PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Jennifer Ashley Tepper on 54 Below's Future, "The Untold Stories of Broadway" and More

By Michael Gioia
August 24, 2013

Meet musical theatre historian, writer and producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who will take over as the new director of programming at the hot Manhattan nightspot and music venue 54 Below this September. 



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Before 27-year-old musical theatre enthusiast Jennifer Ashley Tepper made her way to New York City, the theatre historian, writer and producer — who will assume a new position at 54 Below next month as the venue's director of programming — was educating herself on the history of Broadway one cast album at a time in Boca Raton, FL. With big city dreams, Tepper made her way to Manhattan, attending college at New York University and paving her way to become a "Musical Theatre Historian," an all-encompassing title she created for herself that includes producing theatrical concerts — such as the popular If It Only Even Runs a Minute and Once Upon a Time in New York City series — celebrating underappreciated musicals, writing the occasional article about emerging songwriters and educating theatregoers on the history of Broadway.

Tepper, who assisted on the Broadway production of [title of show], has also worked for Tony Award-nominated director Michael Greif (Next to Normal, Rent, Grey Gardens) and producer Ken Davenport (Macbeth, Kinky Boots, Godspell) and, this winter under the Dress Circle Publishing banner, will release her first full-length book entitled "The Untold Stories of Broadway," featuring countless interviews from artists in the professional world of theatre. Tepper, also known for her Twitter personality — where she often shares theatrical facts, historic Broadway photos and commentary on the NBC musical drama "Smash" — sat down with Playbill.com to chat about the future of 54 Below, "The Untold Stories of Broadway" and owning the title "Theatre Geek."

On Twitter, you often refer to 2013 as "Our Year." Why so?
Jennifer Ashley Tepper: 2013 has been really amazing. I work regularly with Joe Iconis, who is a musical theatre writer, and this year kicked off with him getting the largest amount of recognition — in terms of sheer number of people listening to his songs from them appearing on "Smash" — so that was very exciting for the group of artists that we work with: the "Joe Iconis and Family" group. And, the year has been a really exciting journey of dreams coming true. I have wanted to write a book my entire life. I've always said I wanted to be a musical theatre historian, and, at the beginning of the year, I signed a book deal with these great publishers, Dress Circle Publishing, who are publishing my first book, which is called "The Untold Stories of Broadway." I also worked on Macbeth on "The Broadway," and now I am starting as the new director of programming at 54 Below. So, in a nutshell… 2013 has been a year of literally dreams coming true.

What was your first brush with theatre? I find it interesting that underappreciated musicals seem to be a passion of yours.
JAT: I grew up in Florida, [and] I was obsessed with theatre from a very young age, but like many of us who don't grow up in New York, all I really had were cast albums. I would drag people to the occasional touring production, local production or school production, and that was all great, but basically my education about theatre came from cast albums. I lived far enough away that I was only [able] to visit New York three times before I got to move here forever when I was 18. Those visits were very transformative for me, but I certainly knew before that from studying cast albums… I think that's what first stuck it in my head — probably at the ripe age of nine or ten — to [think], "These are some great recordings, and these sound like great shows, but I'd never heard of them or they didn't seem to be big hits," and that kind of set me forth on educating myself.

There are a lot of books that are great in providing that education on musicals. The most important one to me was Ken Mandelbaum's book "Not Since Carrie," which completely informed me as a "Musical Theatre Aficionada Wannabe" about the idea that there were so many musicals out there that deserved a second shake or that were underappreciated. If It Only Even Runs a Minute, which [Kevin Michael Murphy, musical director Caleb Hoyer and I] started in January 2010 — we've done 11 concerts of it — is kind of a combination of original cast members and writers coming to sing songs they originated and tell stories, [as well as] new people interpreting the material for the first time, from a huge variety of underappreciated shows. It's been like hearing cast albums that I grew up with come to life, and it's also given me an opportunity to hear and explore shows that are somewhat forgotten, mostly because they weren't recorded. One good example is we had [collaborators Richard] Maltby [Jr.] and [David] Shire come, and we did a number from their show How Do You Do, I Love You, which was one of their first shows they ever wrote, and it closed out of town, and it was fantastic, and it had all this great material, and it starred Phyllis Newman. They both came and told stories about that, and we did a number from it… There's been a lot of shows we've featured like that, [where] the writers have seen interest in those shows after the concert.

What was that cast album that you played out as a child?

