Backstage Pass to Broadway
True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent

November 29, 2013

The name Susan L. Schulman probably doesn’t mean much to many of my readers, but it jumps off the page for me and for many of my fellow theater journalists. She’s one of the legion of press reps that we deal with to get access to the information about which we write. There’s a symbiotic relationship between critics, columnists, editors and feature writers on the one hand and the press representatives, publicists and PR firms on the other.

Schulman, who has been the press rep for literally dozens of Broadway shows and a like number of national tours, has now written a “tell tales” book – not a “tell all” volume, but one that tells enough to make it a fascinating read for anyone interested in knowing the behind the scenes scoop on such productions as Applause, Dream, State Fair or Dancin’ or personalities such as Mary Martin, Zero Mostel, Bob Fosse, Lauren Bacall and David Merrick.

Oh, and trust me, you’ll never think of Lesley Ann Warren in the same light after you have read Schulman’s devastating revelations of her insufferable behavior during the very brief run of her last appearance on Broadway, the 1997 musical revue Dream. You will, however, retain any positive thoughts you might harbor for John Davidson and Henry Winkler.

Schulman repeatedly makes the point that the job of a PR person is to create “the right expectations about a show for both the audience and the critics.” She elaborates on that point with the story of how she had failed to do so before the out of town tryout opening of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ which was subtitled “a new musical entertainment” and which was a string of unconnected numbers featuring Fosse’s choreography.

The reviews in Boston “criticized the show for its lack of a through-line or story” because the critics “were expecting a book musical.” She then walks the readers through the ways in which she worked to make sure that the critics who came to review the show when it opened on Broadway knew in advance just what the show was supposed to be. The resulting reviews were very positive.

Schulman’s book lives by the same rules. She makes sure her readers know what her book is supposed to be before they get past the second paragraph of her foreword. She lays it out thusly: “This is not a chronicle of the last 40 years of Broadway, but snapshots of particular stars and Broadway productions as viewed through the eyes of a working press agent.”

She proceeds to live up to that standard – mostly. There are a few digressions into television and movies and then, late in the book, she offers a brief (10 pages) discussion of “So What Does A Press Agent Do?” and “How Has PR Changed” which together add up to a mini “Press Agentry for Dummies.”

But the first roughly 150 pages are packed with interesting tidbits and events from Schulman’s career. She waxes eloquent on the charms of Mary Martin in a chapter rightly titled “A Fan And Her Idol Come Full Circle.” She’s caustic in her revelations of Zero Mostel’s behavior (but not as caustic as when discussing Warren) and we get a very positive view of both George C. Scott and Robert Redford.

Indeed, in the case of Redford, she admits to being so “flummoxed” by being in his presence that she turned down the chance to join a dinner party with him. “Having all that intelligence, personality and charm focused directly at me proved I wasn’t quite as cool as I thought I was” she says.

Schulman names names almost all of the time. On page 68, in a discussion of the bio blurbs that artists provide for the playbills, she does cite the text of one particularly egregious example of rampant egotism without identifying the subject. A quick Google search for that text, however, reveals that the bio is of an artist named Shea. Who? Maybe she didn’t name names because no one would know who she was talking about.

Along the way, she peppers the pages with interesting tidbits like producer Robert Franz paying actress Margot Kidder a thousand dollars to be his “date” for the opening of a show, the way in which outspoken left-leaning actress Vanessa Redgrave was silenced during her Broadway run in 1976, and how fugitive author Abbie Hoffman managed to negotiate production rights for his book and even pose for a press photo while keeping anyone from knowing his whereabouts so the police couldn’t arrest him.

Bear in mind that this is a book written by a woman who has spent a career crafting press releases. She uses the vocabulary that she has developed over the years of pushing out announcements, calendar listings and suggested column items. She tries to be chatty and personal but doesn’t reveal a lot about herself. That’s all right, however. We read the book to learn about the people she knew and worked with, not about her.

The book is nicely illustrated with the photographs that Schulman discusses, including one of Hoffman obscuring his face behind a dozen roses and one in which she’s pushing a groping Zero Mostel’s hand off of her breast.

Backstage Pass to Broadway
by Susan L. Schulman
Heliotrope Books
190 pages including a detailed index and 33 illustrations
List Price – Paperback -  $17.65