Women Who Wow Us: Week Eight

JENNIFER ISAACSON

Jennifer Isaacson is a two-time Tony Award winning producer. Jennifer is the Executive Producer of WalkRunFly, a Broadway production company co-founded by Warren Adams and Brandon Victor Dixon. Her credits include: Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Neil Patrick Harris, Of Mice and Men starring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, An American in Paris (Broadway, West End, and National Tour), ANN: The Ann Richards Play at Lincoln Center, Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, the National Tour and Off-Broadway production of The 39 Steps, and the Off-Broadway production of Beebo Brinker Chronicles. Prior to joining WalkRunFly, Jennifer was a producer with Harriet Leve Productions and Raise the Roof, collaborating on such critically acclaimed productions as The Mountaintop starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, La Cage Aux Folles starring Kelsey Grammer, and A Little Night Music starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury.

A Conversation with Jennifer Isaacson

Jamie Maletz: So, you’re a Broadway producer!

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes.

JM: This is very cool. I have a Broadway producer in my living room. And you’ve won two Tony Awards, one for Hedwig and the Angry Inch and one for The Norman Conquests.

Jennifer Isaacson: Mmhmm!

JM: So, first question: what is it like to be a Broadway producer?

Jennifer Isaacson: That’s a good question. I often get asked what a producer does, and it’s so many different things. It can be anything from developing a new show to raising money. I started out mostly as a co-producer for many years (that’s raising money on other people’s shows), and then a few years ago, I came on board with WalkRunFly as an executive producer to develop shows, which is far more fascinating and what I really like to do.

JM: So developing shows is your favorite aspect of producing?

Jennifer Isaacson: It is. I spent many years co-producing. Co-producing means that the lead or the creative producer would have developed the show for many years and shepherded it to Broadway. Then co-producers come on board at a certain point in the development process to raise funding for the commercial production. As a co-producer you have the opportunity to be involved with many different shows. However, developing work is where I like to be. I think that’s what most people like to do in this industry. Many of us come from a creative place or have some kind of creative background.

JM: It’s riskier, though, right? Because if you’re developing a piece, then you’re on the journey for so much longer, and then if it doesn’t end up panning out, that’s that much more time you’ve put into something that didn’t end up going anywhere.

Jennifer Isaacson: I have learned that over the past couple of years. [Laughs] Yes, since developing new shows, we’ve had some projects that we thought were going to be fantastic, and then for whatever reason, didn’t move forward. It’s like having a…baby who you’re raising and nurturing, and you hope that everything’s going to turn out for the best.

JM: It’s similar to the risk level and time commitment of the writer.

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes, and you have to put that time in. You have to put the money in, you have to raise the development funds, you have to put in the work to see it through. Because you’re not going to know…sometimes you read something on the page, and you will not know if it really clicks until you see it in a reading or on its feet and give it a chance to grow.

JM: Yeah. So it’s funny that you mentioned a lot of people ask you what a producer does, because I thought about asking you what “a day in the life” is like. But I know that for a lot of people who produce, it varies a lot.

Jennifer Isaacson: It does.

JM: And there isn’t really a “typical day.” So I guess a variation of that question is…what are some things that you do often as a producer that you really enjoy?

Jennifer Isaacson: I love developing new works with writers, especially when it’s early stages. I enjoy being in the room and being that shepherding voice for them and giving an opportunity to develop the work. That’s my favorite spot, because that’s when I feel closest to the work.

JM: What are some of the differences you’ve experienced in your work as an executive producer, as opposed to co-producing?

Jennifer Isaacson: My experience over the years optioning work and developing work opened my eyes to what a producer really does. When I was co-producing and when I was working with other producers who were co-producers, you really didn’t get to see the behind-the-scenes process. You know, you bring on board investors, but you are not a general partner truly leading the production. Whereas, now, developing shows, it is a much more involved process.

JM: In what way?

Jennifer Isaacson: It takes a lot of will and perseverance to really see a project through. There are so many circumstances that can set back or just stop a project. It’s like you are the CEO of a company, and you must be the leader, the voice, the believer in it.

