“I want to make every musical have the longest possible life and keep them as current as possible, as part of the culture of the world,” says Freddie Gershon, CEO of the theatrical licensing agency Music Theatre International. For his passionate commitment to the theatre arts, and in particular for creating MTI’s programs that help foster a new audience for Broadway, Gershon will receive a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre on the day before the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards® ceremony in June.
Gershon says his own love for the theatre began at a very early age. “I had a mother who dragged me along to see High Button Shoes, and in 1949 I saw Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza do South Pacific at the Majestic Theatre.” He originally studied to be a pianist, but after graduating from law school in 1964 he began to practice entertainment law. An avid theatregoer in the mid-sixties, Gershon recalls being introduced to the downtown avant-garde experimental theatre world by young dramatist Tom Eyen, future lyricist/bookwriter of Dreamgirls, who he later represented. There he witnessed the New York professional of Bette Midler, another future client.
Gershon became more focused on the music industry when he joined The Robert Stigwood Group as counsel in 1971. During the next decade he was associated with, among other hits, the original Jesus Christ Superstar, the television series All in the Family and Sanford and Son, and the movie Tommy. Then in 1982 he decided to retire so he and his wife could live “a reclusive life” on a horse-farm in Connecticut. “I was burned out,” he explains, “and the truth is I made a great deal of money. It was a heady experience.” He is referring to the Stigwood Organization’s record-breaking sales of the motion-picture soundtracks of Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Gershon also wrote a roman à clef about his experience in the music industry titled Sweetie, Baby, Cookie, Honey. “Everything in the book is true except I changed the names to protect the guilty and protect my kneecaps from being broken,” he reports. “It is truly trash, because I wanted it to be accessible.”
Needless to say, Gershon’s retirement didn’t last. First, impresario Alan Carr asked him to help with putting together the financing for a property for which he was having trouble getting investors. Gershon says he was able to round up the money in three weeks to get that show, the 1984 Tony Award-winning Best Musical La Cage aux Folles, on the boards. “I got totally enmeshed in watching this show come to life. It got my adrenaline going again.” Before the end of the decade Gershon was back in entertainment business full-time; he became the Chairman and CEO of Music Theatre International, which licenses the rights to musicals and provides resources for their productions to over 70,000 theatrical organizations in the U.S and in over 60 countries around the world.
Gershon says Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents inspired him, in 1994, to come up with a solution for extending the life of the titles licensed by MTI, while also building an audience of the future. The composer and librettist, whose well-loved West Side Story is represented by MTI, expressed concern that audiences were greying and young people were not getting the opportunity to experience musical theatre.
Gershon decided to meet this challenge by finding a way to engage kids and let them discover the magic of theatre for themselves. “Why do young boys all love baseball? It’s because they have Little League,” he says. “It’s not that they can sit with their daddy and watch -- it is that they could actually play a baseball game.” He felt that the same applied to theatre.
Looking through MTI’s catalog, Gershon realized that in order for his shows to be performed regularly in middle and elementary schools, they would have to be trimmed and adapted. The result is MTI’s “Broadway Junior Collection,” which comes in two flavors: “JR” – 60-minute musicals for performance by middle-school students, and “KIDS”—30-minute musicals for students in the fifth grade and below. With the participation of the original creators of the work, the shows are cut to the appropriate length and the keys are changed to fit the vocal range of young singers.
“We also provide our licensees with extra goodies,” Gershon continues. The MTI package includes a CD that provides a musical accompaniment performed by a live orchestra, as well as a vocal track performed by professional young singers, to help train the students to sing. Eventually the kids learn to do the singing themselves for the actual school performance. “We provide choreographic guides, blocking guides and cross-curricular guides, which the school can use in anticipation of the production of the musical,” Gershon adds. For instance, Annie (a very popular title), comes with teaching guides that help educators introduce such topics as the FDR Presidency and the New Deal into their curriculums.
“Now there are some 30 or 40 junior musicals, including all of the Disney titles, and it has become part of the culture of the grade schools of America,” Gershon announces with pride. “This is the culmination of what I care about most in life, which is a legacy. I can’t write or produce a musical, but I want to keep the musicals alive and keep an audience coming into the theatres, filling the seats with people who have passion for what they are doing, and giving them the thrill of experiencing theatre.”
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The 2012 Tony Awards, presented by The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, will be broadcast on CBS on Sunday, June 10. Neil Patrick Harris hosts the ceremony live from NYC’s Beacon Theatre at 8/7c (time delayed PT).Revised June 4, 2012