By: Alix Cohen
September 9, 2021: Were it not for the selfless efforts of producers Tom and Michael D’Angora, the venerable West Bank Café/Laurie Beechman Theater, to many a home away from home, would have been forced out of business after 43 years of entertaining the community. (This is not hyperbole.) Also on thin pandemic ice, the jazz mecca Birdland (established 1949, in its current location 25 years), The York Theatre (celebrating its 51st birthday), LAByrinth Theater (founded 1992), and The Stonewall Safe Space Initiative, were rescued by the indefatigable pair.
Talking to the couple renews one’s faith in human nature, no small feat these days. Both are self acknowledged theater geeks who came up through the ranks, learning the business by doing it. In their case, this included aspects of production most often administered by specialists. After over 15 years in the trenches, they remain as infectiously excited by the craft and its denizens as they were when they started.
Left: Tom in The Rocky Horror Show; Right: Michael (the Tin Man) in The Wizard of Oz
Michael got the theater bug at age four when the local mall did a promotional pop-up of the musical, The Wizard of Oz. “It was the first time I saw live theater and I thought, I love this, I get this! They’re walking in place but they’re supposed to be walking down the yellow brick road; when the Cowardly Lion comes from behind, he creates an element of surprise. I was like, ‘Dad, I want to do this!’ A week later, we did a version of it in my backyard.”
During high school, Michael went on to do everything in Nebraska community theater from popping the popcorn and sweeping the stage to acting. Relating the past with gusto, he makes it sound like yesterday. At Manhattan’s Marymount College, he double-majored in Direction and Arts Management.
Tom performed on Cape Cod as a teen, quickly becoming “hardcore.” He did several years of summer stock at theaters in New Hampshire, then a children’s theater tour with the National Theater of Performing Arts. In 2001, Tom starred in the Provincetown production of Naked Boys Singing (book/ direction Robert Schrock), later becoming its producer, establishing a professional connection that continues to this day. I ask whether his parents supported his aspirations. “If I was as good as what my father thought I was, you’d be talking to Hugh Jackman right now,” he quips.
“Michael and I first got together 20 years ago,” he tells me. The men met in 2001 while handing out promotional material at the TKTS Booth in Times Square. Like a New York Times Modern Love Story, they “hated each other at first sight,” ran into one another for a year, and ambivalently agreed to attend a show together. “After that, we just never stopped hanging out,” Michael says. “That’s why it lasted. There was never a honeymoon phase.” (They did eventually marry.) Kismet.
Encouraged by Michael, Tom wrote his own one-man show, Divas I’ve Done (affectionately referred to as Look Who’s Stalking) celebrating a random assortment of actresses of whom he was fond. “I was obsessed with Marla Schaffel from Jane Eyre, the musical. She might as well have been Meryl Streep to me then. I thought Maya Days, the standby for Aida, was Whitney Houston. I also understood it was very funny. I was so quirky about it.” Michael directed the piece. Handling every facet of the show, the pair experienced producing together.
Divas was originally intended as a two-night presentation for friends, but extended to packed houses, making money, eventually moving to Los Angeles, then came back to settle Off Broadway. Ultimately, it ran for two years. One day Tom thought, “You know, I could be at the back of the theater with a drink in my hand right now,” and moved off stage. “I retired with a hit in 2005.”
Christine Pedi, Michael D’Angora, Rip Taylor, Tom D’Angora
Tom and Michael now had money. They were advised to invest, to be smart with it. “And so Tom, not being smart with it, said, ‘I know! Ellen Green (a star of Little Shop of Horrors and one of Tom’s Divas) needs an album!” They produced the album and then a one woman club act including “finessing” the act’s London version. “Cameron Mackintosh came. It was wonderful. You’re in your early twenties, you’re theater boys and you’re hangin’ out with Audrey (Greene’s role in Little Shop), getting flowers for the piano – it was so fun!” Tom remembers, grinning widely. “Producing just kind of spiraled from there,” Michael remarks.
In 2005, they mounted an Off Broadway show called A Broadway Diva Christmas with Ellen Greene, Kathy Brier, Christine Pedi, Marla Schaffel, and Maya Day. The successful production ran six weeks. Suddenly they were negotiating Equity contracts and doing “everything.” “We were the only producers on it. At that point there was nobody younger helming a major production,” Tom notes. “People didn’t necessarily believe we could pull it off on our own. One side of the industry thought this is the future and the other side were patting us on the head.”