JM: I think I’ve heard someone else describe the lead producer as being like the CEO of a company before.

Jennifer Isaacson: I feel like it’s a thing people say. And it’s true. Each Broadway show is literally an LLC or an LP. It’s a company. It’s like a start-up.

JM: I love that every show has its own company name, and it’s not always the name of the show itself. Like, I’m currently a little bit obsessed with Six the Musical, and I think theirs is Ex-Wives Ltd.

Jennifer Isaacson: That’s hysterical. Are you working on Six?

JM: No, but for the amount of people I’m telling about it, they should hire me to do press for them.

Jennifer Isaacson: I’ve heard great things about it!

JM: So, this might be different from show to show, but how much time do you get to spend with the cast and crew? Like for example, when you co-produced Hedwig and the Angry Inch, did you get to spend time with Neil Patrick Harris?

Jennifer Isaacson: Very. Little. Time. [Laughs] Not as much as I wanted. Because when you’re a co-producer, you’re not on the day-to-day as much. You know, you show up for certain rehearsals, advertising meetings, other company events, but you are not leading the production in the same way as the lead producer. Though Neil did kiss me on the cheek backstage at Radio City [Music Hall], when the Hedwig production won the Tony.

JM: That’s awesome. So is he nice in person?

Jennifer Isaacson: He was very lovely in person, in the small interactions I had. It’s funny, because I loved Hedwig so much. I remember seeing the film for the first time when I was in high school. I grew up in Alabama, and there was one little tiny art house theater that would show non-traditional films. I had never seen Hedwig, I had no idea what it was…I didn’t know it was an off-Broadway show. I went to go see it and I was like, “Oh my god, this is the most innovative storytelling I’ve ever seen!” I was obsessed with it from when I first saw it. And when I heard that David Binder was bringing it to Broadway, I thought, “We have to be on board.” I was working with Harriet Leve at the time, and so she and I came together to form a co-producing team on it along with WalkRunFly.

JM: Speaking of WalkRunFly, is there a story behind the name?

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes, it’s from a quote. It’s about the evolution of what we do. The original quote is by Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” So that’s where it came from. WalkRunFly.

JM: And at the company, you work with Warren Adams and Brandon Victor Dixon?

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes, they co-founded the company, and I’m their executive producer. I’ve known Warren for many years, and he formed the company with Brandon after they worked together on Motown [the Musical]. They’re both creatives–Warren’s a director/choreographer, Brandon’s an actor–and so they wanted to bring on board somebody who had producing experience to come in and help shape the company and help build their existing slate of projects as well as bring in new projects.

JM: So what’s that work environment like, when the three of you are together?

Jennifer Isaacson: It’s a good, positive creative energy. We have very long creative discussions.

JM: Very fun.

Jennifer Isaacson: Very fun. Yes. Politics are often discussed as well, as you can imagine.

JM: Well, I think that we…not have to, but kind of have to, be a little political these days.

Jennifer Isaacson: Yeah, one of the first pieces that…it wasn’t even a theatrical piece, it was a viral video piece that the company did called I Can’t Breathe. It was a flash mob, essentially, with Broadway performers and crew members and people of the community who came together to sing a song that Daniel J. Watts led and wrote in response to Eric Garner being killed by the NYPD. People were upset, people were angry, and needed to do something in response. This work was created five years ago, yet it feels relevant. As artists we must use our platform. And that philosophy shaped some of the work that we’ve been working on, too. You look differently at what you want to put out in the world.

JM: Yeah. I actually wanted to ask you about something a little bit related, as far as involvement in current events, because I read in your bio about the concert you helped produce in 2013, “From Broadway With Love.” You joined an all-volunteer team to put up a concert of healing for the Newtown, CT community following what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes, the event was led by Van Dean, who’s a Broadway producer and head of Broadway Records. I remember I was sitting at my kitchen table watching the news, and right after the shooting occurred…I was just crying, and my phone rang, and it was Van. And he said to me, “Do you want to help me? I want to do something. I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but this is my idea, do you want to be part of this?” And I said, “Yes. I want to be part of this.” And it was an event that brought together over 100 Broadway artists to the Newtown community for a one night only concert at the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, CT.

