Broadway Producer/Attorney Abraham Borenstein
I call him Monday afternoon, April 17, 2006. He's in his New Jersey law office.
I know Avi's son and daughter from Orthodox life.
Luke: "How were your [Passover] seders?"
Avi: "Very late, very loud, very nice."
Luke: "When you were a kid, did you ever think of getting into Broadway?"
Avi: "When I was a kid, I starred in musicals in summer camp."
Luke: "In Orthodox camp?"
Avi: "In those days, the concept of women not singing publicly was not yet developed. In Orthodox camps, particularly Avi Weiss's family's camps, it was not usual to have stage productions where boys and girls sang together. I played in the major leads in West Side Story, Oklahoma, King and I, South Pacific. That's how I developed my love of theatre."
Luke: "Did you always want to get back into it, even after you became a lawyer?"
"I went to a black-hat yeshiva, Mir on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Even then I would sneak into Manhattan and see Laurence Olivier in Hamlet at the Paris Theatre. He won the Academy Award for that production. [It was filmed with stage values for the most part, so it felt theatrical.] That was a major rebellion.
"When I first started working as a lawyer, the firm that I worked for (Proskauer-Rose) represented the primary theatrical interests in Manhattan. They are one of the most prominent labor relations law firms in the country.
"There were various clients who gravitated towards them because they were so well known but they couldn't afford the partners. The American Dinner Theatre Institute came to Proskauer. I was a junior associate. I was assigned to handle the account.
"In 1980, when I started my own firm, they stayed with me as a client. The executive director of the organization was Jane Bergere.
"Between 1986-1991, I represented her Darien Dinner Theatre.
"We lost contact for a couple of years.
"In 1993, she called me. Did I want to represent her in Broadway productions? I said 'No, I don't want to represent you. I want to be your partner.'
"I got involved with a show called Houdini. I wrote some of the lines. I helped produce the show in the Goodspeed Opera house and theatres in Chicago and other places.
"Jane and I co-produced Metamorphoses (based on the work of Roman philosopher Ovid). The entire stage was a swimming pool. The water was used by the director as a metaphor for things that change and things that never change. It was nominated for a Best Play Tony.
"Two years ago, I was involved in a musical called Caroline or Change. It also had some Jewish themes. It was nominated for a Tony Best Musical. It was well received. It broke even, which is a good thing.
"This year we were involved in a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross."
Luke: "Why would you invest your money in something where breaking even is a good thing?"
Avi: "You do that for the love of the theatre."
Luke: "Why do you love theatre so much when there's film and television?"
Avi: "My experience with theatre is analogous to my experience coaching basketball [at a yeshiva]. When the personalities are in front of you and the emotions are so real, the possibility of making a mistake is so real, and the professionalism is so high, that it becomes a real experience. In movies (my one movie was 2002's Topa Topa Bluffs and my involvement was very limited), you don't have any real connection to the piece or to the performers."
Luke: "Most of the time, don't you wish you weren't dealing with real people because they are difficult?"
Avi: "I specialize in difficult people and difficult situations."
Luke: "How many Orthodox Jews are there on Broadway in any capacity?"
Avi: "Must be ten people. I can't name them off the top of my head.
"Broadway is a little inconsistent with today's Orthodoxy.
"I try to stay away from difficult themes that might be too overtly in conflict with Orthodox Judaism."
Luke: "How much does that limit you?"
Avi: "About 25% of the time. I don't have a problem with love issues or religious issues. I try to stay away from sexual issues and anti-Jewish issues. I don't have a problem with controversial Jewish issues. Houdini represents a controversial Jewish issue because Houdini (Eric Weiss) was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who married a Gentile woman. The theme of that marriage is presented in that show and is almost accepted in the show. I don't have a problem with the presentation of it. If the show became more dialectical about that subject, I might have an issue. There are several Yiddish expressions used in the current version of the show that I wrote."
Luke: "Do your peers in Orthodox Judaism give you a hard time?"
Avi: "I have not had a problem from the Modern Orthodox community. I don't think people I know in the charedi (fervently religious) community who know about it have an awareness of what it really means.
"I went to see the show Yentl on Broadway preceding the Barbra Streisand movie. I went on opening night, a Saturday night.
"There were busloads of Orthodox people in attendance.
"There was a mikveh scene with the redhead they [in the yeshiva] fix up with Yentl as her potential wife. The mikveh the girl is dipping in on stage, is on a turntable. She turned around, faced the audience and was completely nude and I can assure you that the carpet matched the drapes.
"There was an audible gasp from the audience. Half the crowd walked out.
"The very next week, they stopped the turntable from turning. You couldn't see it anymore.
"My lesson from that is that we are not going to do anything sexually adventurous. Let some other producer do that."
Luke: "Most of the plays I've seen on Broadway (all one of them) do have nudity."
Avi: "It's not that common today. You are going to see people in skimpy outfits but you are not going to see nudity, certainly not in mainstream Broadway shows.
"The theatre knows that a high proportion of its audience is not New York. It's the tourist crowd. In general, the tourist crowd does not want to go to Broadway and see nudity. They want to see high-level talent. The shock value of the nudity is 20 years old and not necessary. There are shows off-Broadway where you can see that, but Broadway is like Disney -- pure entertainment."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about your involvement in Broadway?"
