Roger Berlind, 90, Dies; Broadway Impresario Who Amassed 25 Tonys
Roger Berlind, who produced or co-produced more than 100 plays and musicals on Broadway, including critical hits and box office hits like “The Book of Mormon”, “Dear Evan Hansen”, “City of Angels” and revivals of “Guys” and Puppets and “Kiss Me, Kate” died on December 18th at his Manhattan home. He was 90 years old.
His family said the cause was cardiac arrest.
During a four-decade career in the theater, Mr. Berlind endorsed some of the most original work on Broadway and received an astonishing 25 Tony Awards, one of the greatest series on record. (Hal Prince, another great Tony winner, collected 21)
Mr. Berlind helped put on lively musicals such as the 1992 revival of “Guys and Dolls” starring Nathan Lane, as well as sophisticated dramas such as the original 1984 production of “The Real Thing,” Tom Stoppard’s dazzling exploration of the nature of love and honesty. “The Real Thing” won the Tonys, won Best Play and Best Director (Mike Nichols), and received Best Acting Awards for Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Christine Baranski.
His route to Broadway was indirect. He was able to play the piano by ear and envisioned being a songwriter, but his dream of making a living this way fell flat and he got to work on Wall Street.
He was partnering with a brokerage firm when tragedy struck: his wife and three of his four children were killed in a plane crash at Kennedy International Airport. He resigned from his company within a few days.
“The whole idea of building a business and making money didn’t make sense anymore,” he told the New York Times in 1998. “There was no longer any economic motivation.”
After spending time in the wilderness, he found his way to Broadway, which helped him rebuild his life and start a whole new career.
“The main thing about Roger is that he’s made an incredible turnaround,” said Brook Berlind, his second wife, in a phone interview.
“His life was completely divided by the accident,” she said. “There was Act I and Act II. I don’t think that many other people could have achieved such success after such a disaster. “
Broadway success came slowly. Mr. Berlind’s first production in 1976 was the disastrous “Rex,” a Richard Rodgers (with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) musical about Henry VIII, which The Times theater critic Clive Barnes said, “Almost everything is wrong . “
It just so happened that the music of Mr. Rodgers booked Mr. Berlind’s career. His final show, of which he was one of several producers, was the darkly reworked Tony-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” From 2019! (That show made Broadway history when actress Ali Stroker became the first person to use a wheelchair to win a Tony.)
After “Rex”, Mr. Berlind co-produced six other shows before having his first hit with the original 1980 production of “Amadeus”, in which a mediocre composer burns with jealousy over the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Peter Shaffer play, directed by Peter Hall, starring Ian McKellen and Tim Curry, took home several Tonys, including Best Play.
Two other successes quickly followed: “Sophisticated Ladies”, a 1981 revue with music by Duke Ellington; and “Nine”, a 1982 musical based on the Fellini film “8½” about a tortured film director facing professional and romantic crises.
There were a lot of flops along the way. Producing on Broadway is always risky without a surefire formula for a hit. Things got even more difficult in the late 20th century when theater folk migrated to Hollywood, labor and advertising costs rose, and high ticket prices discouraged audiences. More and more producers had to pool their resources to get shows off the ground, and even then, their investment was unlikely to pay off.
One of Mr. Berlind’s accomplishments was staying in the game. Despite the challenges, he took risks on shows because he believed in them and could afford to lose as many times as he won.
“I know it’s not economically viable,” he told The Times in 1998. “But I love theater.”
His successes included “Proof”, “Doubt”, “The History Boys”, the revival of “Death of a Salesman” in 2012 with Philip Seymour Hoffman and the revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.
Scott Rudin, who produced about 30 shows with Mr. Berlind, said Mr. Berlind was driven by “tremendous strength and persistence”.
“He did not let himself be dissuaded by the obstacles that kept other people from doing it,” Rudin said in an email. “He had tremendous positivity, which is much, much rarer than you might think.”
This became evident after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when Broadway went dark for 48 hours, a sign of the economic uncertainty that reigned over the city.
At the time, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged the theaters to reopen quickly, and they did. But half a dozen shows were shut down, and one that was about to be closed was “Kiss Me, Kate,” which Mr. Berlind was deeply involved in and loved immensely. He loved Cole Porter’s music and everything on the show had clicked. The winner of five Tonys, including the best musical revival, “Kate,” has been running for nearly two years and wasn’t due to close until December 30, 2001.
However, due to a sharp drop in ticket sales, production should be stopped early. A closing date for entries on September 23 has been announced.