JM: And there was an hour-long commercial-free broadcast version of the concert aired on tri-state area PBS stations, right?

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes, members of the Newtown community–parents, siblings, friends, students, teachers, first responders–were invited to this concert. It was this night of healing, and I feel like every artist that we reached out to…we had Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole, Marc Shaiman, Stephen Schwartz…so many people from the Broadway community, and everybody just wanted to come together to do something and have a moment of love and healing and connection, to tell that community that…we’re here for you. We’re here with you, and you’re not alone in this time.

JM: And you helped plan it?

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes, I was one of the producers. Though reflecting back, it’s upsetting because I think we all thought that was going to be the last mass shooting…“Well, it has to stop after this.” After little kids are killed in an elementary school. What more can happen? And here we are almost six years later, and even this past week, there were two shootings.

JM: And with what happened in Times Square

Jennifer Isaacson: I think everyone’s very on edge. The other day, I was reading an article about bullet-proof backpacks.

JM: There are bullet-proof backpacks?

Jennifer Isaacson: There are. And that’s a thing that some parents are buying for their kids. It just really breaks my heart.

JM: You know, I read a lot of reactions to what happened in Times Square, and descriptions from people who were there. It really was just a motorcycle backfiring, but a lot of people got hurt because they thought there was a shooter. I read about panicked strangers running into Broadway theaters, some begging to hide in the actors’ dressing rooms with the actors, just hoping they weren’t going to die. And I also read some people saying things like, “I hate that this was my first thought, but my first reaction was…of course there’s a shooter in Times Square. Our turn.” And the sentiment that really stuck out to me was, why is it that when a motorcycle backfires, our first thought isn’t, “Oh hey, a loud noise.” Why is our first thought, “Someone is coming to kill me.” Why is that our normal?

Jennifer Isaacson: Yeah. And I do have those thoughts. It’s not the first time that something’s happened or was threatened to happen in Times Square. It’s the center of New York, and a lot of people come through here, and hopefully nothing will ever happen.

JM: Yeah. So when I was reading about this concert that you did in 2013, it made me think about where we are today.

Jennifer Isaacson: I know. Nothing has changed. And I think that’s…I really think it’s heartbreaking. And it’s demoralizing, in a way, because you think, “This one has got to be the last one. This is the line in the sand we’re not going to cross.” And yet so many lines in the sand have been crossed. What is it going to take to end it?

JM: Which is not to put a big heavy political damper on our conversation. My actual, related question is, how do you think that we as a Broadway community now can be using our art and our power to make a difference?

Jennifer Isaacson: That’s a really good question.

JM: Because that is what you did with your concert after the shooting. You made a difference, you provided comfort and were able to show that we cared as a Broadway community. And we do have some power, as artists.

Jennifer Isaacson: From a community perspective, each artist and individual must use their platform to speak out and to volunteer or to organize fundraisers. I think there’s more that we always could do. I think there’s a lot of power in media that Broadway can harness even more than it does. I’m so supportive of everybody who’s working on something political right now on Broadway. This is why I joined the board for Houses on the Moon Theater Company, a not-for-profit focused on creating works centering on social justice and issues of immigration and gun violence. We need more companies like this, more work delving into these issues.

JM: I completely agree. I hadn’t heard of Houses on the Moon Theater Company, but that sounds like exactly the kind of thing we need right now. And more things like it. I always feel like there’s something right at the tip of my tongue. Like, some awesome idea that could be so helpful. And I feel like some sort of event or concert or initiative that we could do…

Jennifer Isaacson: I mean, actually, that’s a great idea. For example, there’s Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids. Maybe there should be a Broadway initiative about gun control or gun safety. Artists for an End to Gun Violence. There might be an organization out there like that now, but if not…let’s start it, Jamie! Let’s start this organization!

JM: Okay! I’m in.

