The Big Bad Wolf Redux

By Barry Singer

Scott Rudin's name appears but three times in my soon (very soon)-to-be-published book, Ever After. I went back and checked. You can understand why.

His Broadway career brackets almost exactly the theatrical period I cover in Ever After — the years 1977 to 2020. His first Broadway gig appears to have been as a production assistant on the long-running horsey murder mystery Equus, working for that show’s legendary producer, Kermit Bloomgarden. The name Scott Rudin appears at the bottom of the October 24, 1974 opening night credits for Equus. He was then 16-years-old. Rudin quickly climbed on up to casting work, ultimately opening his own casting shop in the 1980s. His first Broadway producing credit was secured on the 1994 Tony-Award-winning Sondheim-Lapine musical Passion; tagging along behind that show's lead producers, The Shubert Organization,  Capital Cities/ABC Inc., and Roger Berlind. His next go round as producer of an original new musical would be in 2000, partnered with the New York Shakespeare Festival and Berlind again, among others, on The Wild Party, composer Michael John LaChiusa's musicalization of Joseph Moncure March's notorious Roaring Twenties verse novella.

I write about Passion and The Wild Party at some length in Ever After without mentioning Scott Rudin's name. My focus is largely on Sondheim and LaChiusa, though I do address the absurd fact that there were two different Wild Party musicals competing with one another in 2000; the second, by Andrew Lippa, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club. I chose not to delve into the contentious behind-the-scenes rumble that engulfed Rudin's Wild Party, a roundelay of backstage back-stabbings that led Rudin, at one point, to withdraw his money from the show altogether. It just didn't seem pertinent for a book about the artistry of musical theater.

Scott Rudin's faint presence in Ever After is entirely a function of his own producing preferences; he has specialized in star-driven straight plays, star-driven revivals of straight plays and the occasional star-driven musical revival. Ever After is solely about original new musicals. Rudin’s only other such is The Book of Mormon, a huge hit that, I confess, I have huge issues with, which I do elaborate on in Ever After in this way:

“Producers Scott Rudin and Anne Garefino (Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s co‒executive producer on all things South Park) decided to take The Book of Mormon straight to Broadway. It opened there, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, in March 2011. ...To otherwise take The Book of Mormon as anything more serious than a shit-fest of casual offenses, lightly slung, is to miss the point. Stupid is as stupid does in The Book of Mormon. That’s about all there is. The show is funny and it is offensive. That’s the point. Whether it is also racist in its depiction of its African characters as all AIDS-infected layabouts saved by Jesus is not much of a question. Just reread the last sentence. As for the show’s homophobia toward all those ‘Elders’ — the young, all-male Mormon missionaries? Same.

“Does it at all matter? Not very much, in terms of moronic intentions. But yes, I would say with every passing day in The Book of Mormon’s very long run (it stood among Broadway’s Top 15 longest-running musicals of all time when the pandemic hit), the show’s willful offensiveness mattered more and more, even as the show’s shock value ebbed vacuously away. Former-President Trump, during his one term in office, regularly said far more unspeakably shocking and offensive things than The Book of Mormon sang every night. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s naughty little musical was simply eclipsed.”

Each Rudin sighting in Ever After is, to some degree, a bit...testy. Mormon constitutes his turgid eleven o'clock number. His curtain-up comes as part of an obscure rescue mission that Rudin joined in 1999, stepping in with others at the last moment to provide cash for the recording of an original cast album of the Jason Robert Brown musical Parade, after Parade's lead producer, the Livent company, led by the soon-to-be-convicted felon, Garth Drabinsky, skulked away from its financial obligations in a trail of  red ink. ­ 

Rudin's only other walk-on in Ever After involves a fractious stare-down with, of all people, Stephen Sondheim. As you will soon be able to read Sondheim and John Weidman's then-new musical, Wise Guys “had been expected to reach Broadway in April of 2000, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber. A month-long workshop with this dream team held at New York Theatre Workshop in November 1999 had been treated by the media virtually as the show’s Broadway preview period. But things had not gone well. After Sondheim and Weidman parted ways with Mendes, a dispute blew up between the two creators and the show’s lead producer, Scott Rudin, over who owned the rights to Wise Guys. Then things turned really ugly. In November 2001, Sondheim and Weidman filed a $5 million lawsuit against Rudin. In December, Rudin countersued. The resulting out- of-court settlement in February 2002 gave Sondheim and Weidman their musical back and Rudin his $160,000 investment back.”

