Independent film producer and CEO of Branded Pictures Entertainment J. Todd Harris (“The Kids Are All Right,” “Bottle Shock”) has been feeling an easterly pull back to his theatre roots over
the past year. Having started in the theatre right out of college running the repertory company TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, the producer of nearly 40 films,
is now producing the stage musical adaptation of Doctor Zhivago based on the Nobel Prize-winning Boris Pasternak’s novel, which also served as the
basis for the 1965 Academy Award-winning David Lean film starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie (and Rod Steiger, Geraldine Chaplin and Tom Courtenay). I
had chance to catch up with this bi-coastal whirlwind last week after he returned from the show’s opening on Broadway.
: Isn’t independent film hard enough? What got you interested in Broadway?
J. Todd Harris
: (laughing). I didn’t think anything could be harder than independent films, but I was wrong. The fact is my wife Amy Powers is a co-lyricist on the show
and has been working on it for over a decade after its first try-out at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2005. Four years ago, we moved to Australia for our way
“out of town” run and I felt I could help raise a bit of money, so I was an associate producer. When word came in last year that it was going to Broadway,
I told them I thought I could raise a million dollars and serve as one of the producers.
: Did you raise your share? And how does it compare to raising money for a film?
: I did, and then some, from about thirty individual investors. In that sense, it’s not unlike a lot of independent films that are financed with equity.
It’s a different eco-system, but the concept is pretty similar. And, just like a lot of independent films, you don’t make money up front! It’s all about
ownership, so you really hope the show breaks even soon. The authors – book, lyrics, composer – all get a royalty off the top. No nonsense like the movie
business. This contributes to my love for my wife.
: What is the show’s budget, if I may ask?
: About 15M, it’s a BIG Broadway show. There are well over one hundred investors and probably 30 credited producers. When A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder won the Tony Award last year, I thought the stage was going to collapse so many producers went up to collect the
award. But, you know, it takes a village. Sometimes a small city. It’s okay to reward and acknowledge the backers of a show. It’s a huge risk and without
these backers we’d be a poorer culture. They’re like modern day patrons. Why not give them a moment in the sun?
: How did you get the rights to Doctor Zhivago? Such a big title!
: I cannot take credit for that. Composer Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden) originally got the rights well over ten years ago and started working
with a creative team, but before the La Jolla production the team changed and that’s when my wife was recruited to co-write the lyrics with Michael Korie ( Grey Gardens) and joined the team that included book writer Michael Weller (Loose Ends, screenplays for Hair and Ragtime
) and director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys). Des was artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse at the time. And the show’s lead producer Anita Waxman was involved very early on providing the seed capital for La Jolla and then putting the financing together for Australia and now Broadway.
: That’s a long gestation period, even compared to Hollywood, isn’t it?
: It is one of the longer ones, but these things can literally take years as creative teams gel, script and music mesh, and planets align for talent, money
and – not least importantly – a theatre. The strange alchemy that gets a Broadway show a greenlight isn’t all that different than the weird science of
getting a big Hollywood movie off the ground.
: Sounds like a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
: There are, but from a producing angle, there’s usually a small group of lead producers who make the major financial decisions and every creative team
finds its own rhythm. Writers and composers are accorded a lot more respect in theatre; that’s the major difference from movies.
: Are you happy with how the show has come out?
: Thrilled. Of course, it’s hard to claim crystal clear perspective when one is as emotionally invested in the show as I am in Doctor Zhivago, but
I think the creative team has taken an epic story and distilled it to its emotional and political core. Lucy Simon has written melodies that will live
forever in the musical theatre firmament. Des has done a masterful job of staging a huge and complex show. Ambition doesn’t begin to describe it. We got
mixed reviews, but so did Phantom, Cats and Wicked. The final arbiter is audiences, and the dozen or so times I’ve seen the show
at the Broadway Theatre, there have been copious cheers and tears.
: You also did a show last year?
: Yes, I was part of the producing team that developed and produced Heathers The Musical, based on the Daniel Waters script directed by Michael
Lehmann back in 1988. It was a great experience working with a very tight creative and producing team. Andy Fickman directed a script, book and music by
Kevin Murphy and Larry O’Keefe. It ran off Broadway for about 5 months and we hope we can adapt that to the screen and go back to Broadway.
: Do you find a lot of talent crossing over from Hollywood to Broadway?
: More and more, that is the case. Not just writers, directors and actors, but also material. Broadway is flooded with adaptations of movies – Aladdin is running strong, Honeymoon In Vegas recently closed, and last year Bridges of Madison County and Big Fish had
nice runs on Broadways as musicals. I definitely have my eye on other fare to crossover from screen to stage.
: Can you tell us what you’re working on?
: Not yet, but some very recognizable titles that I think are ideal for the Great White Way.