Producer Daryl Roth on Her Commitment to Bring Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart to a Larger Audience By Ellis Nassour
Daryl Roth is one of theater’s — Off Broadway and Broadway — most prolific producers. She’s long been a champion of serious theater. She has generously underwritten plays at not-for-profits, earned Tony Awards for Proof, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? and August: Osage County,countless other nominations, including last season’s The Temperamentals and a 2010 Lucille Lortel Award for Lifetime Achievement for her championing of Off-Broadway. This season, one of her proudest accomplishments has been bringing Larry Kramer’s 1985 Off-Broadway playThe Normal Heart, which centers on the human and political factors surrounding the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
“It was breathtaking!” sighed producer Daryl Roth of the recent opening night of the revival and Broadway debut, which has been nominated for 2011 Tony, Drama Desk and Lortel Awards and which has won the Outer Critics Awards for Best Revival. “It was thrilling, and I don’t use that word lightly. Everybody felt it. There were palpitations throughout the theatre. Everyone was in awe of the performances and the fact Larry’s play still has so much relevance.”
Ms. Roth says she’s very much attracted to works that push buttons and make people think about issues we can’t always access. "Theater is a medium that touches a chord both intellectually and emotionally. Theater is a place for audiences to take risks and encounter and explore issues of life and identity. It’s a haven in which to engage challenging subjects with a safety net.”
She explains that The Normal Heart is a great example. “Post opening, I’ve received so many messages stating how the play opened people’s heart, how they felt things that were deep inside, how they cried and weren’t embarrassed to cry. For me, it’s the culmination of all the things theater can do.”
The road to Broadway for Kramer’s groundbreaking work began last October when Ms. Roth was asked by Joel Grey to produce a benefit reading he was directing. “That night changed my life. I’d read the play and loved it. I didn’t see the original but did catch the Public’s 2004 revival [starring Raul Esparza as Ned Weeks and Joanna Gleason as Dr. Emma Brookner].”
What struck her most about the reading was how swept up she became. "Then I saw it wasn’t just me. It was everyone in the audience. We were all quite moved by the emotional wallop it had. I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I just went up to Larry and told him, ‘I want to do this on Broadway. Everybody has to see this play.’" She takes a long pause, then says, seemingly still surprised at her commitment, “I don’t know how, but I just got it in my head that I had to do it.”
In fact, she explains, it became her mission. “The Normal Heart is as timely now, if not more so, than when it was written” – not only from the political point of view, given that the majority of a new generation is unaware of how long it took for the AIDS crisis to be recognized, but also from the health point of view.
“The number of cases of AIDS internationally is astounding,” Ms. Roth points out. “The statistics are mindboggling [over 33 million, according to 2010 UNAIDS Global Report estimates]. People think it’s not a worry anymore because there are drugs treating the symptoms. The truth is it’s an even bigger worry. [AIDS is the second most common cause of death among 20-24 year olds.] It’s something I care deeply about because of my involvement in issues dealing with genger, culture, identiy and people being marginalized. It was important to put this play out there for a younger generation, one that doesn’t understand the legacy or history and what it took to get from there to now and how important it is to be active and carry on.”
There are still challenges. She points to health care in our country, equality and freedom to marry. “Larry planted those seeds 25 years ago. That’s why the play’s still topical, current. However, it’s the kind of challenging play you have to be a little scared of doing on Broadway. You don’t know if a wide audience will come in.
“I’m a fan of Larry’s writings,” continues Ms. Roth, “and I found it astounding that The Normal Heart was never on Broadway. I felt this was the honor he deserves. It would succeed or fail, no matter; so why not give it the chance to succeed where it would have more visibility and a new audience that may pay attention. And I found producing partners of like mind.” [These include Paul Boskind, also represented on Broadway this season by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and his producing partner in Martian Entertainment, Carl White, who were co-producers of the Off Broadway production of The Temperatmentals at New World Stages.]
She and her investors feel validated by the reviews. Asked if she might extend the run beyond its planned 12 weeks, she replied, “We’re not thinking of that.” She explained that the movie rights were optioned long ago, but there’s been no film or TV adaptation.
After a performance when Ms. Roth looked over the cross section of audience, she observed, “It seems to touch everyone. Forget that it’s a gay topic, forget that it’s about AIDS. It’s an emotionally engaging and challenging experience from the standpoint of just pure, beautifully-crafted theater. And the performances!”
She’s thankful Joe Mantello, who’s become a much sought-after director, never lost his acting chops. “He told me after appearing in Angels in America, he didn’t want to act anymore unless he’d be able to play Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart. His wish has come true.”
However, Ms. Roth’s in awe of the entire cast. “John Benjamin Hickey delivers all the time, but nothing he’s done prepares you for this performance. Ellen Barkin’s brave and bold. She’s a revelation – honest, moving and emotionally powerful. She embodies the spirit, passion and tenacity of Dr. Linda Laubenstein, the character she portrays. And, among this outstanding cast, how about Lee Pace, who’s such a courageous actor, and Jim Parsons? What he did! He took a featured role and made it a standout!”
Ms. Roth points out they are all the more amazing considering the 16-day rehearsal period [from table read to first preview]. “Luckily, we found a theatre, the Golden. Driving Miss Daisy loaded out and we loaded in the next day. We were right down to the line. We were marking the days. When Daisy decided not to extend, we went into full gear. Joel went into Anything Goes, thinking we wouldn’t get a theatre this season. So, with him singing and dancing away, we brought in George Wolfe.”
She gives Wolfe praise for the “safety net” he provided the actors. “He’s the leader, but what he did that was so brilliant was giving these actors trust. They and the creative team did it with the passion, dedication and urgency we were working under.”
Daryl Roth’s interest in theater began in New Jersey, where her family appreciated and valued the arts. “We were close enough to New York,” she says, “that we went to a lot of theater. I was introduced to theater very young and it didn’t take long for it to become part of my life.”
However, she never envisioned finding it a place to make a career. “It was something meant to be.”
Her first project was as co-producer of 1989’s Off Broadway hit revue Closer than Ever. It began a long association with Off.
“I felt very comfortable Off Broadway,” explains Ms. Roth, “primarily because the intimate, challenging work I was attracted to was better suited there.”
Her first Broadway co-production was 1991’s Nick and Nora. Lightning didn’t strike twice. It ran 80 performances, including previews. The good news is that 30 mostly quite successful Broadway ventures followed, including winners of Pulitzer Prizes, Tony and Drama Desk Awards.