A painful number of currently unemployed Broadway musical creators suddenly find themselves in a spot similar to Mr. Sondheim's in 2001. They want their musicals back. Mr. Rudin  has said he will “step away” from all of his productions, musicals and non-musicals alike, but his toxic shadow presence has rendered virtually every one of these shows unproduceable. Very few theater organizations, or stars, will work on anything associated with Scott Rudin right now. Yet, he has exhibited no inclination, so far, to relinquish his ownership stranglehold on these projects. In fact, by “stepping away,” he is clearly hoping to hang on to all of them. Which has left a lot of helpless show folks dangling.

I do know a tiny bit about the shape of Scott Rudin's intimidating shadow (though hardly to the dimension of those who have tussled with him either as employees or collaborators). Back in May 2003, as the original edition of Ever After was being readied for publication, I received a number of increasingly anxious emails from my editor: “Could you send me the final version of the manuscript? Scott Rudin's office keeps calling for a copy.” I thought this odd. What did Scott Rudin care about my book? But he did. My editor and my publisher grew all a-tremble in the face of an increasing Rudin full-court press (no doubt carried out by his put-upon staffers). Their boss ultimately was one of the first people in the Broadway community to read Ever After. For all the good it did neither of us.

Bearing witness to the Rudin downfall has revealed something disconcerting to me about my own idols, by inference. Growing up, my theatrical god was a Broadway big boy, today largely forgotten, named Jed Harris. I first discovered Jed Harris while reading Moss Hart's  theatrical coming-of-age memoir, Act One, for the first time, in my junior year of high school. I found Harris as Hart did in Act One, beckoning from the bathroom of Harris's hotel suite, greeting the then-25-year-old aspiring playwright stark naked.

“I stopped dead," Hart wrote. "Mr. Harris was in front of the washbasin and mirror stark naked.  He was shaving himself and he did not turn around until he had completed shaving the side of his face he held the razor to... I have no idea what the expression on my face in the mirror showed of my feelings, but if he had planned to have my mouth drop open in surprise and dismay, he achieved his goal easily.”

I used to find this passage not merely amusing but... captivating? Jed Harris was a man with nothing to hide, a manipulator, yes, a womanizer, in fact, but an original; fearless, gifted and one-of-a-kind. As Hart put it, in Act One, “Harris had sprung out of nowhere with the velocity of a meteor streaking across the sky. He had flashed suddenly across the stodgy theatrical firmament of the early twenties with the hard white light of a winter star, and he continued to light up the theatrical heavens with an unerring touch that had something of the uncanny about it. He could seemingly do no wrong. Production after production, whatever play he turned his hand to, was catapulted into immediate success, and his vagaries, his flaring tempers, his incisive way with a script were already a legend and fast becoming Broadway folklore. I do not think it too great a stretch of either logic or imagination to say that every aspiring playwright's prayer in those days probably went exactly along the same lines, to wit: 'Please, God, let Jed Harris do my play!’”

The roster of Harris's producing successes is staggering: The Front Page, BroadwayThe Royal Family. He both produced and directed the premiere of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.  In September 1928 he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In the 1950s he directed Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

He was also, by a wide margin, the most loathed theatrical figure of his day, and perhaps any day. “When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Jed Harris's face,” George S. Kaufman, his collaborator on The Front Page and The Royal Family, purportedly said. Laurence Olivier, after being directed by Harris in The Green Bay Tree in 1933, called him “the most loathsome man I'd ever met,” before going on to style his Richard III makeup and stage (and later film) face after Jed Harris. In the industry it even was common knowledge that Walt Disney had used Harris's visage as his model for “The Big Bad Wolf” in The Three Little Pigs.

Jed Harris was kind of a cartoon character to me. His doings, both daring and dastardly, were vintage theatrical caricatures in my mind. The reality, I am now sure, was a whole other awful thing. Harris also left behind a riveting memoir, A Dance on the High Wire, that I devoured when it first came out in 1979, the same year that Harris died. His brilliance as a theatrical theoretician was real and his writing was vibrant. I typed out a quote from A Dance on the High Wire and hung that slip of paper from a desk lamp over my typewriter (it hangs there still, over my computer): “Perfectionism is the last refuge of the amateur.”

But where is the last refuge from an abuser in the theater, when success is all? For far too long now, turning out hits has given abusers like Jed Harris and Scott Rudin a license to abuse. The true crime in Rudin's present “outing” is not solely his own nasty behavior. It is the fact that everyone who now shuns him would have continued to work with him, had the alarm not sounded, making public what everyone had long privately known. “Please God, let Scott Rudin do my play!” was their corrupt refrain. Only the names have changed.