Unassuming and quietly gracious theater producer Daryl Roth combines the brilliance and dynamism of a velvet whirlwind. For those unfamiliar with her name, perhaps one of her seven Pulitzer Prize-winning productions resonates. Perhaps Anna of the Tropics strikes a chord of emotional remembrance, or perhaps How I Learned to Drive? Also, she championed August Osage County, Clybourne Park, and Wit. The list goes on with Proof and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.
If their critical and popular praise did not bring to one of those productions, maybe the reviews and awards for the ingenious and uplifting musical Kinky Boots enticed you to Broadway. Daryl Roth risked a toss of the dice on Harvey Fierstein’s recommendation of Cyndi Lauper to write the music and lyrics to Fierstein’s book. The producer guided the reworking of the film into a musical on a hunch, and her sterling judgment and intuition about what the public yearns for struck gold. Now in its fifth smash year on Broadway, Kinky Boots shines with hope and effervescence.
If “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul” (Emily Dickinson), Roth has it in spades. Whether she produces Off-Broadway or on, her shows reflect hope and inspiration. Indeed, faith and prodigious effort appear to center Daryl Roth’s being, an estimation underscored by interviewer Linda Winer, Newsday‘s chief theater critic since 1987 and herself an influencer in the theater world. Winer chatted with the producer at a packed-house event presented by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW).
Produced by Betty Corwin with Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma, the conversation with Daryl Roth and Linda Winer remains an LPTW highpoint. LPTW undergirds women in theater in NYC and globally, and Roth epitomizes maverick women leaders in the changing theatrical landscape. Because of her trailblazing efforts and iconic productions, women understand that the ability to take risks remains key. Along with acute judgment, positive outlook, and the generosity to support shows of vital moment, risk-taking is part of the heart of a winning producer.
When no one would support “difficult” productions, Daryl Roth stood up, accepted the mantle, and gamely persisted. Fueled by her spunk, her courage, and her creative thinking, her shows garnered 11 Tony Awards. Her 110 awarded productions include greats like The Crucible, Indecent, The Normal Heart, Sunset Boulevard, A Raisin in the Sun, War Horse, and too many others to list.
Having seen most of her shows on Broadway and off, I feel I understand Daryl Roth’s adoration of great theater. Before becoming a producer, Roth raised her son and her daughter. It was especially encouraging for LPTW members to learn that she only began producing at age 40. From that vantage point she bought life experience, quality, and taste to the selection of shows she intended to shepherd.
One of the fascinating aspects of Roth’s producing talent is her daunting fearlessness. Winer suggested that unlike other producers who chase commercial success, Roth elects to choose plays that spark fire in audience’s hearts. The producer maintained that things have not changed much in theater: “A good story is a good story,” with “emotion” and “messaging” for our world. However, when Winer pressed her about being courageous, Roth explained.
She recalled that she made a conscious decision to be more daring. That might mean championing projects that spurred controversy, works that were emotionally shattering as well as uplifting. She resolved that she would find a niche in the theatrical world where she would feel comfortable. And the plays she selected might “push the envelope.” When Winer asked pointed questions about some of those selections, Roth delved deeper. She said she had her own fears and anxieties, and sought stories in theater that touched upon those emotions, knowing such stories would mean a lot to people.
Hence her groundbreaking selections. Paula Vogel’s Learning How to Drive explores familial incest and pedophilia. Margaret Edson’s Wit deals with the frightening topic of breast cancer, a ubiquitous condition that was discussed in hushed whispers if at all when the play opened around 20 years ago.
What attracted the producer to such a play? Some of the brilliance and irony of Wit is rooted in Professor Bearing’s cryptic response to viewing herself as the doctors’ specimen. Like many cancer patients at the time (as now), the professor becomes the guinea pig whose body the doctors treat with cold precision and detachment. They prefer to talk “about, around, through” her, the object of scrutiny. Though the Professor’s sardonic humor attempts to slice through the doctors’ brutality, emotional devastation becomes her portion. The audience becomes moved by her brave heroism as she confronts the terrors of the disease and the lack of empathy from those who treat her.
While discussing these very human issues, Roth highlighted Wit’s impact beyond the theater world. Because it sounded an alarm that many touched by the disease understood, inevitably medical professionals invited to talkbacks got the message. And Roth revealed that as a result of the cast’s enacting scenes in hospitals, the medical profession began offering courses in patient empathy. The vitality of exceptional theater, she said, can make a difference in the real world, especially when great stories mirror the realities of the surrounding social culture, revealing themes we cannot overlook.
The producer discussed how she arrived at bringing to Broadway the playwright Edward Albee, whose work she loved. Though she had read him in college, she had never dreamed she might sit across from him let alone produce his work. The production Three Tall Women about three stages of his mother’s life opened the Albee floodgates. Once again, the great playwright who had been ignored for decades became appreciated for his ingenious exceptionalism and importance to American theater.
One of my favorite Daryl Roth stories is about a work she championed because of her courage to take risks on wonderful, unique productions. Winer broached the topic of Paula Vogel’s Indecent. How did Roth decide to extend the production after other producers agreed they should meet their fiscal responsibilities and post a two-week closing notice? Though the show had received critical accolades and audiences loved it, ticket sales weren’t healthy enough.
For those two weeks, Daryl Roth struggled with the decision to close, seeing the show each night and struck by the standing ovations. The last night, overwhelmed with emotion, she strode up to the closing notice and ripped it apart. During that performance she had made up her mind. The proceeds from her lucky-shot production Kinky Boots would cover any financial risks incurred by Indecent. She released her producing partners and accepted sole responsibility for the extension. Indecent continued to delight and stun audiences with its brilliance for the rest of its extended run.
When my playwriting professor recommended Indecent to our class after the extension, I went. Moved by the performances, the themes, and the artistic revelations at the conclusion, I cried my eyes out walking to the subway. I am still shattered thinking about the play’s meaning for all creative people and every human being who seeks eternal truth.
Such theater comes rarely. But when it comes the living moments are so real, so vital, they touch one’s soul. No other entertainment compares. The chance to experience that living passion is Daryl Roth’s gift to our culture. Indeed, we are fortunate.
Roth’s career mirrors the greatness of the tortoise’s steady race against the hare, won again and again by wisdom, generosity, and heartfelt grace. A special thank-you to all at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. And kudos to the League of Professional Theatre Women. Their effective collaboration made Daryl Roth in conversation with Linda Winer a stunner.