Creative Theatrical Producer Barry Weissler is, by any and all accounts, the O.G. of Broadway. Between him and Fran Weissler, his wife and partner of half a century, they have received seven TONY awards and have produced such masterpieces as Othello, Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Chicago, La Cage Aux Folles and more.
Save for a small stint in Mexico, against all odds, this Jersey boy wandered into a theatre over fifty years ago and never left. Talking to him recently reminded me that New York really is the place where fairy tales become reality. I met him in his office, which appropriately enough, is in the heart of the theatre district.
Periel Aschenbrand: You have been in the heart of NYC for quite some time.
Barry Weissler: Yes.
PA: I’m so interested to hear, from you, how this world has changed.
BW: It’s more homogenized. There was a time where we could create work: Poetry, theatre, independent film making, that was unique and individually special, and everything now has become far more corporate. Years ago, all of off-Broadway was thriving. You could do wonderful work downtown, on Bleecker Street, in Sheridan Square, on 13th Street, Father Carmine was running a theatre on 13th Street. We had a wonderful time. Even though none of us made a great deal of money, very little money, it was a much more fecund creative period for all of us. That’s ended. That doesn’t exist anymore. You can still create but you have to do it within a corporate umbrella. Even off Broadway, they’re limited. Everyone has to do very small things or careful things, or not for profits will put something on for eight weeks, they can get away with that. If there is any change, that’s the big change. So I don’t find it as creative.
PA: That’s so sad.
BW: We would work on the east side or in the West Village and all of us go to Ratner’s and get a basket of rolls and soup and that was plenty. That was great. And it was cheap. You can’t do that anymore.
PA: It’s such an interesting industry, the theatre, because unlike so many other industries, even when actors and actresses and directors and producers “make it,” on the biggest scale, everyone wants to always come back and do theatre.
BW: It’s very personal. You are speaking to one person. A thousand people may appear at a theatre at a given performance, but if the work is good, that thousand becomes one. Everyone feels the same at each moment. They laugh together, they cry together, they’re silent together and therefore it’s a very personal experience. Unlike television and unlike film. Theatre, you can push the envelope, you can go for something on one night that you don’t another night. It’s very spontaneous.
PA: What’s your favorite part? Do you have a favorite part?
BW: What do you mean by that?
PA: In terms of producing a show, I mean. You find something you love and you decide that you want to produce it…
BW: I only do things that I love and that I enjoy. And the reason for that is you have to sit through the gestation period, and sometimes it takes years. And you have to go through incarnations and you have to change creatives, and you have to find your way. I’m a creative producer. There are money producers who hire other people like me to do the work or there are creative producers like me, Scott Rudin, Jeffrey Sellers, my protégé, he did Hamilton, David Stone, he did Wicked, we actually do the artistic work. And we work with the creatives and we have to be in a room every single day and watch it over and over again. I’m not going to do anything boring. It’s my life.
PA: It’s good advice. Not to switch gears, but may I ask you, where did you grow up?
BW: A little town called Jersey City.
BW: I saw New York from a distance but I never knew it existed. I didn’t know what was here.
BW: My parents were immigrants from Poland and Russia and they never exposed me. I came to it on my own. I don’t think I came to New York until the eighth grade. I was thirteen before I ever knew New York existed.
PA: When did your parents come here?
BW: Probably in the twenties and thirties.
PA: What was it like growing up Jewish in Jersey City at that time?
BW: Our neighborhood was mainly Jewish, Irish and Italian working class. There was a lot of anti-semitism in those days. And a lot of race bating, I remember that.
PA: So things haven’t changed that much.
BW: No. Not really.
PA: And so you came to New York in eighth grade and did you always know you loved the theatre?
BW: I didn’t even know it existed. You know how I got into theatre?
PA: I’m hoping you’ll tell me.
BW: I was illiterate. I could barely read or put a sentence together—my cognitive abilities were nil. My parents didn’t help me, it wasn’t their fault, I’m sure they loved me but it wasn’t their thing. They were just hard working people trying to survive. I barely got of high school. I couldn’t get into college because I couldn’t pass the SATs. There was one school in America that would take you if you could pay and that was Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey. You know Upsala University, which is the great teaching universities out of Sweden? Well, they had an offshoot here. How that happened is beyond me. It was the only school I could get into. And I took a liberal arts course and I played football. I didn’t know how to study or what I wanted to do and I was getting really beat up on the football field. Comes the end of the first half of my freshman year, I’m failing in every course, and I couldn’t continue playing football and the dean sent a letter saying if I couldn’t pick up my scores, that I would be out of Upsala College. And I was so depressed and I was swathed in bandages from being beaten up and I didn’t want to go home and it was spring break I was wandering campus and wound up in the parking lot and wound up at this old college in the back of the parking lot was little cottage and I heard murmuring and so I wandered in and they were rehearsing Measure for Measure.
