"The National Theatre is doing better than our fondest expectations," asserts Bernard Jacobs, president of The Shubert Organization. "I think it has clearly become the most successful legitimate theater and the most sought after by producers -- outside of the city of New York."
That said, Jacobs and his partner, Gerald Schoenfeld, are not at all reluctant to assume responsibility for this happy situation.
"Well, if we don't take credit for it," says Jacobs, "I don't know who should. We've applied entrepreneurial skills to the operation. We've exercised good taste in choosing the attractions. We've established a reputation throughout the nation so that producers know they'll get the best possible shake for their productions at the National. I do believe we've had something to do with its success."
Understatement, in short, is not Jacob's forte. Still, the facts in this instance seem to bear him out. In 1980, when The Shubert Organization agreed to manage it, the National was crumbling and its governing body, the nonprofit National Theatre Corporation, was so faction-ridden as to resemble a Byzantine court. Today, resplendent after a $6-million renovation and face lift (for which The Shubert Organization advanced $1.6 million), the National is the city's premiere touring house, home of Broadway's biggest attractions and a fierce competitor for audiences who once automatically headed for the Kennedy Center.
With such popular shows as "Amadeus," "Evita," "The Pirates of Penzance," "Cats" and "42nd Street," the National's grosses went from approximately $6 million in fiscal 1981 to a record-shattering $15 million in fiscal 1984. The 27-week run of "Cats" was a virtual sellout. "42nd Street" played a 13 1/2-week engagement at 99 percent capacity, then came back for another 9 1/2 weeks and still managed 83 percent. Even with fewer musicals, which carry a higher ticket price, the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30 will rack up more than $10 million. And there's no letup in sight: Such high-powered bookings as the current "La Cage aux Folles," "Dreamgirls" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (starring Jack Lemmon) promise a continuing jingle at the National's box office.
Theater rental agreements are varied and complex. In the case of the National, the usual arrangement calls for the particular attraction to pay the weekly operating expenses of both the show and the theater, plus 8 to 10 percent of the weekly gross as rent. "Cats," for example, had weekly operating expenses of approximately $300,000. The weekly gross was $435,000. Its rent was calculated at 8 percent of the gross plus $3,000, or $37,800. The weekly profit ran at about $100,000. (A variation calls for the theater and the attraction to take their expenses out of the weekly gross, and then divide what remains -- 70 percent going to the show, 30 percent to the theater.)
Because The Shubert Organization does not own the National -- it has a 20-year contract to manage it -- profits are split 50-50 at the year's end with the National Theatre Corporation. Few endeavors are riskier than theater and one flop can wipe out the earnings of two smashes. So far, however, the National's batting average has been high. Overall profits in fiscal 1984 exceeded six figures.
If Jacobs looks like a fox -- and he does -- it's a sly fox who reached the grapes, ate them and is now proclaiming them not sour at all, but really very tasty indeed.
As the chief officers of The Shubert Organization, Jacobs and Schoenfeld (who is chairman) own and/or operate 22 1/2 theaters nationally: 16 1/2 in New York (the half being partial interest in the Music Box), two in Chicago, one in Los Angeles, one in Boston, one in Philadelphia and the National in Washington. The pricey real estate is only one aspect of the operation, however. You've got to put something in those theaters. As producers, they have been behind some of the bigger blockbusters of the past decade: "Cats," "Dreamgirls," "The Real Thing," "Nicholas Nickleby," "Dancin' " "The Gin Game" and "Children of a Lesser God." Not all their shows are moneymakers, but they forgive those that aren't, in the name of art -- the Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Sunday in the Park With George," for example, or last year's Tony-winning revival of "Joe Egg."
And since it is not enough to have the theaters and the attractions unless you market them properly, they were the first to bring the box office into the 20th century by accepting credit cards, personal checks and telephone reservations. They sponsored the discount ticket booth at Duffy Square in New York City and are now applying the wizardry of computers to the selling of theater seats. As many as 97,000 calls a week have been logged at the organization's telephone sales center on 42nd Street, which processes ticket orders for every Shubert theater nationwide.
