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Interview with Jennifer Ashley Tepper, author of The Untold Stories of Broadway
Jennifer Ashley Tepper is a font of all Broadway knowledge. Both a theatre historian and producer, she is currently the Director of Programming at 54 Below, an exciting New York performance venue described as "Broadway's Living Room" which specialises in Broadway acts, cabarets and new work. As a writer her popular series "The Untold Stories of Broadway" go behind the scenes of The Great White Way, from opening nights to closing nights, secret passageways to ghostly encounters, taking in interviews and stories from some of the industry's most prolific producers, actors, stagehands, writers, musicians, company managers, dressers, designers, directors, ushers, and door men.
Her third book "The Untold Stories of Broadway - Volume 3" has just been published and is available to theatre fans all over the world, bringing the magic of Broadway to fans both old and new. This new volume includes eight Broadway theatres, the Broadhurst, the Belasco, the Edison, the Lyric, the Majestic, the Schoenfeld, the St. James and the Walter Kerr and features exciting interviews with the personalities involved with each of the venue's rich histories.
We caught up with Jennifer to hear more about the series and the process of compiling such thorough volumes which have become fantastic learning tools for the industry and beyond.
Dom O'Hanlon: What's the response been like for the third volume of Untold Stories of Broadway?
Jennifer Tepper: It's been great – I've only just started but it's really exciting to see people and hear from people online who are really enjoying the third book, a lot of whom of have relationships with people or shows in it. It's been really exciting to have it out there in the world. Book two came out around in 2014 so it's been a two year process for book three. The crazy thing about the process of writing these books, I did 200 interviews for the first one and I've done 25 additional for each one, so there are interviews that I did in 2013 that have been worked on, and a lot of this book has things I worked on four years ago, so it's an interesting layered process.
DOH: When you started writing did you ever think the project would be this wide ranging?
JT: No – we definitely thought when we started out it was going to be one book, which was very silly in retrospect. We thought that each chapter would be a different theatre and we'll get through all 40 of them. After working on it for a couple of months that in order to really represent the stories and the theatres we needed to have a big group of interviewees and a lot of information. We thought it would be less in length, but the structure from the beginning, going theatre by theatre and chronologically, interspersing different kinds of accounts, that was all in my head from the beginning.
DOH: Did you find the more people you spoke to that it just sort of snowballed in terms of content?
JT: It's totally true that a lot of things do snowball – I started talking to certain people about a certain topic and then realise that something would be a great topic to explore in depth in this volume. A lot of the interviews have come from people who I knew already, but a lot have been cold outreach and asking people for stories. Others have been through people I know or who I've already connected with connecting me to others, along the way that's happened more and more. That's been one of the best things. Some of the most famous actors would get really excited about me interviewing a specific House Manager or a specific doorman, if you're an actor working in one of theses theatre the regular person you see at that theatre is often the House Manager, so I got a lot of cool interviews from being connected to them.
DOH: Was it a difficult process finding people who were happy to talk to you for your research?
JT: It really wasn't difficult in that way. From the beginning of my time in New York as an NYU student I've got really used to reaching out to people and having no shame of putting myself out there and reaching out to a theatre professional, saying "I admire you, would you come speak to this group, be in this concert" etc, I've been a proactive person about that. For years being the programming director of 54 Below is pretty similar as I'm always reaching out to agents and artists I don't know. It wasn't intimidating and I wouldn't say it was different to other things I've done, what's funny is for the first 200 interviews was that many of them were people who I sort of knew. The following 25 interviews were very specific, almost filling in the blanks. Because they were so 'puzzle-piecey' they ended up being people who I didn't know or people who were older, and I had to go through their agents. Some of those have been a lot more challenging. It's led to some really great interviews, and that's been another step of it.
DOH: Do you have a particular favourite or highlight from Volume 3?