PA: Oh my god.
BW: I didn’t know what it was at the time, I found out later but I was comfortable. I was absolutely comfortable.
PA: That’s so beautiful.
BW: I sat in the back, watched the rehearsal, and I thought, this is a good thing. I joined the company, worked backstage, became an actor and from that point on did every play and every musical that we produced and started studying 24/7 and made the Dean’s List my sophomore year.
BW: What if that little shack hadn’t been there? My life would be different now.
PA: You think serendipity and luck play a big part in all of this?
BW: It always does. But you have to be open. And I always had it in me. I just didn’t know I did.
PA: And then you moved to NYC?
BW: No. Because I wasn’t sure yet. It was a strange world for me. Our world was to become a doctor or a lawyer. . .
PA: Sure. Were your parents like, are you insane?
BW: Yes, yes, very much so. I had a little Metropolitan two-seater and I didn’t know what the hell to do with my life knowing I loved theatre. By that time I had already spent three and a half years of my life in theatre and I had at that point started to come to NY to see plays.
PA: To the theatre district?
BW: Yes. And I drove around the United States and wound up in San Diego, went to Tijuana for the first time and in those days there was a wooden bull ring where the corridas were held and I knew that’s what I wanted to be.
PA: A bull fighter!?
BW: A bull fighter. That was my dream.
PA: Oh my god.
BW: The first kill I almost feinted, I was nauseous, but I knew this was the romantic dream I had to fulfill.
PA: This is insane.
BW: So I started studying bullfighting to become a matador.
PA: Come on!
BW: There was another Jewish matador, his name was Sidney Franklin, very famous matador, out of Brooklyn. So I would have been the second.
PA: You’re making this up!
BW: Unfortunately, I failed. I was too frightened. So I got back in my car and crossed the great Salt Lake desert, I had no air conditioning…
PA: How old are you at this point?
BW: Twenty one? Twenty two? And I made up my mind that theatre was for me. So I came back and met with a marvelous, marvelous woman who I’m sure you remember, Stella Adler.
PA: No way.
BW: I began studying with her. My parents went nuts and they didn’t speak to me for two years. Two years.
PA: My god. That’s a little bit dramatic.
BW: Thank god, though, there was one guy I did all my scene work with. There was one boy who partnered with me all the time and he would feed me one meal a day. His name was Bobby DeNiro.
PA: COME ON.
BW: I went to school with Warren Beatty, Bobby DeNiro, Alvin Ailey, Virginia Graham, I can’t remember them all. And that just opened me up…
PA: I can’t get over this story. What were your parents so mad about?
BW: That I was going to be an actor. It was too strange. It wasn’t in their life box.
PA: Were they very conservative? Is that why?
BW: Yes. They weren’t Orthodox but they belonged to an Orthodox temple in Jersey City.
PA: That place has changed too, huh?
BW: Hasn’t it though?
PA: It’s sort of incredible that you have this big beautiful office in the heart of Times Square.
BW: Thank you.
PA: How long have you been here?
BW: Fran and I had a small place that just kept expanded. We’ve been here thirty, forty, fifty years.
PA: What a treasure!
BW: I’m old.
PA: You’re perfect. May I ask you a few questions? What’s your favorite drink?
PA: How do you eat your eggs?
BW: I don’t have too many eggs. Usually scrambled.
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?
BW: I’m not very observant. I don’t observe any holiday but I like being a Jew. It’s a good communal sect.
PA: Did you have a Bar Mitzvah?
BW: Yes. Because in those days I was under parental control. I don’t think I enjoyed it.
PA: What shampoo do you use?
BW: John Barrett. I go every other week, in Bergdorf.
PA: I LOVE that.
BW: I have to keep my beauty.
PA: Amazing. Gefilte fish or lox?
BW: I like both. But I like salmon mildly smoked. I enjoy Zabar’s. Gefilte with horseradish? Love it.
PA: Five things in your bag right now?
BW: If I don’t have my watch on, it feels naked. So my watch, my keys and my wallet.
PA: Okay. And do you have a favorite pair of shoes?
BW: The ones I’m wearing. Lattanzi, it’s an Italian shoe, guaranteed for life.
Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.