Brian Zeilinger: How I became a West End and Broadway producer
Reading a list of the shows Brian Zeilinger has a producer credit on is like reading a list of the Greatest Theatre Hits list on both sides of the Atlantic of the past few years: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Dear Evan Hansen, Labour of Love, 1984, Funny Girl, King Charles III, the Cumberbatch Hamlet… The list goes on, and is all the more impressive given he’s yet to celebrate his 28th birthday.
He’s managed to turn his creativity and love of theatre to the numbers and backstage processes, creating the best environment for the artists to deliver, a playground for them to create. It’s a passion for theatre that allowed him to be in the position he’s in today.
“I acted when I was really little, but when I got to 12, I realised it wasn’t for me”, he tells me over coffee in London, where he splits half his time with Broadway. Realising remembering lines and performing on stage didn’t necessarily play to his strengths, a community theatre director showed him the producing ropes, and it sparked his interest, and matched his skills in organisation and planning.
“I realised you can be artistic, but combine the art and the commerce. If I told my high school teachers I was dealing with the numbers now, they probably wouldn’t believe me. I was always good at maths, but I didn’t enjoy it until it was put into context, like theatre.”
That initial realisation as a young boy led to an ambitious adolescence, and while visiting family in New York, he started interning for Broadway producers aged 15. A cold letter to producer Randall Wreghitt was followed by a coffee, which was followed by a placement in his ranks.
“We completely hit it off. When I was doing internships, I wasn’t just filing paperwork. The producers were showing me what they did. Using different methods from the different producers provided me with building blocks for what I do today.”
That’s all well and good, but if you want to build on those foundations as a producer, you need investors. As much as telling stories that matter and to as wide an audience as possible, it’s still a numbers game. You need to convince people to dip into their pockets. Brian approached friends and parents of classmates in his native Ohio to invest in a Broadway production of Mamet’s Speed the Plow, starring Jeremy Piven. Despite not being billed as a producer, he was given the chance to raise a small amount of money for the show - $50,000.
“Worst case scenario, it was going to return its money. I wanted to put them in something so that they could see that the theatre investment model was something that worked. And because they were successful in that, they were willing to put a little bit more money in to the next thing, and tell a couple of their friends. From there, it grew very organically.”
The original five investors in that pool (with the exception of one who has since passed away) remains on Brian’s books.
From Speed the Plow, he has gone from strength to strength, building his client list and his reputation on both sides of the pond. When we meet, he is gearing up for a major West End play he has fundraised for. It’s pretty much a sure thing to be a success, but when the investors see that the show does do well, “they’ll be there for you on the projects that are a little more risky”.
Zeilinger had his eyes set on producing from a young age, and was pretty much destined to be in the position he finds himself today. He isn’t lucky, it’s years of hard work and perseverance that have put him where he is today. But that doesn’t mean the door isn’t open for theatre professionals with producing aspirations.
I met with an actress the other day who asked how she could start producing and the truth is, there’s not a right or wrong way. There are degree courses [Zeilinger studied at Central in London], but that’s not the only way. If you have an understanding of the industry, all those things are helpful. The best producers are well-rounded. A course can’t teach that.”
All well and good raising money for a show. You may be a producer, but what makes a successful show? Is it purely the number on the cheques at the end of the run, or the number of stars in the morning papers after press night?
“It’s 50-50. I’m in this job not just because I want to make a living, but because I believe lives can be changed through theatre. The more we can bring to stage and the more stories we can tell from diverse artists, the better.”
What’s clear from speaking to Brian is that balancing the books isn’t the most important factor of producing a show. Yes, you need a return, but if you don’t believe in the work, then what’s the point? That’s reflected when I ask him which West End production he’s most proud of: Dreamgirls and The Rink at Southwark Playhouse.
“Dreamgirls is an amazing production for diversity in the West End. But The Rink is the first major London revival in 30 years with an amazing cast. The story is about a single working mum and the relationship with her daughter; it’s pretty relevant today. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for a musical.”
And if you’re not excited about the work Brian produces, you simply haven’t seen any yet. He’s worked his way from the ground up, and is showing no signs of stopping. A West End giant in waiting.