Shortly before the curtain rose for the supposedly last performance, Mr. Berlind, a humble man who showed little of the show style typical of the theater, entered the stage. He held the final notice in his hand and tore it open.
“The show will go on,” he told an already emotional audience.
The cast and crew had agreed to give up 25 percent of their salary and donate another 25 percent to buy tickets to the show for rescue workers. The move allowed “Kate” to continue running until it was scheduled to close on December 30th.
“That was my Merrick moment,” Berlind later told The Guardian of London, referring to David Merrick, one of Broadway’s most famous oversized showmen.
The Guardian continued to praise Berlind’s lavish London production of “Kate”, which opened this October, as “a symbol of the indomitable and graceful pressure of a community, indeed a city in turmoil since September 11th “.
Roger Stuart Berlind was born in Brooklyn on June 27, 1930 to hospital administrator Peter Berlind and amateur painter Mae (Miller) Berlind, who gave painting lessons while raising her four sons.
The family moved to Woodmere, Long Island when Roger was 3 years old. He attended Woodmere Academy and went on to Princeton, where he majored in English.
His life on campus revolved around the theater. He joined the Triangle Club, which performs student-written comedies, and Theater Intime, a student-run theater organization. Years later, in 1998, he donated $ 3.5 million to build the 350-seat Roger S. Berlind Theater as part of an expansion of the McCarter Theater in Princeton.
After graduating in 1952, he joined the army and served in the counter-espionage corps in Germany. He was once on a troop ship with Buck Henry, the comic actor and writer who died that year, and the two regularly created shows for the soldiers.
When Mr. Berlind returned to New York in 1954, he was determined to become a songwriter.
“He loved the big band music of the 40s, he could play almost any song in the American songbook and he had a great memory for lyrics,” said his son William in a telephone interview. His own tunes were simple and nostalgic, like the titles “Lemon Drop Girlfriend” and “Isn’t It a Rainbow Day?” underneath. But Tin Pan Alley was not interested, and when he needed a job Mr. Berlind was referred to Wall Street by friends.
“I’ve never had a business class in college,” he told Playbill in 2005, “and I had 26 or 28 interviews before anyone hired me.”
He worked for four years at an investment firm and in 1960 co-founded the brokerage firm Carter, Berlind, Potoma & Weill, which went through various iterations until it was acquired by American Express in 1981. His partners included Sanford I. Weill, who became the chairman and executive director of Citigroup, and Arthur Levitt Jr., the future chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
It was an exhilarating time for Mr. Berlind. But on June 24, 1975 his world ended.
He had gone to the airport that day to meet his wife, Helen Polk (Clark) Berlind and three of their children – Helen, 12; Peter, 9; and Clark, 6, who returned to New York from New Orleans after visiting Helen Berlind’s mother in Mississippi.
While approaching Kennedy in a severe storm, the Boeing 727, Eastern Air Lines Flight 66, was torn down by a windshear and crashed, killing 113 of the 124 people on board, including Mr Berlind’s family.
Her son William, 2, was at home with his nurse in Manhattan at the time. Growing up he had unsolved problems with what had happened.
“Roger was so damaged by the accident that he didn’t spend as much time with William on the subject as he could have,” said Ms. Berlind, who married Mr. Berlind in 1979.
Finally, a psychiatrist told Mr. Berlind that he had to answer Williams’ questions, even if he kept asking the same question. Ultimately, this turned out to be therapeutic for both father and son.
“He was present and strong to me,” said William Berlind, former reporter for The New York Observer and New York Times Magazine author, who followed his father to Broadway and worked with him on several shows.
“He was shaped by the tragedy,” he added, “but it didn’t eat him up and he persevered.”
In addition to his wife and son, two granddaughters and a brother, Alan, survive Mr. Berlind.
Over time, friends connected Mr. Berlind with people in the theater, and he soon became immersed in the whole process of putting on a show. He had a reputation for generally being more observant than many producers when it came to not disrupting the creative process.
But Mr. Berlind always insisted that the work he supported had merit. While he kept an eye on the end result, he was able to be seduced by sheer artistry.
“He had been a tough and successful businessman, but he was obsessed with talent in his theater life, and he invested in it,” said Rocco Landesman, who produced Guys and Dolls, Kiss Me, Kate and Proof. with him said in an email.
“He loved his flops almost as much as he loved his hits,” added Landesman. “And whenever one of his shows was closed, Roger was ‘available’ again.”