In Mel Brooks’s hit musical The Producers, Leo Bloom, the show’s put-upon protagonist, is driven by a single burning desire. “I want to be a producer!” sings the accountant, imagining himself with a top hat and cane, pockets stuffed with cash, driving the chorus girls insane. Leo’s idols might include the publicity-stunt-addicted, ruthlessly foul-mouthed Broadway legend David Merrick, or perhaps Joe Papp, the caped, cigar-chomping founding pope of the Public Theater— or, among living legends, the spectacle-loving British impresario Cameron Mackintosh.
What, then, would brash Leo make of this tall, slim man with the limpid blue eyes and half-tethered ponytail pausing our conversation to scoop up his 8-month-old son, who’s still a bit dazed from his nap? Jordan Roth wields neither cigar nor cane. He’s partial to brocade jackets but shuns velvet cloaks. And never, during our entire conversation, does he utter an indelicate word. He is, in a word, impeccable. But if Roth bears no resemblance to the caricature of a big-time producer, he’s nonetheless living out Leo’s dream.
As president of Jujamcyn Theaters, Roth is title-holder to five Broadway houses, two of which are home to the immensely lucrative Tony Award-winning best musicals The Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots. His fiefdom is more compact than those of his two bigger rivals, The Shubert Organization (17 Broadway theaters) and The Nederlander Organization (nine). But Roth, decades younger than many of his colleagues, has proved savvier at tapping into the power of social media for sales and marketing and more available in camera-ready service of the shows he champions. These qualities have made him a formidable competitor as well as a preternaturally astute custodian of his five theaters.
There is one Broadway producer Roth does resemble, physically and aesthetically: Daryl Roth, Jordan’s mother. Relying more on integrity than flash, she has produced seven Pulitzer Prize-winning shows, underwrote the acclaimed revival of The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, shepherded Kinky Boots from indie film to Broadway blockbuster, and operates her namesake off-Broadway theater.
Mother and son also belong to a new category of Broadway power brokers who, like their Hollywood counterparts, have used their public profiles, not to mention plenty of cash, to support causes close to the hearts of their liberal constituencies. Notable among them: the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and their tireless championing of LGBT issues and charities. (Jordan’s father, Steve Roth, the billionaire founder and chairman of Vornado Realty Trust, however, is a friend of and adviser to fellow New York real estate mogul and current White House occupant Donald Trump.)
This season, Jujamcyn Theaters have offered up the acclaimed revival of William Finn’s pre-Modern Family musical Falsettos, the welcome return of Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, a musical adaptation of the airy French romantic comedy film Amélie, and the transfer of the hit London musicalization of Groundhog Day, which opened at the August Wilson Theater on April 17 to rave reviews. All are significant undertakings during one of the most competitive Broadway seasons in memory.
The distinguishing trait of his professional mission, however, is aligned more closely with personal affirmation than box office. For Roth and his husband, the accomplished producer Richie Jackson, the theater is a safe house in a safe place that has embraced him exactly as he is. As if out of gratitude, he has used his vantage point to create awareness as well as entertainment, to risk with passion, to seek and celebrate voices he believes will play a part in making the world a better place for his children.
It’s quite possible that Roth does drive chorus boys and girls insane; I just never attended any rehearsals. Instead, I sat across from him in the lavishly appointed West Village aerie he shares with Jackson and their two sons, a scene as serene as the Hudson River flowing past us below.
Was theater an inevitability for you?
JORDAN ROTH Way before it became my vocation, I was a giant fan. When I was in school, there was nothing more fun to me than going to a matinee on a weekend. And, of course, I loved being onstage.
Did you imagine becoming a performer yourself ?
Well, no third-grader dreams of becoming a lighting designer. [laughs]However, in college I got more comfortable with myself and less desirous to be someone else. I still wanted to be in the room, but in a different part of it.
You came out while you attended Princeton.
In my sophomore year. But coming out is never an immediate process, which may be why so many people wind up having a hard time with it. At first there are desires you can’t identify. You may know who you are, but you’re not physically ready to act on them. When I was young, my voice, my body, and my carriage betrayed me. Maybe that’s why it was easier for me to perform at first: I was more comfortable applying those traits to someone else than making them work for myself. Something wrong offstage can be more readily right onstage because it’s wrapped up in pretending. Slowly you begin to realize the parts of you that you want to exercise … and exorcise.
Was there a breakthrough moment for you when it all came back to, “Who am I?”
Not just one moment, really. But theater made sense to me and gave me time because it was the right place to be when you know and you’re fine with not being like everybody else. The theater allows you to believe there is something wonderful and powerful about putting frailty onstage. I watched how theater created strength, not weakness, and then I went in search of plays that would amplify this for others having a tough time feeling respected in their personal and private lives.
You lucked out in having parents who always supported you. How did your family contribute to your outlook?
The theater is too hard and fickle a business to work on shows you’re not deeply passionate about. I saw my mother choosing shows she loved and wanted to spend time with, and I try to do the same. Though my father doesn’t produce, theaters are real estate, so I’ve combined both my parents’ ambitions. My father has extraordinary vision. He has the ability to see to the core of a complicated issue or person and the ability to see what could be. And no, it is not a big deal that we don’t share the same politics. When we’re talking politics, it’s just politics, it doesn’t affect our love for one another. That’s never up for debate.
You and Richie are raising a baby boy and co-parenting a teenager. How does being responsible for another life affect your theater choices?
We are living in a divided country whose current political direction was decided on by a shockingly small number of people. Half of our fellow citizens never even bothered to vote. But it’s our lack of empathy that is most disturbing today. There is a lack of desire to take care of others; instead, we’re all mired in identity politics. Our leaders are so careless with their words, and words matter, especially to children. What’s worse, they see the world solely from their own narrow standpoint with little consideration for the diverse realities of our larger community. It’s a shame that most people begin to consider investing in someone else’s equal rights only after they meet them.
Is that why Kinky Boots has had such a surprising impact beyond being a high-kicking, stiletto-baring entertainment?
The letters we get about that show are phenomenal—many are from young people. They watch Lola [the drag queen in the show who inspires acceptance and change]and are stunned [to]realize they’ve spent two-and-a-half hours rooting for her to win. The reality seeps in.
This fall, Richie will produce the revival of Harvey Fierstein’s watershed Torch Song Trilogy (now shortened by one act and retitled Torch Song). When I first heard about it, it sounded nostalgic. A few months later, it no longer feels like a period piece.
RICHIE JACKSON It’s odd that Harvey was initially bashed by gay activists for depicting Arnold [the show’s main character]wanting to adopt a foster kid, start a family and be seen as normal. But look at where we are today, fighting for the right to build a family of your choice, witnessing the rise in hate crimes and twisted fear regarding gender identity. Current events have made Harvey’s play almost prescient, certainly more relevant than ever. How do you define “family” in a complicated world?
What do you want for your children?
JORDAN ROTH I never imagined it would be true, but parenting is the ultimate romantic pact—getting to raise Jackson and Levi together and imprint our love and desire to share their experiences. Not everything we do has to be wrapped in a great moral lesson; it can be as simple as having family dinner together. My favorite spot in our house is the dinner table. The most caring question you can ask sometimes is, “How did your chemistry quiz go?” It’s about being present.
Would you and Richie ever collaborate on a project?
I’ve always thought it was a bad idea to partner with someone in your field, but being with Richie has made me realize that it can be a terrific idea if you’re both in each other’s corner. We are each other’s best sounding board, editor, audience and cheerleader.
If you could go back on stage, what role would you like to play?
I don’t know for sure yet, but I have a feeling that just might happen. Stay tuned!