“It was the classy sophisticated alternative to Radio City Musical Hall. Ellen Greene sang `Silent Night’ in the original German, while the cast walked through the audience with candles, people cried every night,” Michael recalls. The D’Angoras helped bring Naked Boys Singing back to Provincetown, added other shows to that roster, and opened Rick Crom’s ever evolving political satire NEWSical the Musical. The 2011 version won the Off-Broadway Alliance’s Award for Best New Musical.
A rotating cast of celebrity guest stars became part of NEWSical, introducing a Broadway practice to Off Broadway. By the end of its run in 2019 at Theatre Row’s Kirk Theater, it was the longest running show in the history of the complex and the fifth longest running Off Broadway musical in history. Next, overlapping, came The Marvelous Wonderettes, which uses 1950s/60s pop songs as a vehicle to tell a story, paying homage to high school Songleader Squads. At one point the team had 12 different shows, hopscotching through the Kirk, including a family show about children with disabilities.
I ask about the ebb and flow of remuneration and am told that when one show was making money, it made up for another’s dip. After Trump was elected, for example, NEWSical had a couple of slow weeks. The irreverent A Musical About Star Wars (co-written by Tom) played a year in New York, will be opening in Nebraska shortly, then returns to Manhattan. Naked Boys Singing is poised to premiere in Las Vegas. Tom and Michael are among co-producers of the Caroline or Change (their favorite musical) revival coming in to Studio 54 Theater in October.
Oh, and, an admitted soap opera addict (he’s conversant with every episode of One Life to Live and All My Children), Tom’s written the pilot for Mélange, which stars his childhood idol, Morgan Fairchild. How, I ask, did you get to her? They grin and shrug. “We simply called and asked her to read it. Shy people starve.” A deal was in the works with LOGO TV but when the pandemic hit, things got called off. The pilot did air, however, on their digital platforms in May of 2020,” Tom tells me. And how did you get it read at Logo? “I got it to them through one of my Hilllary Clinton connections ‘cause I worked on both of her campaigns, that was my other thing. (During which time, Michael held the theatrical fort single handed.) Later, Hillary participated in the York Theater fundraiser, Bill did Birdland,and Chelsea did Stonewall.”
Then the pandemic hit.
Tom and Michael were concerned about West Bank Cafe directly across the street from their apartment. “It’s kind of like our Cheers, where everybody knows your name.” They went to see owner Steve Olsen to ask about the venue’s situation. Olsen told them it was over, he needed a great deal of money – in 12 days or the doors would shut. They left heads buzzing.
“What if we just did an old-fashion Christmas Day telethon,” Michael suggested rhetorically. (Can you hear Mickey Rooney’s voice?) “Everyone’s sitting at home alone with nothing to do…I remember the look in Steve’s eyes. He wasn’t thinking `poor me,’ he was thinking about his employees and the community.” Television actor Tim Guinee, writer/performer Joe Iconis, and Hell’s Kitchen District Leader Marisa Redanty volunteered to help. Tom set up a GoFundMe page, and four of them manned the phones.
“The D’Angoras worked around the clock creating what turned out to be a nine-hour, 40-minute show that everybody watched – in its entirety. Over 200 performing artists, directors, writers, producers, composers, customers and friends participated. We had a $100,000 goal and raised $360,000 from 3,200 kind-hearted people who felt it was important to keep us in business,” says owner Steve Olsen. “I have nothing but gratitude and appreciation for Tom and Michael. It was the best Christmas gift ever.”
Some of the artists were streamed and edited in from other locations, some were shot – by Tom and Michael – at The Laurie Beechman. Prominent celebrities who donated were asked to appear. Each and every one agreed. “One day André de Shields called us, and when André de Shields calls, you know this is gonna be somethin” Tom sighs.
“To keep costs down and keep things safe we did everything ourselves, but we’re Off Broadway boys and used to it,” Michael says. The show opens with a parody of It’s a Wonderful Life followed by an original Joe Iconis song written and performed for the occasion. “The kitchen staff was in tears.” (The D’Angoras didn’t take a penny.) I encourage you to tuck in and watch it the show on YouTube.
Before the pair could recover, Jim Caruso and Susie Mosher called about Birdland, which was in a similar situation. “They essentially sent out the Bat Signal and we said, of course!,” Michael tells me. “As producers, we thought, we needed to up our game. The first time had the element of how did we pull this off. Now we had to better it,” Tom adds. This show was to be two hours and became three because people kept volunteering. It opened with Bill Clinton and closed with Whoopi Goldberg.