Informally, Jacobs and Schoenfeld are known as "The Shuberts," although they are no relation to the late brothers -- Sam, Lee and J.J. Shubert -- who built the business and at one time monopolized the American theater. But the Shuberts left no heirs apparent, and in 1972, Schoenfeld and Jacobs deposed a surviving grandnephew to gain control of what had turned into a faltering organization. They have since become ubiquitous on Broadway -- at openings, union negotiations, backer's auditions, showcase productions, cast parties and Sardi's. Schoenfeld even appeared in a bit part in Woody Allen's movie, "Broadway Danny Rose." Familiarity has bred, if nothing else, nicknames: To everyone in the business, they are Bernie and Gerry.
Whatever you call them, they are the most powerful twosome on Broadway and self-appointed apologists for the commercial theater. At a time when Broadway is being pronounced dead or dying, they steadfastly proclaim its health. "The hysteria about the demise of Broadway," snaps Jacobs, "is a media myth. Broadway will always have its good years and its bad years. It's a cyclical business."
While others moan that the high cost of tickets is killing the theater, they dismiss the issue as a red herring. "Look," Jacobs says, "when ticket prices were $15 you ate in the best restaurant in New York for $15. Today, ticket prices are $45, but you eat in the finest restaurant in New York for $75 or $80." If you've got the right show, their thinking goes, the public will pay for it.
And for those who say that fewer and fewer shows are being staged from season to season, Jacobs replies, "The number of productions is meaningless. Would I be better off if I had had 10 productions at the Shubert Theatre over the past 10 years instead of the one production of 'A Chorus Line?' Would I be better off with three or four productions at the Winter Garden over the past three or four years instead of 'Cats'? I hope 'Cats' runs there for 10 or 12 years. It probably will."
These guys even see, for heaven's sake, a shining Times Square, and a pristine 42nd Street, freed from the blight of porn and drugs. Not 25 years from now, or even 10. "In four to five years," predicts Schoenfeld, who has long been at the forefront to clean up the theater district, which is to say the Shuberts' own front yard.
So much optimism could be fueled by the fact that The Shubert Organization just had its most profitable year since Jacobs and Schoenfeld took over the organization. How successful? "Well, we were losing money then -- about $2 million in 1972 -- and we're making money now," is all Jacobs will say. At least one indication is that attendance, playing weeks and grosses at Shubert theaters in New York were up by 10 percent last season, one of the worst in memory, while they were down everywhere else. But the profits are a closely guarded secret. Both Jacobs and Schoenfeld were upset when it was recently revealed in City Business, a New York publication, that their combined salaries totaled more than $1 million. It's not that they don't feel they deserve the princely remuneration, but rather that it's nobody's big business but their own.
"I wasn't as upset as Bernie," says Schoenfeld. "But I will say this. If we were the creators of any one of the hit shows we've been involved with, the amount of money we would make would far exceed whatever we are paid."
Jacobs, the older at 69, is commonly thought to be the more dour, an impression unwittingly fostered by the large bags under his eyes and the dark, conservative suits he favors. Schoenfeld, 60, has a cherubic face, a pot belly, louder ties and the joviality generally associated with the holiday punch bowl. Invariably, he is described as the more gregarious.
Jacobs lives in a brownstone on the East Side; Schoenfeld in a rented apartment on the West Side. While they both have offices above the Shubert Theatre, Jacobs' features deep burgundy walls, rich leather furniture and a painted mosaic ceiling dating from 1913 -- all suggesting the elegance of the old world impresario. Schoenfeld's goes to muted tones of gray and beige, sleek furniture and puts you in mind of an upscale airport lounge.
Jacobs says his favorite play is probably "A Streetcar Named Desire." Schoenfeld cites "Inherit the Wind" and Arnold Wesker's "Chips With Everything." When Jacobs unwinds, it's at a country house on Shelter Island. Schoenfeld prefers to take motor trips through Europe.
During an interview, Jacobs gets up to pace at least half a dozen times, breaks to answer phone calls and sign the documents his secretary regularly shuffles under his nose. Schoenfeld puts all calls on hold -- and his hands behind his head -- and leans back in his chair, as if he were sunning himself. Jacobs is restless and brusque -- an intellectual, who goes right to the crux of the issue. Schoenfeld enjoys holding forth expansively and will talk lazy circles around a point.
They pride themselves, however, on thinking very much as one, or at least never letting on publicly when they don't. As one of the old jokes puts it, when Bernie says no, he frowns; but when Gerry says no, he smiles. The real point is, of course, that they both say no.
"We're as fungible as two people can be," says Jacobs.
"I'll have my secretary look it up for you. Peggy, would you bring a dictionary in here, please," he calls out. "What I mean is that to a large extent we are interchangeable. There's nothing Gerry's doing that I'm not aware of and can't do for him, if necessary, and vice versa."