Jennifer Isaacson: As artists and creators, yes, we have this platform, yes, we have this voice. How do you make it heard, and how do you make it have an impact and a difference? And also, how do you engage people outside of our typical audience? There can be a bubble, an echo chamber. Yes, we’re championing for this cause, but it can feel as if we are preaching to the choir within our own industry circle since many within our community and core audience share similar political views.

JM: Yeah, we don’t need to change the minds of most of the people who would come to a Broadway concert for the cause.

Jennifer Isaacson: Right. How do you get to the rest of America? I think Broadway has an excellent platform. How many people from all over the country come to see shows on Broadway? Granted, many want to see something that’s going to be exciting and fun and family-oriented. But I think there are opportunities to have more political work where we address those issues in shows that otherwise wouldn’t seem political.

JM: I have a theory that the people whose minds you actually need to change, if they feel like your show is political, they will instantly shut down and they will not listen to you.

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes. Because they feel like they’re being attacked.

JM: So the shows that are openly political are not going to work. It’s going to be the ones that are subtly political, where people think they are just having fun and seeing a show, but where the message of the show is the message that you want to make them think with. Those are the ones that actually have a chance of changing minds.

Jennifer Isaacson: Yes, I agree with you. Because, for some audience members, if they think something is not within their worldview, they will not go. They will say, “Oh, that show’s not for me.”

JM: “Ugh, those liberals.”

Jennifer Isaacson: Right, right, exactly. I grew up in Alabama, I know. [Laughs] And it’s really made me examine a lot of the projects that I’ve been working on, and that WalkRunFly is developing. I often step back and say, “What can we do? What kind of work can we put out there in the world that’s going to make a difference?” Work that can get a message across to the people who need to hear the message. And that’s the trickiest part. It’s a really great question.

JM: Speaking of the work we’re putting out in the world, what projects do you have going on right now, or what’s up next on the horizon?

Jennifer Isaacson: I have one that I’m really excited about that I cannot talk about, and I wish I could. But it’s very exciting and it ties into working with female artists of color. And then…there is a project that we’ve been working on for quite some time. It’s a Super Mario Brothers-inspired parody musical. It’s written by Danny Rooney and Sharone Sayegh and we just did a closed developmental reading directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker, who was the director of Puffs.

JM: Aw, I love Puffs.

Jennifer Isaacson: I know. Yeah, we were really excited to work with her. We are also involved with Moulin Rouge. We are partnered with Brisa Trinchero, and we’re part of the International Theatre Fund, who is a co-producer on the show, so we’re a small piece, but a little bit involved.

JM: So you got to go to that very glitzy opening.

Jennifer Isaacson: Oh, I was at the opening night. It was great. It was very glitzy.

JM: It looked very fun.

Jennifer Isaacson: It was a lot of fun. And the show was a lot of fun, too. Yeah, another movie that I’ve loved since high school, now on Broadway.

JM: It’s on my list of shows that I want to see, for sure. You know how sometimes you read the reviews and you know what you’re gonna be getting into, like you can picture it, and then sometimes you can’t? This one I can’t. They’re like, “You walk in and there’s an elephant.” And I’m like, “Okay??”

Jennifer Isaacson: I know, right? Another project that we’re developing is a musical called Trial that focuses on Charles Lindbergh as a lens to explore issues of racism and anti-immigration in modern America. The score of this musical was written by Michael Ogborn, and Warren Adams co-wrote the book with Michael. Warren is also directing. We did a developmental reading this past January at The Vineyard Theatre.

JM: So, as a producer whose interview is likely to be read by a bunch of musical theater writers, do you have advice for how to get noticed as a writer? Or, to word it perhaps a bit more specifically…how can writers present themselves and communicate in a way that makes them more likely to be able to make and maintain a connection with producers?

Jennifer Isaacson: Hmm…that’s a really good question.

JM: Because it’s not just about getting noticed, it’s about having a producer actually be interested in who you are as a person and wanting to know you and work with you.