Jim Walton and Jennifer Ashley Tepper
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

JAT: Merrily [We Roll Along] was huge, clearly, and greatly informed my taste as a musical theatre artist. Anything by [William] Finn, and anything by Craig Carnelia and Maltby and Shire — I would say that growing up, it was a steady diet of those. So many of the Bill Finn cast albums, though — In Trousers and Elegies and both the Falsettos albums got very worn out. I loved those. Also, my mom would get me eight cast albums for Chanukah every year. Each night of Chanukah, I would get a different cast album.

What was your first Broadway show?
JAT: The Full Monty.

That was my first musical!
JAT: Really?! [Laughs.] That's amazing! The first time I ever came to New York, we actually had tickets for something else my first night here — I won't say what show it was — and I was really angry. We had gotten tickets to all these shows before we got here — mostly based on what I wanted to see — and I was with my family, and the first day we were here, I said, "That can't be my first Broadway show" because it had been around for a while, and we've already seen it on tour — it won't be special. I wanted to see something that was a new musical and had a new score. I was very insistent on this — at the age of 14 — so we went to The Full Monty. Because it was last minute, we went that day to buy tickets, [and] we ended up finding out there was a thing called student rush — because my sister and I were both young — so we ended up getting front-row tickets to Full Monty. I was 14, my sister [Jessica Kent] was nine. [Laughs.] My sister's first time seeing a naked man was our first Broadway show, and it was just amazing… Everything about it was amazing, but I was so happy that I saw an original musical for my first show.

Tell me about your position at 54 Below. What do you think will set 54 Below apart from other cabaret venues in the city, and what are you going to do as a programming director to make that happen?
JAT: I think a great thing that [54 Below has] done so amazingly so far — and that I certainly plan to continue — is really making the place the "Broadway concert venue." You can go to a lot of concert venues — all of which I love, and all of which I've produced concerts at — and you can see a Broadway artist one night, and then a hip-hop artist or a violinist the next. While 54 Below certainly does diverse programming, I think they've done a great job at making it so that almost every night you will have a Broadway star [or] you will have work by a Broadway writer — you will have the real "Broadway concert experience."

Also, one of the main reasons why I'm a good fit for this is because the great new musical theatre writer who stepped off the bus yesterday is just as important to me as Barbara Cook. [It's] that idea that there can be a venue that presents work by new musical theatre writers, concerts by Broadway luminaries who are in their 80s, nights of casts from current Broadway shows — and more — all under one roof. I'm planning on continuing the great programming they are doing and also infusing it with just as much variety as possible from the different pockets of the musical theatre community, which includes writers who have had one show Off-Broadway and writers who have eight Tonys. That idea of mixing the pockets of the community together really excites me — as does booking artists who are great Broadway performers who haven't done a cabaret before!

Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Photo by Krissie Fullerton

Tell me your wish list for 54 Below. How high are we aiming?
JAT: Phil [Geoffrey Bond], who is the current director of programming and whom I love and whom I've known for years, is staying on as director of original programming, and part of what we are going to work on together… There is going to be a new series at 54 Below that's musicals in concert, which will be really, really exciting. Through that, we hope to be able to present really worthy musicals, which you might not have seen, fully in concert and also get a lot of great folks, who might have participated in those shows originally, [to perform in the concert]. I wish I could say more details… There are so many shows that we both want to do! I have a ton of ideas for both younger and older Broadway stars who haven't done cabaret acts yet. I will say, there is a TV show that I enjoyed a lot that may be celebrated in some way at 54 Below in the near future. It will be very special, and details have not yet been divulged. One of the things that I'll be doing is continuing the Once Upon a Time in New York City concert [series, which was seen in fall 2012 and winter 2013 at Joe's Pub]. My goal is to do these once a month as regular programming at 54 Below and have a dozen musical theatre writers — both people who are established and people who are emerging — write new songs about New York City.

As far as other specific bookings, there are so many people I'm dreaming of to hopefully be part of our upcoming 54 Below lineup: from Norm Lewis to Michele Lee... and there are so many songwriters I'm dying for us to showcase, from Maltby and Shire to Craig Carnelia to Peter Allen. There are infinite possibilities as far as Broadway performers and writers go!

