage production.
The play is "Happy Birthday," the comedy Anita Loos wrote for her friend Helen Hayes when the latter complained she was weary of playing noble queens. Judy Holliday wrote the lyrics to the Loos script shortly before she died, with the idea of using it as a vehicle for herself. Now composing music to the Holliday words is Sharon Roark, an Aspen, Colo., housewife whose children now have settled into their own lives.
Imogene Coca is being paged for the part of the mousy librarian and admits she's decidedly interested. "Now," chuckles Loos, "if we can only get Helen Gallagher to direct! Helen's not only been a great dancer and performer, she's choreographed and directed an earlier version of this in Birmingham. The timing for Helen would be so right."
But "this doesn't mean that we're trying to have an all-feminist production," says the authaor of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." "I've never gone for that stuff. I've always just gone and done my work best I can.
"As a rule, I find women far more interesting, amusing than men, though certain men have certainly stimulated me.
"Now, I'm doing an unexpected dip back into the past. I've an assignment to do a profile on Lillian Gish. She, her sister Dorothy and Mary Smith (who became Mary Pickford) were all in my first movie, 'The New York Hat.' That" -- Loos groans at the very idea of having to search that far back in her mind -- "was in 1912. I far prefer to live in the present and the future."