Still, if you had to divide up the duties, they would go something like this: Jacobs books the theaters, develops new attractions (he reads an average of 10 scripts a week) and tends to the care and marketing of existing productions. The fluctations of the box office entrance him and he is never so happy as when he is watching changing sales figures on a computer screen. Schoenfeld deals primarily with the theater buildings, their maintenance and renovation, and the acquisition of new properties. He also functions as the organization's unofficial lobbyist and, being somewhat more conventionally outgoing in nature, is the link to the city government of New York in the Shuberts' constant fight to upgrade the theater district.
Among Jacobs' main preoccupations right now are the myriad preproduction details for "Chess," a new musical by Tim Rice with a score by the Swedish rock group ABBA that uses the game of chess as a metaphor for international relationships. Michael Bennett will direct the show, which will open in London in April, then have its American premiere at the National in December 1986. "I believe," Jacobs says, "that 'Chess' could be the most important musical of our time." This, at any rate, is one way Shubert theaters manage to stay profitably booked.
Schoenfeld, on the other hand, is keeping his eye peeled on the Reagan administration's proposed tax legislation, especially as it involves entertainment deductions. "For a big-risk business, our profit margin is very small," he says. "Whatever dilutes the ticket-buying audience is very consequential."
Since The Shubert Organization has about 30 collective bargaining agreements with its employes -- from box office personnel to backstage electricians to pit musicians -- both executives find themselves regularly in labor negotiations. They are known as sharp bargainers, not above bringing high drama to the negotiating table. To handle the workload, they long ago decided to divide the unions up the middle -- half for one, half for the other.
But none of this means you can play Jacobs and Schoenfeld off one another. "We're on the same wave length," says Schoenfeld. "I think I may be a little more cautious about things than he is. But I don't think there are any fundamental differences between us."
"Because of Gerry, I'll think twice," admits Jacobs. "But you gotta view us as kind of monolithic."
The irony is that neither Jacobs nor Schoenfeld seems to have been particularly destined for a position at the top of the Broadway totem pole. Both were born and raised in New York City, children of the Jewish middle class. Schoenfeld's father was a manufacturer of long-haired fur coats, who went bust before his son could take over the family business. "I didn't know what to do," Schoenfeld recalls, "so my father said, 'I think you should go to law school.' "
His studies were interrupted by World War II and Army service, but afterward, he graduated from New York University and went to work, at $40 a week, for a law firm that happened to represent The Shuberts. "Over a period of about seven years, people in the law firm grew older, one died, another went off on his own, and I ended up being the only one left. So J.J. Shubert asked me, as he put it, if I wanted to 'take care of our affairs.' I said 'Yes.' I was 32. J.J. used to say he didn't like old men because they had old ideas. After about two and one-half months, he said to me, 'I think you're going to need help. Go out and find someone.' "
The person he found was Jacobs, who had been the closest pal of his older brother when they were students at De Witt Clinton High School. Schoenfeld, as Jacobs remembers him, was "the pesky little brother" always trying to tag along.
Their backgrounds, however, were not dissimilar. Jacobs' father made a middling living in the woolen waste business, which consisted of buying up clippings and remnants of cloth and selling them back to the mills where they were rewoven into fabric. Jacobs was also encouraged by his parents to pursue law studies. Just out of Columbia University, he, too, was "swallowed right up by the U.S. Army" and spent 4 1/2 years in the South Pacific. Back home, he set up law practice with his brother.
When Jacobs and Schoenfeld joined forces in 1957 under the stern eye of J.J. Shubert, they could not exactly be described as having a particular predilection for the theater. "I needed an elective course in college once, so I picked Ibsen," Schoenfeld says, but he doesn't really remember going to the theater until the early 1950s. Jacobs had an older sister who would trot him off to shows as a child, but if he had a dream, it was to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. ("By the time I got to be 69, I realized it was not going to happen," he jokes.)
Under J.J. Shubert, they learned their new trade quickly. "You sat at either side of J.J.'s desk, from the minute he arrived to the minute he left, seven days a week," Schoenfeld says. "Everything that came over his desk, we had to pass on. As a result, we had total immersion in every aspect of the business. Though we were lawyers, we ended up being very knowledgeable theater people. You had to, just by virtue of listening."
