Update: Hadestown led the Tony Awards, winning eight of its 14 nominations, including best musical. “If Hadestown stands for anything, it’s that change is possible, and in dark times, hope can come again,” Isaacs said during her speech.
On Sunday night, Princeton-based theatrical producer Mara Isaacs will be sitting at the edge of her seat in the auditorium of Radio City Music Hall waiting to hear whether Hadestown, the critically acclaimed musical she helped shepherd from folk-rock album to the stage, will win the 14 Tony Awards it’s nominated for. Her musical brainchild is a favorite to win the big one — best musical.
“The last month has been easily the craziest time in my professional life,” Isaacs says. “The number of events you have to be physically present at, and the stamina required, is astounding.”
Isaacs, who is an influential presence on the Philadelphia theater scene, has a good Tony track record: While at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, she helped develop and produce the premiere of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It won best play in 2013.
The 2019 Tony Awards are a big, sparkly, career-defining night for Isaacs. She’ll be decked out in jewels on loan from David Webb and an understated and elegant jacket by Etro.
But the life of theater producer isn’t all about the bling.
Earlier this week, Isaacs was driving up the New Jersey Turnpike in her 2017 Subaru Legacy, taking calls (from Opera Philadelphia, among other arts-business contacts) as she navigated traffic, with an Inquirer writer and photographer riding shotgun as we shadowed her for a day during the Tony-week whirlwind.
What exactly is it that a Broadway producer does? When we tagged along on Monday, Isaacs’ day veered from high-stakes negotiations for coming productions to mundane details like making sure there were enough tissues in dressing rooms.
It ended with two back-to-back parties, one a gala cocktail party for this year’s Tony nominees (and, yes, Bryan Cranston was there), the other a listening party where the Hadestown cast heard the show’s original cast album the night before its first tracks dropped.
Isaacs blasts up Route 1 to the New Jersey Turnpike, her well-traveled route from Princeton to New York. Somewhere near New Brunswick, she tells the story behind Hadestown, the Broadway musical.
Vermont-based singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell released her album Hadestown in 2010, a collection of songs retelling the Greek myth of Orpheus, who journeys to the underworld to rescue his betrothed, Eurydice. Two years later, a colleague asked Isaacs to give the album a listen. “I had my driveway moment,” Isaacs says. “I just had to stay in the car until it was finished. It was that different, that special.”
She helped assemble a team, including director Rachel Chavkin, with whom she helped guide Mitchell in turning a collection of folk-rock tunes into a Broadway show. (Chavkin is up for best director of a musical on Sunday.)
Making connections like this is the heart of what a producer does, but it’s not the only thing. The job, in a nutshell, is "basically, anything that won’t get done unless I do it,” Isaacs says: Lining up investors and partners. Combing over contracts line by line. Overseeing shows as they tour from stop to stop. Being worrier-in-chief. (“I’m never not going to worry about Hadestown.”)
“I like untying knots. I’m a problem-solver,” Isaacs says.
Isaacs may be based in Princeton — she had an 18-year run at the much-lauded McCarter Theatre — but she’s rooted in both the New York and Philadelphia theater scenes. “We hired her as a consultant as we were starting to get [the experimental incubator] HotHouse together,” said Blanka Zizka, the artistic director of the Wilma Theater.
In 2013, Isaacs left the McCarter and founded Octopus Theatricals, where she both produces shows and consults for theatrical clients. Octopus’ reach includes relatively small projects like the Philly-linked Underground Railroad Game and big ones like Hadestown. “For each one, I build an independent team, entirely from scratch,” she says.
The phone rings. Now Isaacs, tooling steadily up the Turnpike, is talking to people at Opera Philadelphia about scheduling a “very exciting” new opera she is producing. It’s tricky. There are plenty of variables and unknowns. They’re talking years ahead. “That is my life — those kinds of phone calls,” she says afterward.
(Note: The Inquirer agreed not publish details about ongoing business negotiations that we were privy to during phone and in-person meetings Monday.)
Isaacs arrives at her Midtown Manhattan office, equipped with a Murphy bed that folds down for overnights. “I try to sleep over no more than twice a week," she says, "but lately I have broken that rule.”
Already at work are associate producer Ronee Penoi and producing assistant Victoria Detres. The three work at laptops on a kitchen table handling business and sending documents across town to be signed. Isaacs avidly skims Hadestown reviews.
