Why Manny Azenberg is still a powerhouse on Broadway – the forward


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Theater producer Emanuel Azenberg likes to tell this story about the time, over 30 years ago, when “Jerome Robbins’s Broadway” was in rehearsal.

The show, which Azzenberg was co-producing, was a collection of brilliant musical numbers from the master choreographer’s career on Broadway, but Robbins – born Jerome Rabinowitz – didn’t like the title. He therefore requested that alternative suggestions be written on a chalkboard in the rehearsal studio.

“One day I wrote ‘Dancing Hits by Rabinowitz’,” recalls Azenberg. Robbins was not amused. “He asked who made the suggestion. I said I had. “Do you know,” I said, “how many theater nights I could sell with this title?” “

For Azenberg, one of the most successful and prolific producers in Broadway history, his Jewish connection has always been critical and meaningful.

Jewishness “is a primary identity,” he says. “Which I wholeheartedly accept.”

Azenberg, known to almost everyone in the theater world as Manny, is 87 years old and still active in the theater. He had the keen sense of becoming an investor in the hit musical “Hamilton”.

He grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in the Bronx; his father was the director of a Labor-Zionist organization. The family lived in a $ 77 per month apartment on 156th Street near the Grand Concourse.

140 Tony nominations later, Jewish impresario still energizes Broadway

“Part of my family died in the Holocaust,” says Azenberg, sitting in a Theater District restaurant just across 46th Street from the Richard Rodgers Theater, home of “Hamilton”. “My father was a passionate Zionist and a friend of Chaim Weizmann,” who was the president of the Zionist Organization and became the first president of Israel. Weizmann gave his father a ring, says Azenberg, when his father left London and came to the United States in 1920 to work for the Zionist Organization.

“I went to a Labor-Zionist camp, Camp Kinderwelt,” says Azenberg. “And I have never fled my Jewishness. It didn’t conflict with my American identity.

In 1948, as a teenager, he saw his uncle, a veteran of the Yiddish scene, play a rabbi in a Broadway play. It was then that Azzenberg began to think about a life in the theater.

Azenberg’s uncle, Wolfe Barzell, was in Jan de Hartog’s “Skipper Next to God”, which starred John Garfield, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle.

Soon after, when Azenberg saw “Death of a Salesman”, Arthur Miller’s dramatic masterpiece – Arthur Asher Miller, born in what was then Jewish Harlem, son of Isidore Miller – his interest in the scene grew. Lee J. Cobb, born Leo Jacoby, played the lead role of Willy Loman. “I remember being overwhelmed,” Azenberg once recalled.

Azenberg has produced or co-produced nearly 70 Broadway plays and musicals – two-thirds of which, he says, have been financially successful – which have garnered more than 140 Tony Award nominations and more than 40 Tony Awards. He himself has won nine Tonys as a producer, including a 2012 Tony Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2008, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

His career as a producer began in 1966 with “The Lion in Winter” by James Goldman. He produced more than 20 pieces of Neil Simon – it is Marvin Neil Simon, born in the Bronx – from 1972 with “The Sunshine Boys” and of which “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, “Biloxi Blues”, “Broadway Bound” and Simon’s Pulitzer Prize – winner “Lost in Yonkers”.

His Tony-winning productions include the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin ‘” by Fats Waller, “Private Lives”, “Children of a Lesser God” and “The Real Thing” by Tom Stoppard – born Tomáš Sträussler in Czechoslovakia. He also co-produced the musical “Sunday in the Park With George” by Stephen Sondheim and Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine.

Azenberg kept his Jewish connection throughout his career. “Woody Allen wrote an article in the New York Times condemning Israel during the First Intifada,” Azenberg says, “and when asked if he had been in Israel he said why should he go. in Israel when he could go to Sweden? “

“So I had a conversation with the Israeli cultural attaché at the time, and we discussed anti-Semitism among the Semites. And I said you were breaking it by bringing people to Israel.

“And so, for the past 30 years or so, almost every year, we’ve been bringing theater people and students – from when I was teaching at Duke University – to Israel. Sometimes two or three groups a year. You can ask around the industry and you will find that a lot of people have taken this trip. Its importance was to shatter preconceptions and stereotypes. I think we have succeeded.

These days, Azenberg is a consultant for Baseline Theatrical, a general management company whose Broadway shows include “Hamilton” and “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the improvised rap musical. “Some people call every now and then,” he said, “and I give them my version of wisdom.”

Of all the shows he has produced, does he have a favorite?

“Neil Simon has always had an answer to this question,” says Azenberg. “Yes – the one I do now. But if I think about it – what becomes a favorite is not the best show you have done but the ones you had the best times with, where there was no problem – and those two would be ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ and ‘The Real Thing.’ ”

“They were both successful and they were good. I think ‘Brighton Beach’ and probably Neil’s ‘Broadway Bound’ will be made, when the dust of Neil Simon settles, like plays representing a period of American history, or of New York history. And ‘The Real Thing’ – Stoppard is arguably the best living playwright in the English language, and that’s one of his good plays.

And the most important part?

” This is a difficult question. The most important play in my life was “Death of a Salesman”. I don’t think I’ve ever performed a piece that I found important. It would be arrogant. Being in the room with Stoppard is a highlight. So this would all go on the cheshbon hanefesh – the accounting of my soul.

Looking back, is he satisfied with his choice of life in the theater and his adherence to his Jewish heritage?

“Without a doubt,” he said. “I think I’m one of the lucky people. My personal life is great. I have five grown children. My children know who they are. We are not religious. We are secular Jews. They have all made trips to Israel. Being Jewish is part of their identity.

“This feeling of continuity, from my father to me to my children, is very satisfying.”

And well over half a century on Broadway? “Who would have dreamed of that? “

140 Tony nominations later, Jewish impresario still energizes Broadway

Mervyn Rothstein was a writer and editor for 30 years at The New York Times, where his positions included the chief theater reporter and the editor of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. He was a writer for Playbill Magazine for 30 years. And he was a member of the nominating committee for the Broadway Tony Awards.

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