|Wendy Federman and her daughter, Heather, celebrate at the Tony award celebration.|
Wendy Federman of Alpine was one of the team of producers whose play, “All the Way,” starring Brian Cranston, won this year’s Tony for best play.
So what exactly is a producer, and why did she become one?
Why? That question’s easy.
Her family background pulled her to the theater.
You know the Haunted Mansion in Disneyworld?
It’s a creepy old house, oddly placed in the Florida sunshine; the line to get in worms through a faux graveyard with faux-funny tombstones. Once you get in – your guide ominously intones the instruction that you stand in the “dead center of the room” – the doors whine and then slam closed, the southern light is replaced with crepuscular shadows, and a voice from an unseen source starts to talk.
“Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion,” it says, as the room dips and the paintings on the walls grow long.
Who’s behind the disembodied, authoritative, spooky voice?
It’s Ms. Federman’s uncle, Paul Frees. A successful voice actor, Mr. Frees created the soundtracks for other Disney attractions as well; it is Mr. Frees’s bloodcurdling bass telling visitors to the Pirates of the Caribbean that “dead men tell no tales.” He also provided the “ho ho hos” for the Jolly Green Giant and the squeaks for the Pillsbury Doughboy. Most amazingly and improbably, he also was the voice that came out of Tony Curtis’s stunningly made up lips as Mr. Curtis’s character, Joe, cross-dresses as Josephine. (Mr. Curtis, the story goes, could not maintain the falsetto long enough. Mr. Frees could.)
Her mother was a radio and television actress until she retired to Scarsdale to have children, Ms. Federman said, and her aunt, Joy Frees, became a well-known vocal coach.
But Ms. Federman at first took after her father’s side of the family, joining him in the manufacture and global import of wholesale and craft ribbon. She moved to Alpine in 1989 and sent her children to school locally; the family belongs to Chavurat Beth Shalom in Alpine. She worked locally too; she became a biofeedback therapist, and then opened three centers for biofeedback. That kept her busy.
But the theater was in her blood. How to return to it?
First, she became an investor. “I got to know people, and to learn what I like and what I don’t like,” she said. “On every show, you learn something from everyone you work with. And I have so much more to learn – it never ends.”
Becoming a producer was the logical next step.
How to define the job? That’s not easy, because there are so many ways to do it. The first obligation is the most obvious – you have to help provide the financing any production needs. Beyond that, “you do everything,” she said. “You are interacting with the creative team: with the directors and actors” if it’s a musical, with the musicians; with your marketing team to make sure that it’s being marketed correctly.
“You are the show’s number one cheerleader.”
There are many levels of producers, she added. There are the ones who contribute money and little else. “They are wonderful, and we need them – they write a check and say ‘I’ll see you on opening night.’ But I prefer being hands on.”
The more active producers do the myriad jobs that must be done but have no one specifically designated to do them. “I have cooked and made food for actors,” she said. “There was an actress who came from London, who thought that March in New York was springtime. She came without a coat, in flats with no socks.” Ms. Federman soon sorted that out. “I ran and got her a robe – she came from the shower with just a towel – and a coat,” she said.
Once you start as a producer, you also watch more seasoned veterans carefully, and you learn. Eventually, if you are good, you are asked to be part of the team of lead producers; beyond that is the major responsibility of becoming a general partner.
“A musical can cost $5 million on the cheap side, and easily go to $10 million or more,” she said.
Although nonprofit theaters such as Lincoln Center and Roundabout need fewer producers, because theatrical productions have become so extraordinarily expensive there can be seven or eight to a show.
“Every show is its own little business entity,” Ms. Federman continued. “Every show is entirely different.
“Different shows have different vibes. Some actors are warmer and fuzzier than others. Bryan Cranston – who went from a terrifying turn on “Breaking Bad” to a differently terrifying Lyndon Baines Johnson – “has to be the sweetest, funniest, most generous actor.”
The Tony she won two weeks ago for “All The Way” is her third; the other two were for revivals of “Pippin” and “Hair.” She also has won a number of other awards, including Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle.
“Pippin” is a very physical show, with “a lot of Cirque du Soleil kind of movements,” Ms. Federman said. “A lot of acrobatics. And there is no net under these people. There are no do-overs. It is a real thing. Some of the performers come from circus families.”
“I have always tried to look for things that say something positive, that bring a certain message across,” she said. “And we employ dozens if not hundreds of people every week. We are doing good work.”
Ms. Federman’s involvement with the theater goes beyond the shows she is producing. “There is just so much creativity around,” she said. “So much has to happen so fast and so seamlessly, and it is so wonderful when it does all work. I know that we’re not doing brain surgery here, but it is really hard to do – and a wonderful thing to watch.”
Ms. Federman is a Tony voter, and she takes that responsibility seriously. Beyond that, she adores lives theater – so during her down time she treks all over the city, finding small productions, watching, taking notes, paying attention.
She is now working on bringing both “Bull Durham” and “You Can’t Take It With You” to Broadway. “Bull Durham” is a play based on the 1988 movie, and “You Can’t Take It With You” is a revival of the classic play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. (The late Moss Hart is undergoing his own revival; the critically acclaimed “Act One,” now on Broadway, is based on his memoir.)
When Ms. Federman won the Tony for “All The Way,” she already was a veteran at accepting awards. She had learned – the hard way – that when you go up onstage in front of an audience, you don’t want to carry your handbag. (Except, of course, if you are Queen Elizabeth.) She goes to the presentations with her daughter, who ends up holding the bag. Literally. “She looks at me, and she says, take your lipstick. Give me your bag. Give me the phone.” And then Ms. Federman climbs up onto the stage. “Winning – it’s the icing on the cake,” she said.
To find out more about Ms. Federman, go to her website. It’s named in memory of her uncle’s most well-loved lines – foolishmortalsproductions.com.