Theater Producer Jed Bernstein ’79 Discusses the Business of Broadway

When Jed Bernstein '79 arrived at Yale SOM, the school was barely a year old. "It was a very exciting time to be here," he told a group of students on April 13. "Bill Donaldson was a very galvanizing founder and dean and there was definitely a sense that we were all in this together."

Bernstein, the former president of the League of American Theatres and Producers and the founder of Above the Title Entertainment, spoke as the guest of the Human Capital, Arts and Culture, and Media and Entertainment clubs.

Bernstein wasn't drawn to SOM by the school's groundbreaking focus on multi-sectoral management education, he said. "I chose Yale because I really wanted access to the drama school." He had been the head of the Penn Players as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, and wanted to prepare for a career as a theatrical producer.

"The irony," he added, "is that I have had a career that is exactly what Bill Donaldson envisioned."

After graduating from Yale SOM, Bernstein went to work at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, intending to spend two or three years there before moving to Broadway. "I had a couple of very important mentors here at school who helped me figure out that advertising was a really terrific way to learn about managing the creative process," he said.

He remained at the firm for 11 years, working on campaigns for American Express, Seagram's, and other companies, and then worked at two other agencies. By the mid 1990s, he said, "This idea of producing didn't seem like it was going to happen."

Then he read that the League of American Theatres and Producers, the trade association for Broadway, was searching for a new president (the organization is now known as the Broadway Theatre League). Thanks in part to a recommendation from Shelly Lazarus, his former boss at Ogilvy & Mather, he got the job. "So now I was fulfilling part two of my SOM destiny," he noted, having moved from the private sector to a nonprofit.

"I was really being brought in as an agent of change," he said. "We had a very aggressive agenda and we accomplished a great deal." In the process, Bernstein found himself drawing on his SOM training as he worked with multiple constituencies, including theater owners, unions, and government.

After ten years at the League, he said, "I decided that it was now or never. If I was ever going to be a commercial producer, I had to do it." In 2006, he founded Above the Title Productions and began working as a producer as well as a consultant on marketing and sponsorship. At the same time, he became the head of the Commercial Theater Institute, which trains producers.

Above The Title's first show, an off-Broadway revue titled Don't Quit Your Night Job, ran for two months and lost its entire investment.

"Which was good," Bernstein said, "because you have to learn, if you're going to produce, about losing money, because much of the time, you're going to lose money. So you have to be prepared for what managing failure is like."

In the years since, Above the Title Productions has produced successful revivals of Equus, Hair, and, most recently, Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, which recently closed on Broadway and will tour in the fall of 2011.

Each of those productions took years of gestation; the revival of Driving Miss Daisy had its origin in conversations that Bernstein had with Uhry, starting in 2007, about staging a different Uhry play. "If it takes four years to get these little revivals going, you have to have a lot of projects happening at once," Bernstein pointed out. At the moment, Bernstein has a play scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall, "assuming we can get a cast," and multiple musicals in development, including an adaptation of Bonnie and Clyde.

Bernstein's own management education has been of great help as a producer, he said. "Far and away the most useful part of my background vis-à-vis arts management has been organizational behavior. Arts management is at its heart the Vic Vroom issue of how you lead and not have authority."

A producer may have hired the actors and other creative team, Bernstein said, "but you can't treat them like they're factory employees, because they won't respond." A producer with an unhappy star cannot simply "pound on the dressing room door" and force him or her to go on.

And so the insights on leadership style that have been taught at Yale SOM since its founding "are absolutely fundamental," he said. "You have multiple constituencies who you have to affect; you are often being given an artistic vision that is not your own; and yet you have to manage the enterprise. Consensus-building and leadership by influence is vitally important."