Danny Feldman Talks Tony Award | Artists put Pasadena Playhouse in the Spotlight

In conversation with Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman

PHOTO: Jim Cox | The South Pasadenan | Producing Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse, Danny Feldman.
PHOTO: Jim Cox | The South Pasadenan | Producing Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse, Danny Feldman.

“It’s an extraordinary moment. It’s incredibly meaningful because of the ups and downs of this theater for so many years and so many people in this community rooting for it and keeping it going.” I’m speaking with Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman the morning after it was announced that the Playhouse is the recipient of the 2023 Regional Theatre Tony Award and the $25,000 grant that comes with the honor.

“It’s wonderful,” says an obviously thrilled and grateful Feldman. “It’s something that with or without this honor, we’re on a path here at the Playhouse and we know what we’re passionate about, and we’re building. And hopefully this acts as an accelerant. This puts a spotlight on us.” Given the difficulties that all theaters have experienced, not only during the pandemic, but leading up to it as well, this attention could not have come at a more opportune time. “This puts a spotlight on all Los Angeles arts,” says Feldman, “particularly L.A. theatre – there’s a rumor that you have to go to New York to see great theatre. Hell no, you can be right here and see it right in your backyard! And so, it’s very meaningful to get that kind of spotlight and to be seen in that way. Anyone who’s been working here or coming to our shows already knows that – we don’t need a Tony to tell us. We have a great cultural institution here and great cultural institutions in our community. This hopefully will lead even more people know that, so that is why it’s meaningful to us.”

PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | The South Pasadenan | The interior of Pasadena Playhouse, the State Theater of California.
PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | The South Pasadenan | The interior of Pasadena Playhouse, the State Theater of California.

Feldman’s culture and theatre taste was shaped by his experiences growing up here in Los Angeles. He came to student matinees at the Playhouse in his youth and then later, as an Ovation voter and the director of Reprise Theatre Company, he saw the shows through the years. He remembers coming to the historic building and watching as the Playhouse went through its 2010 bankruptcy protection filing and the subsequent generosity of donors in the community who kept its heart beating under the leadership of Sheldon Epps.

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“I knew the work Sheldon Epps was doing here in that period, to really expand the stories of who was on our stage and what stories we tell in a time that was way ahead of the curve – really bravely doing that. And I also knew of the struggles and knew it was a theater that was scrappy – in the best of ways, and did some really great things, but always had an element of struggle around it.”

After his years in New York running the Labyrinth Theatre Company, Feldman was tapped to succeed Epps as not just Artistic Director but in a newly merged role of AD and managing director, which meant that in addition to leading the artistic vision of the theater and programming, he was also in charge of the financial management, marketing and fundraising.

“What was I thinking?” Feldman says, only half joking, when asked how he felt upon taking the helm in 2016. “I came into a particularly challenging moment here at the Playhouse when it really felt like this was our last chance. How many times can a community, foundations, members and subscribers bail out a theater? It felt like it was make or break and we were staring in the face of death yet again.” With all eyes on him, Feldman and his team set about digging out of a pretty big hole by engaging as many people as they could and getting them to listen, support and give them a chance. “I think that’s why for me personally, this is just so incredible and meaningful. We still have real challenges ahead of us, like all cultural institutions, but we’re in a stronger place than the Playhouse has been in a long time and we’re hopeful that the people around us and our artistic vision and our audience support will help us navigate challenging times ahead.”

Artistically, Feldman decided that the best course of action was to swing for the fences by igniting people’s passion for the Playhouse and big, bold theatre. “I believe this at my core – the way to make people fall in love with the institution, as they were for many years, is through the work on the stage – to create an excited and passionate audience, you have to do exciting and passionate work on the stage – that pushes and stretches and flexes in certain ways,” he says.

The Pasadena Playhouse was designated the State Theatre of California in 1937 and Feldman maintains that delving into what that means and elevating that designation with work that is worthy of it is what has given him and his team their direction. “There’s never been a cultural institution that has gotten out of a financial problem by shrinking their programming,” he explains, “and it’s counterintuitive when your budgets are tight – when you are struggling to get people to show up. Boards and organizations, using the rational part of the brain and say, “we’ve got to cut a little bit. We can’t do that big musical, we’re gonna have to shrink and do a smaller musical”, right? That’s real. I don’t want to knock anyone who feels that way. But what we’ve learned here is doing the opposite, actually, is what gets attention and traction and support – that in the midst of safeness doing things that are not safe, and that are pushing. Are you working at a level of excellence?” Critics, audiences and now the Tony Awards committee agree the answer is a resounding yes!

