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From Overbrook dreamer to Broadway mogul

With plays like "Streetcar," Stephen C. Byrd aims to bring more black actors, and audiences, to the theater.

Stephen Byrd has become Broadway's only African-American lead producer.
Stephen Byrd has become Broadway's only African-American lead producer.Read more

It was Peter Pan who long ago captured a little guy in Overbrook named Stephen C. Byrd and goaded him, during the next several decades, to Neverland. His grandma was an accessory to this - she took him to see the play at a theater in Philadelphia.

Byrd thought about it a lot over the years: Not just the sprite who wouldn't grow up but all the rest, the plays he saw with his grandmother after Peter Pan, the theater he later saw on his own. And eventually it struck him that Neverland - hereinafter called Broadway - was not so great at attracting people like him, black people.

The young audience member who went on to Overbrook High School (where his mother taught history), an economics degree at Temple, a master's in finance from Wharton at Penn, and high-stakes international jobs in finance, finally has made it to Neverland/Broadway.

With a distinction.

Stephen Byrd, 55, has become Broadway's only African American lead producer - the person chiefly responsible for raising money, overseeing the business side of a show, choosing the director, and settling with the director on a cast and creative team. His company, Front Row Productions, is dedicated to bringing A-list African American performers to the stage in roles almost never available to them.

Byrd runs Front Row with Alia M. Jones, whom he mentored when she was a business student at New York University with a background in engineering and math. Jones is also increasingly visible in the inner core of producers who move and shake shows onto Broadway's 40 stages.

The Philadelphia native went to Broadway in 2008 with the all-black cast of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which had a limited run of 152 performances before heading to London's West End. It began profiting on its $14 million investment in just nine weeks and was the year's highest-grossing Broadway straight play. Cat featured James Earl Jones in the iconic Big Daddy role ("I always wanted to play that cracker," Byrd says Jones told him), plus Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard, and Anika Noni Rose.

"There's no reason all communities can't identify with Tennessee Williams, but it's just not presented to them as Stephen has been able to do," says Jones, who dug deep into the character of Big Daddy, the dying patriarch of a wealthy Mississippi family - a "very evil, wicked man. Acting is acting, and you have to love the evil men you play, too. I got it off my chest, anyway."

Byrd is fond of saying there's an audience somewhere in between Tyler Perry, the Atlanta-based producer-artist of populist black morality plays, and the late August Wilson, the black man from Pittsburgh and among America's greatest playwrights. To that end, he's now back on Broadway with a mostly African American version of Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Blair Underwood (TV's The Event, L.A. Law, and others, plus Perry's Madea's Family Reunion, Homework, and other films) is the equally iconic Stanley, joined by Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Wood Harris.

While other shows kept pace with their box-office sales, Variety pointed out Monday that Streetcar - with a Tony nomination only for its costumes - posted a big bump the previous week, up 24 percent for a weekly gross of $446,000 plus change. The next day Byrd extended its limited run, originally to end July 22, through Aug. 19. In this case, Streetcar's word of mouth apparently trumps the Tony nominators, who also had snubbed Cat; in London, Cat subsequently won the best-revival Olivier Award, Britain's Tony equivalent.

Cat's Broadway audience was 90 percent African American when it opened, and about 70 percent at the run's end, while Streetcar started off in an even split. The split for Cat was even in London, too - and a survey found that a whopping 78 percent of the audience had never been to a play on the West End.

Byrd has identified "a very strong audience with a huge appetite," says Debbie Allen, the versatile theater artist (and Rashad's sister) who currently appears on TV's Grey's Anatomy and who directed Cat for Byrd. "It speaks to the level of the work," she says of Cat's popularity. "If the work is really powerful, it has to be able to transcend race. It has to be relevant. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was revived with a new burst of energy and life when we did it."

Says Byrd: "My passion and belief in what I was doing has been validated."

He cuts a sharp image in a stylish suit, speaks with the authority of one who's learned from trial by fire, and flashes a warm smile that renders him cherubic. Unlike many producers, he spends a lot of time at his shows after they open, primarily watching people watch the show.

"I'm so elated to be on Broadway and having that experience. I don't want to miss a moment of it."

Fifteen years ago, when he was still in finance, Byrd began seriously considering classics with black casts. After Wharton, he had joined Goldman, Sachs & Co. as an investment banker in mergers and acquisitions. "All I knew," he says, "is that I wanted to travel and make lots of money legally."

He did both, in the Paris office, where he picked up French at the Alliance Francais, and in Hong Kong, where as one of a very few African Americans and a managing director "I was on Cloud Nine, because I never experienced anything like racism at that level."

Tired of "living on airplanes - and I had no real friends," he retired in 1992 and eventually went into private-equity work, and settled for a few years in Hollywood. "I saw blaxploitation pictures, and I have never seen one that lost money."

Bryd wanted to make black-cast cowboy pictures - there are, indeed, such real characters, including rodeo stars - but never got much off the ground. "You could die of hope out there," he says. "These guys could never say no and never say yes. I spent a fortune on developing projects. I had scripts up the wazoo and nowhere to go. I learned the hard way."

Byrd figured, why reinvent the wheel? Why not reinvent the classics instead, with A-list casts of black performers? He got the rights from Williams' estate to make a nontraditional film version of Cat. But Hollywood green-lighting was too slow for him, so he decided - on the advice of Jones and others - to aim for Broadway. " 'No' is a complete sentence on Broadway, as opposed to Hollywood," he says. "When they take you seriously, they embrace you."

He still had the rights to Cat, but though he'd learned a lot about Hollywood, he had no knowledge of stage producing. So he purchased a book by theatrical attorney Donald C. Farber, pored through it, then called Farber, who helped him get Cat on stage.

Byrd, who makes his home near the U.N. Building and describes himself as "single, solvent, and straight," says he's aiming next for a musical, and he's selling Streetcar the same way he sold Cat - to megachurches and through other avenues directly to the black community. His marketing to white theatergoers is more traditional.

"Stephen had a dream years before he actually did what we call Black Cat, and we first met about 12 years before he did it," says Nelle Nugent, a white veteran producer with a longtime passion for diversifying audiences. This season she presented Stick Fly, about a black family on Martha's Vineyard, on Broadway.

"Stephen came in with a bold idea," Nugent said. "And initially, there were naysayers. He's got wonderful taste. . . . He sets the bar high. Stephen is doing something very, very important - he's bringing a new audience into the theater, and my hope is that what he and I and others are doing will lead the audience to say: 'Oh, well, maybe I ought to try something else. I had a pretty good time at that one.' "

at 215-854-5727 or, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,