With a large swath of the northeast bracing for a blizzard tomorrow, there are hourly headlines as to what’s being canceled here in New York City, where on any given day there are dozens of Broadway shows and hundreds of concerts for locals and tourists. But one cancelation caught my eye: the Robert Whitehead Award, presented this year to Mike Isaacson, a Broadway producer, will not be having its reception tomorrow and will be postponing to a later date. This award given annually by the Commercial Theater Institute for “outstanding achievement in commercial theatre producing,” is the only organization of its kind that serves as a training group for commercial producers.
The name Robert Whitehead, is one that I grew up with from my earliest days of attending the theatre (going on near fifty years with my first Broadway show at the age of ten — you do the math). The name fit the man, too. When a photo with the caption “Robert Whitehead” would appear next to a story about some play he was producing, his white hair and groomed mustache made for the definition of the word “dapper.” When he died in 2002 from cancer at the age of eighty-six, his obituary in Playbill made a compelling case for his being one of the last of a breed: “Whitehead’s like has disappeared from the Broadway producing circles of today. He had more than 70 credits to his name and focused almost exclusively on plays. His name is inextricably linked with serious, high minded fare. Often his projects hosted commanding acting turns by the likes of Paul Scofield, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Julie Harris, Kim Stanley, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and Jason Robards.” This distinguished list would have also included the formidable three-time Tony Award winning actress, Zoe Caldwell, except she was the lead item in the obit, for it was she to whom Whitehead was married for forty-four years.
Robert Whitehead with Julie Harris at the 2002 Tonys,
where both received Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Today there are few producers who, like Whitehead produce three to four plays a season (yes, plays!). But often alongside his longtime parter Roger L. Stevens, that is exactly what Whitehead did. For fifty years, playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter were produced regularly by the team. Miller with After the Fall, Incident at Vichy and The Price (among others) and Pinter by Old Times, No Man’s Land and Betrayal. In addition, Whitehead can claim to his credits some of the best theatre in the latter part of the twentieth century: The Member of the Wedding (Cason McCuller); The Time of the Cuckoo (Arthur Laurents); Bus Stop (William Inge); Separate Tables (Terrence Rattigan); The Waltz of the Toreadors (Jean Anouilh); Orpheus Descending (Tennessee Williams); The Visit (Friedrich Duerrenmatt); A Touch of the Poet (Eugene O’Neill); A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt); A Few Good Men (Aaron Sorkin) and Master Class (Terrence McNally).
And that’s only a random sampling.
It’s an extraordinary output. But what of the man? Well, it would make for great copy to report that he came up from nothing and learned about the theatre at the feet of some great mentor to whom he apprenticed, but that wasn’t the case at all. Robert Whitehead was born in 1916 in Montreal, Canada (on this date, March 13) to wealthy parents. His father owned textile mills, while his mother, an opera singer, was an heiress to the LaBatt brewery. And it would prove fortuitous that a cousin on his mother’s side, the great actor Hume Cronyn, would aid in Whitehead’s theatre career by both example and by providing connections.
At first, his matinee idol good looks gave Whitehead the idea to be an actor, and he made a good go of it, even appearing in small roles in four Broadway shows between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-seven. But Whitehead didn’t know if he had what it really took to succeed in any area of the business. “I was haunted by the question of whether I had any talent for any aspect of the theater,” he said. “Or was this a vagabond escape from responsible activities?’’
But soon thereafter, he picked up a copy of Robinson Jeffers translation of the Greek tragedy Medea and decided to produce it — just like that. And at thirty-one, a significant producing career was launched. “Mr. Whitehead was one of a handful of producers . . . who longed for artistically ambitious and socially interesting plays and could put their money where their mouth was,” wrote Arthur Miller in his autobiography Time Bends.
In the early 1960s, a partnership with the director Elia Kazan was formed to create a repertory theatre at what was then the brand new Lincoln Center complex. Unfortunately, it proved something of a nightmare for Whitehead, and though he continued producing for Broadway, those days at Lincoln Center were a serious blow to his ego and his desire to do something wholly new as a producer.
But even when he was starting out as a producer, Whitehead had a firm idea as to what his mission was: In 1950, he said: “Broadway has the idea that things are either commercial or art. Actually all real art is commercial. I have never seen a really artistic play that failed, unless it was badly done.’’
One such venture Whitehead produced (once again with Roger L. Stevens) had great artistic hopes. It was the first (and sole) teaming of Leonard Bernstein’s music set to the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a Broadway musical about the White House and its inhabitants as seen through the eyes of African-American servants (who magically never aged), while serving everyone from Washington to Roosevelt (Teddy), was a tremendous disappointment. Savaged by the critics and disowned by its creators, it closed in a week and didn’t even have an original cast album recorded.
But his career ended on a high in 1996 when he received the Tony for Best Play with Terrence McNally’s Master Class. It just happened to star his wife, Zoe Caldwell, as Maria Callas, who took home her fourth Tony that evening. It was the final production of Whitehead’s career.
Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald (both Tony winners) for Master Class.
As described in theatre critic Mel Gussow’s obituary for Robert Whitehead, he was “the last surviving major producer from Broadway’s heyday. In an interview in the New York Times, he was asked if producers ever retired. His answer was a definite no. He said, ‘We always feel there might be another show that will give us that kick.’”
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/