JT: One of my favourite interviews in the new book was Peter Gallagher, because I've always admired him as an actor and it turns out he's an amazing storyteller. Every story he told was either uproariously funny or incredibly moving – he spoke about actors who are sadly no longer with us following the AIDS crisis, he told a hilarious story about Tom Stoppard, Mike Nichols, he was just a terrific storyteller and he's been on Broadway for decades, Hair and Grease and so on, so that was definitely a favourite, and it also was because we happened to be talking about a lot of the venues that were in this new book.
DOH: What's been the biggest shock or surprise for you when compiling these interviews – does anything in particular stand out?
JT: Something that I've been dealing with in the third book is I was much more aware that I should make sure I had people of all different races, a good mix of female professionals in the book, that I should bring diversity into it in a way. What was surprising as I tried to do that I couldn't in some ways because the history wasn't there to support it. A lot of times I would think I need a playwright from this theatre, let's get a woman, but only six women have ever had plays at that theatre and four are no longer with us and two I can't reach....that happened a lot. Because those people haven't been given as many opportunities it was hard for me to make sure the book gave them equal weight, and I still tried to do that. A lot of it was me trying to find a staff member of colour in this profession, so maybe I'll write about that and include information on diverse casts that have played this theatre or why this might be the case at this theatre. I tried to build into that but it wasn't the way I hoped it would be because it was difficult to find the interviewees that I wanted to represent, because you can't write history when you're writing a history book.
DOH: You grew up in Florida, far from Broadway. Do you think it's important that people around the world have access and a connection with the industry than can feel so far away and inaccessible?
JT: I really did write the kind of book that I would have wanted to read. I loved theatre books growing up and there were so many favourites that really inspired me. I would have loved to read about what was going on behind the scenes but also get to hear from such a variety of people doing different jobs. One thing I loved about the books that I had access to was that they really made me feel like I was there. Going theatre by theatre, even if I was only in New York once and only visited one theatre, I could find that chapter and go "oh, I saw Wicked here and Sweeney Todd was here", and all this history was where I was and all that history I could physically track even though I wasn't there – that I would have loved, and was something I always tried to do myself. One of my favourite things I get to hear about these books is when younger people say I didn't really know what an interesting job the Orchestrator has or the House Manager, or the Company Manager, to really show kids that there are a lot of theatre professions that are really rewarding and exciting and aren't “back-up” careers; they're just things that you might not of done yet because the High School production doesn't have a Company Manager. That's what I would have responded to reading the books - all the different jobs.
DOH: Did you have a favourite theatre book growing up?
JT: One of my absolute favourite books growing up is 'Not Since Carrie' by Ken Mandelbaum. It's instructive to me and it still is, all the reasons why something that ran for a short period of time might be worth looking into or exploring further, all the value in things that aren't the biggest hits. It's also a very fun book that'll teach you about all sorts of musicals – I love it very much.
DOH: What's your connection with London Theatre – do you have any personal stories?
JT: I adore following it, I studied abroad there and was fascinated by all the theatres of course. It's something I always miss and want to get back. I'm always fascinated by some of the great things I've seen in London that haven't come here, and the opposite is true as well. When I was in London years ago I saw The Witches of Eastwick and I was obsessed with it, I thought of course this is going to be a Broadway musical, and it didn't quite happen, so since that time I've always been interested on what makes something a hit in one place and not in another.
DOH: This current season is particularly exciting on Broadway...
JT: Yes, there's 13 new musicals announced for Broadway and we're only halfway through the season so we could get more – it's crazy. I'm really excited to see Come From Away, I've heard such great things about it. There's so many, I'm excited for Groundhog Day.
DOH: You're now an established part of the Broadway community – what does that extended community feel like to you?
JT: I think that in really recent times I've discovered that it really is the closeness of the community and how interwoven everybody is. If there's a cause or a problem everyone really runs together and supports each other. With this election, the campaign for marriage equality and what's happened with Hamilton this past weekend, it's very clear the influence of the Broadway community goes beyond being in a theatre and having a great time at a show. I have a lot of admiration for everybody and I hope that's something that comes across in the books as well – everyone makes it happen. From the doorman to the actor to the writer. It's lovely to all be here on the streets making stuff.
The Untold Stories of Broadway series is published by Dress Circle Publishing.