In their heyday, the Lithuanian-born Shubert brothers ran or operated 104 theaters across the country and booked another 1,000. Between 1901 and 1954, the "Messieurs Shubert" as they liked to bill themselves, produced more than 520 productions -- from the long-running "Hellzapoppin' " to the lavish operettas ("Blossom Time," "The Student Prince") personally favored by J.J. They could be ruthless, not to say tyrannical, and their control of the commercial theater was such that in 1950 the federal government brought an antitrust suit against them.
The case was settled out of court six years later by a consent decree, which obliged the Shuberts to divest themselves of the majority of their holdings across the country, forbade them from booking any theaters but their own and required them to seek court approval before acquiring any new ones. In 1969, the court gave them permission to lease the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles; in 1980, they were given the green light to manage the National. Last year, all the restrictions were lifted.
In terms of numbers, the Shuberts have since been passed by the Nederlander family, their chief rival, which runs and operates 31 theaters in the United States and two in London. But the Shubert theaters are generally considered to be in both better shape and better locations, and even in its current reduced dimensions, the empire remains a formidable one.
Perhaps in reaction to the autocratic reputations of their predecessors, Jacobs and Schoenfeld prefer to downplay the power they wield. The first-name informality with their employes is only a part of it. "I suppose as far as the decision goes to do a play or not do it, we do have tremendous power. It's the ultimate decision," acknowledges Schoenfeld. "But beyond that, we're the ones who solicit the major authors, the major creative people, the major directors. For all this power we supposedly have, we're really wooing them. You have to woo a Michael Bennett or a Bob Fosse."
"I always thought I was a demure, sweet, innocent person whom anyone can twist around his little finger," says Jacobs for his part. "But let's put it this way. I can make a big difference in people's lives. A lot of them come in here with crazy ideas and I make a big difference by not letting them do stupid things. But I have no power. People who have talent are going to get someplace in this world, and people who don't, aren't. And there's nothing in the world I can do about making untalented people talented. To my mind, there never has been an important play that should have been produced that wasn't. If we don't do it, someone else does. The problem is that there are so many plays produced that shouldn't be."
Some say, but not for the record, that Schoenfeld and Jacobs have just had luck on their side, that they have no taste, that they're bullies, or worse, lawyers in artists' clothing. Most, however, recognize that the pair has been phenomenally successful, although whether it has been to the greater good of Broadway (as Jacobs and Schoenfeld claim) or to its detriment is another question. They do preside over a streamlined organization that has not only refurbished the legacy of the Shubert brothers, but also remade many of the rules the commercial theater lives by. They stood up to the urban rot that threatened Broadway. And they have helped foster hits, which, through savvy marketing and promotion, have become mega-hits, running five or more years and resembling virtual industries. Gone, in the process, are the modest midsized successes that used to last out a season. But that, they say, is Broadway's new game.
For this, Jacobs and Schoenfeld have money and fame, although, according to Jacobs, not a lot of fame. "Theater producers come and go. Do you think anybody cares?" he says. "Does anybody remember who the producer of 'South Pacific' was? I assume it was Leland Hayward, because he did most of Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows. The only producer in my lifetime who has left his imprint on everything he's done is David Merrick. But even then, 'Hello, Dolly!' is performed all over the world and no one calls it David Merrick's 'Hello, Dolly!' "
From the outside, their lives are marked by glamor and the chance to traffic with some of the planet's most creative people. The flip side, of course, is the obligation to coddle egos, stroke the hypersensitive and soothe the jealous. Ties must be constantly reforged and loyalties shored up, lest an important talent defect to the competition. When you have to go out 200 nights a year, Schoenfeld also points out, the excitement can pale.
So what keeps Bernie and Gerry working six days a week in the office, at home and in the limos shuttling them back and forth? The challenge, it would appear, of running an endangered business in an era not especially propitious for theater, and making it pay. "Someone once described my job as similar to an air traffic controller -- keeping all those plays up in the air, landing them down in the right theater at the right time," Jacobs says. "I'm very good at it, and if you're very good at something you tend to enjoy it."
Add to that what Schoenfeld calls "a tremendous satisfaction being involved with a play or musical that may have a permanent niche in the literature of the theater."
As for their own posterity, they claim to be indifferent. "I'm a great believer in the present," says Schoenfeld.
Jacobs, stating it differently, nonetheless puts up a common front with his best friend and partner. "Of all the things in the world I think the least about," he says, "it's what happens after you die. Dead is dead."