What does a producer do? The image that often comes to mind is the one created by Mel Brooks in his movie and subsequent Broadway hit The Producers — some overweight, cigar-chomping guy trying to rip off old ladies.
Hollywood has done a pretty good job of perpetuating that stereotype, says John Breglio of Lewisboro, N.Y., who spent nearly four decades as an entertainment lawyer before becoming a full-time producer himself.
“There are a lot of misperceptions, and the reality is generally unknown,” he said.
To help set the record straight, and provide guidance for producers, would-be producers or anyone who wants to know how a play or musical comes into being, Breglio has written I Wanna Be A Producer: How to Make A Killing On Broadway … Or Get Killed.
Breglio readily admits that the book contains some dry, difficult subjects — obtaining rights, writing contracts, raising money, forming royalty pools, getting a theater — “But these are the things someone needs to know if they want to do this.” Drawing on his own experiences, it is solid business book on the entertainment industry, but also an entertaining and informative book that takes anyone who loves the theater behind the scenes and into the creative process.
While many books have been written on the theater and the people in it, “There has never been anything like this, and I have been gratified by the response to it,” he said, adding a common comment he gets from those in the business is, “I wish I had something like this when I started out.”
He began writing the book, making notes in longhand on yellow legal pads while on a beach in Nantucket, two years ago. It took about 18 months to complete. “I wanted to explain what a producer does in a readable and digestible format. Once I figured out the structure — to take the reader from an idea to opening night — and knew the beginning, middle and end, it was the matter of finding the right stories that would fit and illustrate the points. And I had lots to choose from. It was fun to do.” And for the lay person it is fun to read.
From initial concept through marketing and publicity, there are seemingly endless tasks to be completed. A successful producer or lead producer team, says Breglio, “needs to have a vision and work with a creative team that shares it. The producer needs to be captain of the ship; one or two people have to have the right to make the decisions and control the process, but while working in tandem with others. I have observed that plays that are done by committee are disasters. If too many people are exercising their ‘rights’ to make decisions, it is confusing for creative people.”
Because of the costs of putting on a Broadway production — about $3.5 million for a straight play, $15-20 million for a musical — the ability to raise money is critical, but even the most successful producers prefer not to put more than a million dollars of their own money into a show, according to Breglio. And that money generally is put in upfront as it can take a year or two and up to several hundred thousand dollars just to get things in place — the rights, assembling the creative team, show managers, etc. — for a musical. From concept to opening night often takes about five years, and in some cases double that.
Over his long career, Breglio has worked with some of the biggest names and most successful shows in theater — Joseph Papp, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Patti Lapone, August Wilson and Mel Brooks — but no one had more of an influence on him, personally and professionally, than the innovative Michael Bennett, who conceived, choreographed and directed the landmark A Chorus Line and initiated the concept of a show workshop. Breglio began as Bennett’s attorney and advisor in 1974, left the law profession to become his producing partner in 1977 for a short time before returning to law and his prior status with Bennett, as well as close friend. He was named executor of Bennett’s estate, which he has administered since Bennett’s death from AIDS in 1987.
“I sometimes wonder, ‘What might Michael have accomplished had he lived?’” Breglio said, adding, “There is no way to measure the impact of AIDS before a treatment was developed. The disease wiped out hundreds of actors, writers, directors, designers, producers and countless others in every craft within the entertainment industry; what would we have inherited from them if they survived?”
It was as Bennett’s executor, with a number of producers approaching the estate to revive A Chorus Line, that Breglio began to give serious thought to producing it himself. “I’d been a ‘shadow producer’ for years, guiding and advising many producers who never produced before through the process. I thought, I think I know what I’m doing, I could do this,” he said. “But I had a substantial law practice; could I do both?”
In 2005 he met with the other owners of the musical and laid out his thoughts, and they agreed to allow him to produce the show, which would open in San Francisco. The revival opened on Broadway in 2006 and one night, after two years of splitting his time, a line spoken by Cassie reverberated through him like never before: “And what I really don’t want to do is teach other people how to do what I should really be doing myself.” “In that moment,” said Breglio, “it was very clear, not a complicated decision, and I gave up the law practice.”
Doing so has enabled him to restore a 1700s house on Nantucket, write the book and pursue other productions, four or five of which are in process. His next show to open will be Dream Girls in London this fall.
I Wanna Be A Producer: How to Make A Killing On Broadway … Or Get Killed is available at online and through book retailers. For additional information on John Breglio and the book, visit iwannabeaproducer.com.