“We’ve been fortunate – we’ve worked with some very talented people and given them a space to do their best work. And I think what’s unique and special about the turnaround we’ve had here in the last couple of years, it has been 100% driven by the art on the stage and by the artists on the stage. And that is unique. And that should be celebrated. And that’s a lesson to all of us – that when you bet on artists you usually win.”

And there have been some very big wins these past few seasons, so many that it’s difficult for Feldman to pick just one pivotal moment, but when pressed, he finally lands on their wildly successful revival of the musical “Ragtime.

PHOTO: Jenny Graham | SouthPasadenan.com | Coalhouse and Crew (From Left: Candace J. Washington, Clifton Duncan, Cornelius Jones, Jr., Bryce Charles) in “Ragtime” at Pasadena Playhouse

“Ragtime was a monumental moment for us. It was one of the largest shows we’ve ever done. There was a question of could we pull it off? Because it was a Broadway caliber musical done here at the Pasadena Playhouse, while we were still turning around staff and growing and building,” he tells us.

If the show was going to lose a lot of money and not be successful, Feldman felt it would be the last time they could “go big”. In fact, it’s rare for regional, non-profit theaters to do revivals of musicals on that scale. The vast majority of Broadway musicals we see are national tours. While Feldman is indeed grateful that Los Angeles is a community that is fortunate to be on the national tour circuit, he points out that there has been an absence of homegrown musicals because they are deeply expensive and challenging to pull off.

Feldman saw an opening to produce shows using our local talent – from directors to designers and actors to create big, ambitious shows from scratch. “Ragime was our test case,” he explains, “and it was a huge success – bigger than we ever imagined. It was a turning point that built confidence in the community.”

Other highlights for Feldman include Alfred Molina starring in “The Father”, which he says was “just an unreal experience for me. We had Culture Clash here my first season which was a play we asked them to revisit and it was in the middle of the Trump presidency and migration conversations. So it was a play that was directly addressing what you saw on the news that night and it was really electric in the room every night – there was a lot of passion, a lot of energy.”

It certainly made the building come alive in a very new way, as did their staggering production of a new play called “Sanctuary City” this past season. “It was one of my favorite things,” says Feldman, “the audiences were just riveted by this –  it was not only an extraordinary new play on the front edge of the American Theatre in terms of its storytelling, but we had a very young group of artists telling the story. People come up to me still, in the middle of seeing these big Sondheim musicals and say, “This was amazing – but I’m still thinking about that play.” And I think about that play all the time, which is fantastic. And so, I love all of them for different reasons. And they all attract different audiences. And part of being the State Theater of California, in my interpretation of it, is we have to have the widest possible tent. We are representing one of the most diverse places on the planet, and so how do you have a theater that represents that? It’s going to be a theater that has a beautiful revival, with the top theatre makers in the country making “A Little Night Music”, but also immediately followed by a brand new play by one of the most exciting young voices, Zora Howard – our new play, “Stew”, this summer that was a Pulitzer finalist. So that is the exciting part of our role here is we get to not just be one thing –  we get to really show a wide range of theater that is on the front edge of the American Theatre.”

Ana Nicolle Chavez and Miles Fowler in Sanctuary City
PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | South Pasadenan News | Ana Nicolle Chavez and Miles Fowler in Sanctuary City at Pasadena Playhouse

Feldman sees “Stew” as another step in their role of being more responsive to the community. He says the story is one that he had never heard on stage before and is excited for audiences to see something different. “That is the audience we’re trying to cultivate. One that is willing to go on an adventure and have a night out and see a new story, take a risk and join us. And the only way to do that is by doing the work, doing big, bold, exciting things that will create a big, bold, exciting audience.”

