Live From New York
After 34 years, Bob Funking and Bill Stutler of the Westchester Broadway Theatre know well the dangers of live theater.
Bill Stutler (left) and Bob Funking (right) are the men behind the curtain.
This month sees the opening of The Producers, the 157th show put on by the Westchester Broadway Theatre. If there’s one rule upheld by the Theatre’s own producers—Bob Funking of Scarborough and Bill Stutler of Candlewood Lake, Connecticut—it’s the oldest imaginable performing cliché: the show must go on.
It had to go on in 1981 after Lionel Hampton, having just been introduced, with much fanfare, for a one-night concert, promptly fell into the orchestra pit.
It had to go on in 1983, without Annie’s dog Sandy in the second act, because the poor pup went out for his “constitutional” during intermission and was sprayed by a skunk.
It had to go on after their 1996 New Year’s Eve gala, when a spark in the mechanism that was supposed to release balloons at midnight activated the sprinkler system instead. (“It started as a mist,” says Funking. “People thought, ‘Isn’t that nice?’ They thought it was something we were spraying. Then a flood came down on everyone.”)
It had to go on in 2004 when, just minutes before curtain time, no one could find Footloose’s lead actress until an assistant checked the parking lot, and discovered her still in a car trapped inside a malfunctioning seatbelt, issuing cries for help that no one could hear.
It had to go on in 1997 during a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, when the actor who normally played Lazar Wolf stepped in for Tevye, only the weight difference between the two actors caused the poor understudy’s platform to sink slowly below the stage during one of his solos. And it had to go on during a different production of Fiddler on the Roof in 1978—in the first building, before the stage was raised—when a disoriented patron walked into the middle of a musical number and asked Tevye for directions to the men’s room.
And it certainly had to go on in 1992 after Phantom star Robert Cuccioli broke his leg only two performances into the show’s run. For one performance only, Cuccioli sang and recited his dialogue from offstage, while another actor mimed his actions in front of the audience. (It only worked because the Phantom wears a mask.) “That was the most exciting night we ever had,” Funking says. “The audience, after they were told, thought they had seen the greatest theatrical event of their lives. It was shockingly good.”
Yet no one ever says how to keep the show going on—and on for 34 years—given the unpredictability of live theater. That’s just something Funking, 74, and Stutler, 69, had to figure out for themselves, and without Bialystock-and-Blume-style antics. (No widows were harmed in the making of these musicals.)
Funking and Stutler started off not as stagehands, but as Mad Men, both working in the advertising business in Manhattan. (Funking did have some acting training, but “I didn’t like being rejected,” he says.) When they learned of each other’s interest in theater, they decided to open their own dinner theater. It took three years to shore up the funding, but, in 1974, they unveiled the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, where dinner and a show during the week went for $9.95.
Today, the pair still produce with help from associate producer Lisa Tiso, who started at the Theatre as a buffet girl when she was 14. “She lied about her age so she could work for us,” Stutler says. (Over the years, the Theatre also has employed Academy Award winner Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago; his sister Kathleen Marshall, director/choreographer of Grease and featured on the reality show Grease: You’re the One that I Want; Young Frankenstein director Susan Stroman; and Cry Baby choreographer Rob Ashford.) They manage everything in-house, from hiring the directors to casting the shows and—most important—choosing which musicals to put on. “That’s the hardest part of all,” says Funking. “The audience today must have immediate name recognition. When they ask you, ‘What’s that about?’ you know you have a problem.”
Yet in the years since opening, the theatrical landscape has only gotten harsher—and it’s not because of competition from that Great White theater behemoth to the south of us. (Surprisingly, Funking and Stutler report that only 3.4 percent of Broadway audiences come from Westchester.) “There’s the big-screen TVs, iPods, and the Internet—so many things that didn’t exist that we now have to compete against,” Stutler says. “We want more people to get into the theater-going habit. Go to the White Plains Performing Arts Center. Go to the Emelin. Come here. Just come here more.”
The Producers will run at the Westchester Broadway Theatre from August 7 to November 15.