Jennifer Isaacson: This might sound generic, but know your audience. If a writer reaches out cold to a producer and it’s apparent that that the producer is one of many people the writer is reaching out to, then it can be a little bit of a turn-off. Take the time to research and find a producer who really matches your tone as a writer or who you feel would champion your voice…I think that’s really important. Finding that connection. And that way, they don’t just feel like they’re a name on a list that you’re just emailing, but that there’s been some real thought behind it. At first I was going to say, produce your own stuff. Because I feel like it’s the best way I’ve always been introduced to new writers. I think now there are so many avenues for writers to self-produce their work or have concerts, and really try to get people in the door. Because I think having that moment as a producer where you’re in the room and you’re hearing someone’s work creates a connection and strengthens it. I’m someone who, it’s hard for me to just listen to a demo and fully hear it.

JM: You can love musicals and not want to listen to everyone’s demo.

Jennifer Isaacson: Yeah, with the constraints of most demos it can be hard to present the work in the best light. And I think that’s why self-produced concerts are brilliant. I’ve been introduced to so many young writers that way. And if you meet the producer, then maintain the connection, and keep people up to date with what you’re working on, too. Don’t think of it as just a connection to make, but a relationship to build. Because it’s somebody that you would hopefully be working with for a very long time. And even if a producer does not want to work on this first project, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to work on your next project. Think of it in the long term, not the short term,

JM: So, what was it like for you starting out in this industry?

Jennifer Isaacson: I was very fortunate in that one of the first people that I worked with was a woman, and I feel like I was thus supported and had a mentor from the get-go. It can be a very male-dominated industry, especially in producing. I feel very fortunate that I had a female mentor. But it’s hard, you start out, there’s no real pathway in this industry. On Broadway, you’re creating your own path.

JM: So what has the path that you created for yourself been like?

Jennifer Isaacson: I started out in not-for-profit theater for a couple of years Off-Broadway and then moved pretty quickly into commercial Broadway. I started out as an assistant, then associate, then worked my way up into raising money on shows, I’ve been a co-producer, now I’m developing shows.

JM: And why did you join Maestra?

Jennifer Isaacson: I joined because there is a lot of disparity in the industry for women. Not just female composers, but female musicians, music coordinators, supervisors, up and down the board. I knew some of that disparity existed, however, I did not have any insight into how deep it ran until I joined Maestra and had an opportunity to have open conversations with women in the music department and learn more. I think it’s important to have a community that’s supportive. And then, also, a very important aspect is the Maestra database. I think it’s an invaluable resource and something that’s been needed for a long time, and I’m glad that it’s happened and it’s here and growing.

JM: How has Maestra helped you or people that you know so far?

Jennifer Isaacson: I’ve had several meetings so far where I’ve met with producers who say that they would like to work with more female composers or female musical directors. And I’d say, “Well, there’s this great database where there’s a whole list.” So it’s helped tremendously in that way.

JM: It’s so great to hear a producer’s perspective.

Jennifer Isaacson: I had a meeting recently with another female producer. She was describing this new idea she had for a musical, and she said, “I want to have a female writer compose it, but I can’t think of anybody beyond these three big-name people.” And that’s when I told her about the database. And she responded, “This is such a treasure trove.”

JM: So you’ve started to answer this already, but why should people care about the services we offer and the goals that we’re working towards?

Jennifer Isaacson: I think people should care in that we need to have diversity of story. And I think having diversity of storytellers and writers and composers is essential to continue to grow Broadway, to continue to develop works that draw in new audience members who we need to bring into this community. I think it’s important to tell stories that aren’t being told. There are stories out there that aren’t being represented, and I think Maestra helps create opportunities to tell those stories and to have that representation and to have that diversity.

Special thanks to Jennifer for sharing her story.

Read more of our Women Who Wow Us series, including interviews with Nancy Ford, Anessa Marie, Elise Frawley, Erin McKeown, Meg Zervoulis, Masi Asare, Britt Bonney, and Emily Grishman.

Women Who Wow Us: Week 8
Author: Jamie Maletz
Editor: Sara Cooper

Photographer: Laura Yost


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