The Playhouse is closing out what has been an extraordinary and unique season that was built entirely around one artist, Stephen Sondheim. The idea came during the pandemic and Sondheim had signed off on the idea and been engaging with them when he passed away in November of 2021. Feldman reflects on the cultural and political upheaval that occurred during the pandemic and says that for cultural organizations it became a question of how to fit back into a world that had changed so dramatically and quickly. “The role of a cultural institution is not only to entertain, but it’s about bringing folks together,” he says. “All of that was the genesis of our Sondheim celebration – an idea that instead of having a regular five show season, going show to show, we break out of our systems and structures and explore an idea, in this case a person, Sondheim, and give our audience a chance to do a deep dive into one idea and give them a chance to go on a journey together as a community.”

They began the season with an unprecedented production of “Into The Woods” that was created by an all-star high school cast from all of the Pasadena Unified Schools. Over 200 students created a show alongside professionals and guided by the Playhouse team. The students were given the keys to the car in that they created the sets and the costumes, making it a tremendous collective effort that was seen by over 9000 people, two thirds of which were students that the Playhouse brought in for free along with a free performance for the parents. Feldman recalls sitting in the audience on the family night, watching parents see their kids’ creation of a rather sophisticated musical, as an overwhelming moment. “It changed the way parents viewed their kids – it changed the view of those students of themselves – everyone who was involved. It was an awesome experience to be a part of – a life changing moment for so many people. You felt it in the room.”

PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | South Pasadenan News | The cast of “A Little Night Music” at Pasadena Playhouse.

Next up was a beautifully lush production of Sondheim’s very personal work, “Sunday in the Park with George” which saw a full orchestra on stage giving audiences a rare opportunity to hear the full score as it was written and intended to be heard. As the Tony Award announcement was made, they were in the final week of another stunning full scale musical, “A Little Night Music”, staged with a 22 piece orchestra, which received rave reviews across the board. They also welcomed special Sondheim themed events including Larry Owens’ “Sondheimia”, Eleri Ward’s “Accoustic Sondheim”, and evenings with the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA, Impro Theatre, Pasadena Chorale, VOS Femina LA, and ACABELLA. The season ends with a bit of kismet, when Bernadette Peters takes to the stage to close out the Sondheim Festival with a concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on the same evening Feldman will be accepting the Tony on stage in New York City.

Doing a season like this was a new idea for a regional theater, one they had no idea would actually work – it was a gamble that appears to have paid off. “It’s been a remarkable success,” Feldman says, “it really struck a chord. Over 50,000 people have joined us for this and I think the key to it was we were all a part of something bigger. We explored someone’s work through many different points of view. We had a shared community experience. I think it was a great lesson for us here and I hope to do more of it in the future – create a narrative and create unity of a community coming together for a common purpose.”

What I’m hearing is a call to action because as Feldman reminds us, it is the supporters in the community that made this success possible – who stood up to say this theater, this institution, is important and our community deserves this kind of work. It is an integral part of what makes living here truly great and it’s worth it. “This is your Playhouse,” says Feldman, “we have extraordinary cultural riches here in Los Angeles compared to many other communities in the country and it is incumbent upon us to support them – to go buy tickets, become members, write checks to support, volunteer – it’s important or they’re going to go away. Particularly post pandemic. This is the moment and we’re using this spotlight hopefully as an opportunity to build our audience. So come see what all the buzz is about, join us and come on the ride next year.”

PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | The South Pasadenan | Pasadena Playhouse - The State Theater of California | TONY AWARDS
PHOTO: Jeff Lorch | The South Pasadenan | Pasadena Playhouse – The State Theater of California

You can watch Danny Feldman receive the Tony for Pasadena Playhouse on the American Theatre Wing’s 76th Tony Awards on Sunday, June 11, from the historic United Palace in New York City’s Washington Heights ((8:00-11:00 PM, LIVE ET/5:00-8:00 PM, LIVE PT) on the CBS Television Network, and streaming live and on-demand on Paramount+. Academy Award winner and Tony Award nominee Ariana DeBose will return to host.

CBS and Pluto TV will present The Tony Awards: Act One, a pre-show of live, exclusive content leading into the 76th Annual Tony Awards. The celebration commences at 6:30-8:00 PM, ET/3:30-5:00 PM PT, on Pluto TV, the leading free streaming television service (FAST). Viewers can access the show on their smart TV, streaming device, mobile app or online by going to Pluto TV and clicking on the “Pluto TV Celebrity” channel (no payment, registration or sign-in required).

A limited number of tickets to the 76th Annual Tony Awards are now available at www.TonyAwards.com/tickets.