In addition to Hadestown, Isaacs is juggling work on The Inheritance, which the New York Times announced this week will be coming to Broadway after a successful run in London’s West End, a project with musicians Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding, and a version of An Iliad that will premiere in Shanghai in August. Those are just the highlights.
Isaacs negotiates the teeming, summery Manhattan streets to the Times Square subway station and takes the 1 train down to Christopher Square to Greenwich House Theatre, now hosting the Obie-winning Underground Railroad Game by Philadelphia’s Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard of the theater group Lightning Rod Special. Isaacs is producing the show’s tour. She scrutinizes the contract for the next stop, which has yet to be announced.
They also inspect the current stage, “one of the narrowest we’ve ever tried to put the show on,” and discuss packing, flooring (it’s starting to wear out), and lighting.
With a quick stop for sushi, Isaacs is back at her Midtown office by 3:30 p.m. “I have a thing,” she says. “Even if I am eating only a 10-minute lunch, I will not work while I am eating. It’s civilized. It’s a mental-health thing.”
Today’s 14-minute lunch break is also Isaacs’ chance to get dressed up in her Tony-nominee party attire — a blue and gold button-up tunic. There won’t be time to change later.
Isaacs next meeting is at the Ninth Avenue offices of RCI Theatricals, the general managers for Hadestown, and includes her producing partners for the musical.
For Sunday’s Tonys broadcast (for which Isaacs’ husband, Seth Mellman, is coincidentally one of the stage managers), the cast is doing a big number, so they’re rehearsing all week, on top of doing Hadestown. But there won’t be enough Tony tickets for everyone in the cast, crew, and company. Not to mention investors who want tickets.
It’s Isaacs who comes up with a plan on how to break the bad news: “We just tell the cast the truth, be up-front about the reasons. And then we feed them.”
Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre, will tell us later that defusing tense situations is one of the areas where she has consistently seen Isaacs shine.
“She brings peace into the room, especially when there may be tensions or high feelings,” Mann says. "She knows how to calm the air and find the best way through. These are talents few producers have and the best producers must have.”
Also on the docket at the RCI meeting is a discussion about repricing tickets, should Hadestown win best musical. Demand for what will be the hottest ticket in town would most assuredly rise, and the price would have to go up with it, in part to thwart scalpers.
Isaacs’ next stop is the Tonys Honors Reception at the Sofitel New York. At this starry gathering, special Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre and other awards are given out. Tony nominees attend, and it’s a Broadway who’s who: Jeff Daniels, Bryan Cranston, Adam Driver. Champagne flows, stairways are packed, the hall is jammed and raucous with first-timers determined to celebrate.
Hadestown nominees include composer Mitchell, actor André De Shields, actress Amber Gray, and Chavkin, who is pregnant and due in August. With next to no chairs, she has to sit on the floor.
Parties are where Broadway does business. Isaacs gets that. Earlier in the day, she says, “Everything I’m doing now is built on the relationships I’ve built over the 25-plus years of my career.” She works the room, the room comes to her.
“She’s a really amazing matchmaker among artists,” the Wilma’s Zizka says later. It was Isaacs, for example, who brought Zizka together with playwright Dael Orlandersmithfor the play Yellowman, which went on to become a 2002 Pulitzer finalist.
Isaacs isn’t the only Philadelphia-connected artist at the pre-Tonys party. It turns out that three former Lower Merion residents are up for awards this year: Gideon Glick for best performance by a featured actor in a play, for his turn as Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird; Laura Jellinek for scenic design of a musical for Oklahoma!; and Daniel Kluger, up for orchestration, also in Oklahoma!
“The nomination came as a total surprise, total,” Glick says above the din. The category he’s nominated for is especially competitive this year, “and I’m a fan of every person in my category … I like every single one as a person."
The Hadestown revelers cross the street to the Royalton Hotel to celebrate the release of the show’s Broadway cast album. The first four tracks dropped on Tuesday, with more to come on June 28, July 12, and July 26, en route to a double album.
Here, Chavkin can sit if she wants. “I’m excited, I’m nervous — and very protective of this thing we’re all going through together,” she says, “this thing I love, I think, more than anything in the world.”
Meantime, as folks sing or dance to “Way Down Hadestown," a low-down, bluesy description of the underworld, Isaacs is doing what she loves: circulating.