Actor Beth Fowler got her big first break in 1970, when she briefly took over the lead role in “Gantry” from Rita Moreno while the show was in previews. Despite having no rehearsal, Fowler knew all of her lines and all of her songs. The one thing she forgot was the stage directions.
“I didn’t know you had to remember which way to go off and which way to go on, so I didn’t know my entrances and exits,” Fowler said. “It was a pretty crazy night.”
The show closed on opening night, but it gave Fowler an agent and a start to a 50-year career on Broadway.
Fowler joined about 80 theater professionals celebrating 25, 35 and 50 years on Broadway as part of the Broadway Salutes event at Sardi’s Tuesday. The event, put on by the Broadway League and the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds, is meant to honor career milestones on Broadway for all theater professionals from ushers to producers to press agents.
Across several decades, much has changed on Broadway. Casting director Tara Rubin, who has been in the business for 32 years, is nostalgic about the days of casting without the internet, when the slower pace of making casting decisions outweighed the burden of carrying physical indexes.
“I used to lug theater indexes around all the time and that’s how I did research,” Rubin said. “I haven’t opened one in probably about a year.”
In her fifty years working in the industry, Irene Gandy, a press agent and producer who has been involved in at least 46 productions on Broadway and 17 years of national tours, remembers hand-delivering press releases to newspaper offices in the hopes that the item would be included.
While the delivery method may have changed, the lesson behind it still stands.
“Personal relationships have always been important,” Gandy said.
That was true for many attendees who relied on personal relationships and a bit of luck to get their big breaks.
Attorney Bruce Lazarus was referred to his first client by his boss’s assistant. He took on that client, the Blue Man Group, with little idea of what they actually did.
“I had no idea what they were talking about, but they were willing to pay my retainer, so I took the money,” Lazarus said. He’s now celebrating 25 years in the industry, including stints at Disney and now at Samuel French.
Rubin got her first job working as an assistant to the producer of “Execution of Justice” because her neighbor had worked for him. Her next job, and subsequent start to her career, came when she joined Johnson-Liff Associates, who had cast that production.
And Fowler, who has been in 12 Broadway productions, fell into theater after spending years as an elementary school teacher and then being discovered in a community musical.
Working on Broadway has not been an entirely rosy experience. Attendees bemoaned the increasing commercialization of theater, along with the increasing prices. William E. Briggs, a house manager and industry professional for 50 years, says he’s seen audience behavior worsen and dress codes disappear.
But, as David Hyde Pierce, the host of the event, said in his speech, the experience is made positive by the number of people working together.
“The collaboration, the evolving organism that is Broadway is one of the greatest achievements, I think on the planet. And it is one of the great experiences I’ve ever had,” Pierce said.