A curtain call for Wendy

A curtain call for Wendy

bergenPAC prepares to toast a Broadway producer and booster

Wendy Federman displays some of the 15 Tonys she’s won.
Wendy Federman displays some of the 15 Tonys she’s won.

The Bergen Performing Arts Center is throwing out all the stops to honor Wendy Federman. ABC News reporter Nina Pineda will emcee. New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy will speak. Local violinist Kersten Stevens will play. And the Performing Arts School dancers will, well, dance.

Ms. Federman may not be a household name, but her Broadway shows — including “The Band’s Visit,” “Leopoldstadt,” and “Parade” — have won 15 Tony awards and two Oliviers (the British Tonys).

She’s also very active at bergenPAC. “I served on the board for many years,” Ms. Federman told me on a Zoom call. “I always felt it was a wonderful venue, even back when it was called John Harms. I always thought it was great to have a place just 10 minutes from home” — she lived in Alpine at the time — “not only for my husband and myself, but for my kids.”

All this, of course, is sufficient reason to throw a lunch. But as I discovered in an hour-long conversation with her, there is an even better reason to throw a lunch, perhaps even a dinner. She is the number one optimistic cheerleader for Broadway and live performances. No matter what you ask her about — whether it is the threat of congestion pricing or high ticket prices — she manages a positive response.

Best to start at the beginning. She grew up in Scarsdale, in a family she describes as Conservadox. “My grandmother lived with us, my mother’s mother, and she was Orthodox. So it was a combination of everything; Hebrew school three days a week, Shabbat dinners, and, of course, celebrating the holidays. I have a lot of good memories from back then. Passover at the Concord is one of them.”

Show business was in the family bloodline. Both her mom and her aunt were singers and performers. “I had to sing harmony by the time I was 5,” she said. “I played the piano. I was in dance class. But I also happen to have enjoyed my father’s business.”

Dad owned a large and successful floral ribbon company. And should you be as confused as I was, floral ribbons are used to tie flower arrangements and bouquets and is — or at least was — a big deal. It also proved to smooth her way into a show-biz career.

After her father died, Wendy and her brother took over the family business and ran it successfully, until “at a certain point, we did have some different visions on how we saw the business run. After negotiations, it made more sense for me to move on, because I had other aspirations and interests.”

By then, Wendy was comfortably ensconced in Alpine — she’s in Edgewater now — married to a dentist, Bob Federman — he’s a TMJ specialist, who treats temporomandibular joint disorders, she points out — living a life of relative leisure. “Everybody knew me as the theater/entertainment person,” she said. Because she attended so many events, friends and family constantly sought her out for advice on which shows to see.

“I was always the one everyone in the neighborhood called,” she said. “I planned everyone’s theater dates. I’d say this [play] is for us girls. This one we bring our husbands. And this one our kids.”

On the subject of kids, when her son was 2 years old, “I’m invited to a play group in Cresskill,” she said. “I walk into the house and see all these Broadway posters. Turned out it belonged to a lovely couple. The husband was a lawyer, Bill [Miller], who made a lot of money and loved the theater. He had the rights to two off-Broadway houses.

“We became great friends, and we’d go to the theater a lot together. Then we’d talk about all the aspects of the show we’d just seen. One day, he just said to me, ‘You know, you’d make a good producer.’

“I laughed and said, ‘I know what directors do. I know what stage managers do, and I know choreographers, for sure. But tell me what producers do.’ Which I laugh at now because it’s something I get asked all the time.”

“He said, ‘Listen. You can read a play. You know if it’s good. You know if you liked a song. You’ve got a good eye for the material, and you also know how to look at a financial statement.’

“It sounded interesting, because at that point in my life I wasn’t going to become a professional dancer or actor. I was a biofeedback therapist.”

Also, she had the money from selling her share of her father’s business, “so I became an investor.”

A few years later, when her children were older, she switched from investor to producer. That is, she scouted for suitable investment vehicles and then gathered investors to fund the project.

“At that point, I felt a little easier taking it on, and signed on for my first show. That was over 100 shows ago. I’m asked to speak at a lot of career days at schools, and one of the first things I say is that your first career doesn’t have to be your last career. You can take everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve ever done with you to whatever you do next.”

Ms. Federman doesn’t function as a lead producer, a Scott Rudin, for example, who has substantial creative input. But she has the juice to move a project ahead. She says she may read a book or see a film, or others might bring a production to her and invite her on board, through her Foolish Mortals Productions company. It’s where she gathers investors.

Who are they? “A lot of them are doctors and lawyers. I wouldn’t say they were very rich, but they are comfortable. So they have maybe 5% or 10% of their income they can decide what to do with. So Broadway becomes kind of interesting. You know there are people who put money into restaurants or racehorses. I’m fortunate enough to deal with people who love theater.”

Her list of hits is impressive, She’s been involved with “Company,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Moulin Rouge,” and “Hadestown,” among many others. Opening soon, “The Who’s Tommy” and “Cabaret.”

Minimum investment is $25,000, though frequently friends gather to form an LLC and pool cash to reach that figure. The spectacular success of “Hamilton” on Broadway and its various road companies has spurred interest in potential investors even though, by Ms. Federman’s own estimate, only one in five plays repays its costs. But money isn’t necessarily the goal, which is more being part of show business, having access to good tickets and the opening night cast party, and perhaps even rubbing shoulders with stars.

For Ms. Federman, though, it means much more. She saw a pre-Broadway performance of “Parade” with her daughter. “We just looked at each other,” she said. “Besides the fact that it was just brilliant, how often do you hear the Shema performed so beautifully in a stage musical?

“So I found out who has the rights to it, called and said I’m coming on board with you. I want to be part of this. It’s not just the money. It’s the feeling of satisfaction of supporting the arts.”

Still, does Broadway have a future? Ticket prices are spiraling. Orchestra seats are going for upward of $150 each. Add dinner, parking, and tolls if you’re in from New Jersey, and it becomes a very expensive evening. (Unless you are a doctor or lawyer, of course.)

“Live theater has been around since the Greeks,” Ms. Federman said. “Theater has been around longer, I think, than any other form of entertainment. You never know what you’re going to get. That’s the brilliance of live theater.”

I remind her that my question wasn’t about live entertainment generally, but Broadway in particular. “A little thing happened called covid, and we are still recovering from that,” she answered. “We are the most resilient of industries because we were hit the hardest, but we are coming back. Just look at the numbers. Last week we were at 92% of capacity.”

Unfortunately, the next week the numbers were considerably lower and two well-reviewed shows — the hilarious “Spamalot” and the innovative “Days of Wine and Roses” — announced early closings.

Ms. Federman was not to be denied. “Broadway supports 14 unions. 96,000 people have jobs because of Broadway, from the lovely person who hands you your Playbill to the person in the box office to the press agents. We’re a union industry.”

One solution is to increase government funding for the arts. Compared to many countries, the U.S. is a piker. Also, there are many ways you can buy tickets cheaper online. And if recent visits are any indicator, half-price tickets to even the best-reviewed shows seem invariably available.

She’s not pleased with congestion pricing either, and through the Broadway League continues to fight it.

Ever the optimist, though, she concludes: “We survived 9/11. And we survived covid. And we’ll get through this. We’ll get it figured out. I think we are extremely lucky to have Broadway within our reach.”

For more information about the luncheon, go to bergenPAC.org/support-bergenpac/spring-luncheon or email amy@bergenpac.org.

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