Avi: "I hate that I don't do it full-time. No matter how inept you feel the person is that you're working with, even they are extraordinarily talented. You are dealing with the top one percent of performing talent in the world."
Luke: "What have been the highlights and lowlights of your Broadway career?"
Avi: "The lowlights have been that every time we've had an opening night, I couldn't go because it was on Friday night and I'm an observant Jew.
"The highlight was the first time that Houdini opened in community theatre in Connecticut. I was a producer and I sat there and sold T-shirts."
Luke: "Didn't you have a play that closed in one day?"
Avi: "I only lost $10,000 on that one. That was The Last Confederate Widow Tells All starring Ellen Burstyn. I knew during previews we were in deep trouble."
Avi: "Because I kept on falling asleep. I have a pretty good sense of what will work. I have a good feeling for how long something will run. Just because something won't be a smash doesn't mean that my partner and I won't do it. Sometimes we'll do a piece just to be active in the theatre. Sometimes we'll do a piece just because we think it needs to be seen."
Luke: "Does theatre matter and why?"
Avi: "Theatre matters as a developmental process of a wide range of skills for the wider media. I don't think that theatre changes anybody's life other than the people involved in the theatre. But it also matters because there is something about a live performance that cannot be duplicated. Creating something out of nothing is a Godlike thing."
Luke: "[In his book Intellectuals,] Paul Johnson calls theatre the most influential artistic medium [for the beginning of the 20th Century anyway]."
Avi: "I don't think that's true now.
"You can only sell 1100 seats a night, at most. You can gross at most a million dollars a week. A movie can make $40 million over a weekend.
"I think movies have been [the most important performance artistic medium] of the past 30 years."
Luke: "Is there a generational thing with theatre?"
Avi: "Unfortunately yes. Younger audiences are not much for theatre and I don't think they're crazy about musicals."
"Musicals, and I mean this in a good way, are the dumbing down of opera. It makes opera accessible to middle-class taste.
"That's why you have all the controversy over the Rents of the world and the rock musicals. Andrew Lloyd Webber is controversial because he takes an operatic sound but the music is simple. He's trying to make it palatable to the middle class. The people at the top level feel it's too light, it's like fluff. People at the bottom level feel it's too rich for them. But there is a wide middle."
Luke: "Do you think Andrew Lloyd Webber is an abomination?"
Avi: "Hardly. If the King James Bible is an abomination for making the Bible accessible, then he's an abomination. But if it is the ability to disseminate, then it's the opposite of an abomination.
"It is like, l'havdil (as it were) some of the Art Scroll translation works of classic Jewish texts. To the Charedi crowd, they are the dumbing down of classical Jewish works for the masses. To the less educated, they open the secrets of Jewish education and have the natural tendency to expand interest and learning. I do not think the Daf Yomi (daily learning of a folio of Talmud) and Siyum Hashas would have the incredible worldwide impact they are having without the Art Scroll Talmud translations. Webber has had the same effect for music appreciation. I think if Webber knew he was being compared to Art Scroll, he would plotz, and Rabbi's Zlotowitz and Sherman (the General Editors of Art Scroll) might find it amusing to be compared to the composer of Jesus Christ Superstar."
Luke: "Are we living in a golden age of Broadway?"
Avi: "No. That was in the 1950s. We are living in the middle age.
"Live performances have become much more dramatic, more flashy, but nevertheless there's a limit to what you can do in a live performance. You have special effects but they are significantly reduced from a movie's special effects. On the other hand, in movies there's a sense of dehumanization from the film because the special effects have dehumanized the characters. All the fast-cutting has dehumanized the characters. You don't have the camera slowly going into the actor. That has taken away from the dramatic focus on the actor. That's one reason why the HBO series are so successful because they give the actor more opportunity to act."
Luke: "How do your kids feel about Broadway?"
Avi: "I took them to see their first Broadway show when my son was nine and my daughter was six -- Les Miserables. They saw it three times. They loved it. They did a lot of Broadway. As the eighties became the nineties and the music changed, they began to feel not as close to it."
June 13, 2008:
Avi replies: Let me offer an analogy. Why does anyone go to a football game in a stadium on a cold, wet winter afternoon when they could get a better view on TV, with replay, a comfy couch and warmth?
The answer is, there is something special about being there...and that same special experience occurs at the theater. There is nothing that seems to involves you like live theater. There is the immediacy of the actors, the live crowd, if you are close enough to see, the spitting as the actors emote, the hush when something special happens, it is there.
In today's world, the experiencing of the entertainment medium is changing. Movie attendance is down..people watch DVD's and pass up the movie theater. More money is made in the sports world on cable and TV than at the theater.
And yet, for the big game, the big event, there is something special about being there.
The same applies to live theater...it is the total experience that makes it compelling, keeps it compelling, and when the whole world is watching movies on a screen built in to their eye shades, will keep live TV as compelling as ever.
The past year "Curtains" with David Hyde Pierce (closing June 29) and "Is He Dead?" a new work by mark Twain, reworked and rediscovered. That was a straight play and while a critical success did not do so well at the box office and closed early.