A conversation with Wendy Federman

A conversation with Wendy Federman

Broadway producer puts the audience first

Producer Wendy Federman says theater is in her blood.

The Alpine resident – president of Foolish Mortals Productions and winner of a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award for the Broadway revival of “Hair” – notes that her mother and aunt “did some radio and Broadway from the 1930s through the ’50s.” And her uncle, Paul Frees, was the voice of Boris Badanov, the Jolly Green Giant, and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

“My aunt went to L.A. to make a movie and stayed there,” she said. At a time when Jews had to change their names to get work, her mother and aunt, “both beautiful blondes,” enjoyed some success.

But her mom, giving up the bright lights to raise a family in Westchester, “always missed it,” said Federman. “I saw that and I learned from it.”

Federman, who named her production company in memory of her uncle, whose biography was entitled “Welcome, Foolish Mortals,” recalls that every time he called, he used a different voice.

Wendy Federman, with her Tony for “Hair.”

Growing up in a home where she was “always surrounded by singing” – her mother, she said, had a beautiful soprano voice – the producer began her own theatrical career at Temple Israel in White Plains when she was about 15 years old.

“They had a theater group there,” she said. “I co-wrote and starred in a show called ‘Maccabee’ and performed it on the bimah. It had three performances.”

She recalls the show as being “quite wonderful, and it was in 1974, before ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.'”

Federman is now about to produce two plays by Neil Simon.

“‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ is as Jewish as you can get,” she said. “It’s all about family and dreams – going back to our roots and trying to pass it on to our children. People are looking for nostalgia in this recession.”

Also on her plate is a revival of “Little House on the Prairie” with Melissa Gilbert, which will open soon at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

“I think of the play as an American ‘Fiddler,'” she said. “It’s about the same sort of things.”

While Federman began her theatrical life intending to be a performer, she always had one eye on business. In addition to taking classes and attending auditions, “I would go to my dad’s office a few hours to work.”

When her father died, she and her brother took over his piece goods business, “manufacturing ribbon and importing everything for floral and craft. Family comes first,” she said. She continued with the business for another 10 years and then sold the company to her brother.

“It was time to move on,” she said, adding that by that time, she had had her first child, Heather, now 22 and a student at Brooklyn Law School. Federman became a biofeedback therapist, with three stress-management centers in New Jersey. Still, theater was her first love, and she soon found a way to combine all her skills by dealing with “the business part of it.”

“The business of theater could be the business of zippers,” she said. “There’s budget, the people who work for you, sticking to your costs.” Of course, she added, “the product has to be good.”

When her son Max, now 17 and a junior at Tenafly High School, was a year old, Federman became close friends with one of the families hosting his Mommy and Me group. As luck would have it, the host-child’s father owned two off-Broadway theaters and appreciated Federman’s love for, and understanding of, theater.

Five years ago, he asked her to produce “Legends,” starring Joan Collins and Linda Evans.

“He thought I’d be great with the women,” she said. “We played 30 weeks in 19 cities. Each new city was like a new opening night.”

Since then, Federman has been in high demand, producing such Broadway shows as “Moon for the Misbegotten,” starring Kevin Spacey.

“When you have a Tony Award, they come to you,” she said, noting that she goes to a lot of readings to find new material and has made many friends in the business.

Federman feels strongly that it is important for the theater to offer “something of quality and merit. We need to be more sensitive than ever to the economy. People can go to fewer shows, so we need to be even more astute.”

She’s working on a revival of “Ragtime,” which she hopes to bring to Broadway in November. The producer feels a special affinity for the show, having grown up in New Rochelle, where the story begins.

As for “Hair,” she explained that rather than viewing it as a “dated” show, she was attracted to it as a universal story of teenage angst.

Among other projects, she is also working on a musical version of “The Addams Family,” starring Nathan Lane as Gomez and Bebe Neuworth as Morticia.

“Charles Addams was Jewish,” she said. A cartoonist, “he was really depicting a quirky Upper West Side Jewish family. That was lost in translation.” Members of the Addams family may seem odd, she said, “but they love each other.” The play, she said, will explore the question, “Who is normal?”

Federman, whose husband Robert is a real estate developer, describes the job of producer as “chief cook and bottle washer. Every project is different,” she said, adding that some come with actors and directors attached, while others “start from scratch.”

“You have to be very fiduciarily responsible,” she said, “and extremely concerned with people’s money.”

Ultimately, though, “the project must mean something to me,” she said. “I have to be able to speak passionately about it. We’re asking people to spend money, so we need to be sure the product is as good as it can be.”

For more information about Federman’s upcoming productions, visit www.foolishmortalsproductions.com.

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