New York native John Johnson, FCLC ’02, was a Fordham junior when he began interning with Joey Parnes Productions, helping to coordinate the annual Tony Awards show. Thirteen years later, he’s a Broadway producer with three Tonys to his credit. As one of the executive producers of A Raisin in the Sun, he took home the 2014 award for best revival of a play. He’s also a producer of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which won the award for best musical. He earned his first Tony in 2013, when Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won best play.
You were still a student when you started working with Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann, LAW ’66. How did that happen?
Larry Sacharow [former director of the Fordham Theatre Program]was my adviser. He said, “If you want to be working in the business of theater, you need to work with Liz McCann.” She is a legend and has blazed so many trails for so many people. For the 10 years that I was in an office with her, Liz gave me this really broad perspective about the business. What she taught me, as a theater producer and as a human being, was priceless. She’s like my third grandmother.
Does success bring its own set of challenges?
Every year you are doing a new set of shows that present challenges in terms of how to sell tickets, how to establish an audience, how to work with the artists. The challenge for A Gentleman’s Guide now is how do we keep the spotlight on us as the sort of reigning champ? There’s no getting to that place where we can kick back and have some cocktails and just rake in the money.
Have theatergoers’ interests changed since you’ve been in the business?
They’ve definitely gotten smarter. The amount of content that we are producing is a lot. People have a big range of options. Normally there would be one or two A-list stars that would come to Broadway in a half-season. Now, this half-season alone, it’s Hugh Jackman, Bradley Cooper, Glenn Close, James Earl Jones. You don’t need to be an industry insider to hear about what’s happening so early on with a show anymore.
Is there a bigger risk with producing an original show versus a revival?
Oh, always. Original shows like A Gentleman’s Guide or Vanya and Sonia come with higher risk, but they also come with a reward, that you get to participate in the life of this show. At the same time, we did A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington (FCLC ’77), and that was a huge success. If you have a known title or a known star, it helps build the machine easier.
What qualities should a successful producer possess?
A certain amount of levelheadedness and confidence. Even with an amazing director, an amazing design team, amazing writers, amazing actors, the producer has to be the one at the end of the day that says, “We’re going to do this show. I know we have to work on this, but we’ve got to do it.” So you have to be a risk taker.
How do you get a show from script to Broadway?
Obviously the goal for a lot of people is Broadway, but there are also many shows that don’t go to Broadway and have a great life in the regional theater circuit or in Chicago or off-Broadway. There’s no exact formula to it, and I think that’s what makes it exciting, because you can’t predict it.
What do you have in the works?
We have This Is Our Youth and A Delicate Balance. We’re working on Larry David’s Fish in the Dark, a play that he wrote and he’s going to star in. Then a production of David Hare’s Skylight with Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, the Gentleman’s Guide tour, and hopefully some other things I wish I could tell you about.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Rachel Buttner.
– Rachel Buttner