“I kept renegotiating with the landlord, anticipating reopening,” says owner Gianni Valente. “Out of pocket expenses were extreme. I’d’ve gotten a cheaper place to live before giving up the club. Tom and Michael’s love and dedication, their desire to keep live music going, was incredible. Artists contacted other artists. It was an outpouring of support. The show raised over $400,000. We were able to refurbish the club up to code. They’re just beautiful people. I put their photos up in appreciation.” Watch the show on YouTube.
The next call came from Jim Morgan at the flooded York Theatre. Michael had been his assistant 20 years ago. Jim tells me he called The D’Angoras for advice and was told in no uncertain terms they’d take the theater on as their next project. “Again, we didn’t want to do the same thing. People were getting fundraisered-out.” Tom suggested reviving the satirical Musical of Musicals, which the York had developed and produced years ago, this time with stars like Patti LuPone. “We zoomed Betty Buckley and Chita Rivera,” Tom gushes, “What more do you want?!”
With Covid still an obstacle, Michael filmed only one actor at a time before a green screen. Tom handled sound. “It was so cheesy and weird, it was funny; a kind of Pee Wee’s Playhouse silliness,” Michael says. “We thought, the jig is up. When you’re doing a musical against a green screen, it’s so obvious. The show itself is absurd. Let’s just lean into it.” Olsen donated The Laurie Beechman in which to film. The show streamed for three nights and raised almost $300,000.
“Pamela Hunt, the original director oversaw it artistically, but Tom and Michael put the cast together, rehearsed them, and filmed on an amazingly tight schedule. Michael did the brilliant editing. It was the most amazingly generous act of support we had during that terrible time- and they did it for no charge at all,” says Jim Morgan, Producing Artistic Director, The York Theatre.
Two more fundraisers followed, The Latino Actors Base, LABrynth Theater (Guinee took the reins on that. It was actors telling behind-the-scene stories), and The Stonewall Safe Space Initiative that helps fund safe spaces for those in the LGBTQ community. “The charity was going under,” Tom notes. For the latter, a virtual kickoff to Pride Week introduced by Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, they produced a rock and roll concert highlighting LGBTQ artists.
Watch the concert on YouTube.
Aided by long time association with Project Publicity, Len Evens; Keith Sherman (West Bank), Richard Hillman (York and Theatre World), and Victoria Varela, who co-produced the Stonewall benefit, Tom and Michael figured out how to constantly pop up in various press outlets. “We worked on these seven days a week calling in every favor. People were wonderful. After Birdland, people trusted us, seeing we put out decent content.”
It’s back to commercial theater now. “The community was in trouble, what else in the world was there to do?!” Tom says. ”I think it’s appalling that it was us helping these venues when there are people that could wipe out half of this without blinking. Perhaps when you’re mid level and understand the struggle, it’s more likely you’ll jump in…I think everybody is ultimately good. They want to help but don’t know how. It’s like you’re looking at a giant forest fire and holding one bucket of water. If 10,000 of us come together and all throw the buckets at once we make a dent.”
“Looking at that analogy,” Michel continues, “we can’t save the whole forest, but we can save one tree at a time. If enough people give a few bucks, we could save a venue.” “We didn’t charge,” Tom follows the train of thought, “because if you couldn’t donate, during this terrible time where everyone in our industry is unemployed, you should at least be able to watch your friends perform. It was risky, but we just said, `No, they’ll come.’ We were covered by all the New York press. They were generous. And the people came.”
“It was exhausting but so inspiring. It reminded us how `good’ people can be because all you ever see right now is the worst of people. There’s so much more good than bad, especially among theater people. Everyone rallies. It was amazing. Audra (McDonald) and Matthew (Broderick) did three of them, Bernadette (Peters) did two. And they were so gracious. They have their own lives and struggles. But they donated their names and time and we were so thrilled.” Michael grins.
“Ok, this is what you know. We’re decent guys. I hope over the last year we’ve at least proven what we can do with zero dollars, this is our work ethic, so hopefully in the next few years, people will be willing to give us millions of dollars to produce bigger works…if there’s karma, I’d like Mélange, my TV show, to be produced. Seventy is the new fabulous and I think America is desperate for a Morgan Fairchild comeback,” Tom closes.
All photos of Tom and Michael Courtesy of the gentlemen themselves.
Opening Photo: Left – Michael D’Angora; Right – Tom D’Angora
All fundraising photos courtesy of the venues.