There will also be a new interview series as well? This sounds like a perfect fit for the venue — 54 Below offering theatregoers intimate access to top-notch Broadway talent.
JAT: It's such a great space in itself. It actually used to be a recording studio, and Madonna recorded a single there once — side bar! There will definitely be more interactive types of events, in terms of having the audience get involved. We're developing an interview series, so that's definitely something to look out for very soon. Someone exciting will be hosting, with a very fancy theatre guest being interviewed, and the audience will be able to ask questions.

Will we see Broadway Trivia Night return?
JAT: I'll be hosting Broadway Trivia every month, so that's another fun monthly event. It's really great because I'm doing these interviews for my book, and facts that I've learned in these interviews have been integrated into Broadway Trivia Night.

Tell me about your book. How many interviews have you completed?
JAT: I've actually done 198, which sucks because I'm giving you this interview right now, and I wish I could say 200! [Laughs.] They've been with producers, actors, directors, stagehands, musicians, doormen, company managers, press agents, everybody. The book is called "The Untold Stories of Broadway," and each chapter of the book is a different Broadway theatre. Basically, [readers] get taken through the history of the theatre through people's personal stories and through my stories — chronologically. So, if you open the book to the chapter that is the Neil Simon Theatre, you get a story from 1955 about Maury Yeston seeing his first Broadway show, and [then] here's a story from 1962 about Hal Prince working on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and then a story from Len Cariou about auditioning on the stage in 1969, and then James Maloney — a stagehand — talking about shadowing his stagehand dad in 1970 and then running the lighting consoles himself at the theatre a decade later during Merrily in 1981. They each tell a story, and, in between, I tell you secret things you might not know about the theatre or provide more fun facts and context for the stories being told firsthand. Who has inhabited the star dressing rooms at the theatre? What bar next to the theatre was a favorite hang-out for decades? Basically, in between each story, you get a little bit of Jen Tepper.

Jennifer Ashley Tepper
photo by Joseph Marzullo/Playbill

Are you going to the theatres and exploring them to get some color for your book?
JAT: Yeah. I've gotten a couple of really amazing theatre tours. Rey Concepcion, who is the doorman at the Marquis, gave me an amazing tour of the Marquis. Rose Alaio, who is the doorwoman at the Shubert, also gave me one. My friend Jared Bradshaw, who is [a cast member] in Jersey Boys, gave me a very beautiful tour of the August Wilson. It's been great because [during the tours, I thought], "Oh! I know this story that Randy Graff told me about this dressing room at the August Wilson," which was then the Virginia… And, [as] I was getting a tour of the theatre with Jared, I was able to be like, "That's the dressing room she was talking about…"

The living history of the theatres is kind of what you get from the book. And, you get stories about crazy bloopers that happened on stage and stories about the first preview and stories about the first time they came into the theatre — a variety of stories — but chronicling that person's relationship to that theatre. A big part of what inspired the idea was that there's this book that a bunch of theatre folks created — it's a pamphlet from when [the Helen Hayes, the Morosco, the Astor, the Bijou and the Gaiety theatres were going to be knocked down] to build the Marriott Marquis. A bunch of theatre people got together, and they said, "We'll each write an essay about our personal relationship to one of the Broadway theatres and send it to the city of New York so they will not demolish this," which, of course, they did anyway. It's not a published book, but [teacher and performer] Mana Allen lent it to me from [The New York Public Library at Lincoln Center]. [Collaborators Betty] Comden and [Adolph] Green wrote an essay about the Winter Garden and what it meant to them, and [writer, performer, producer and director] Garson Kanin wrote about the Cort, and each person picked one theatre. So this book is hopefully like an expanded version of that, where you get all these people who worked in the same theatre over a number of years each telling you their personal connection with that theatre. The traditions — that people who aren't working on Broadway might not know about — are really cool, like the tradition of signing underneath your dressing room table before you leave… Saturday Night on Broadway, Dollar Friday, things that people did in the 60s, energy circles from the 1970s…

Did you have any out-of-body experiences during your interviews? What would 13-year-old Jen Tepper be thinking?
JAT: Sometimes I think I should keep a running commentary of 13-year-old Jen Tepper while I'm doing the interviews because she would be screaming the whole time and fainting. [Laughs.] Interviewing Hal Prince at his office was an incredible honor and one of the most amazing things that I've ever had the privilege to do in my life because he's a hero to so many of us working in the theatre because of the kind of art he has created. That was amazing.

It's also been really, really cool to interview people I'm friends with and to sit down and talk to people I know very well and I've worked on shows with — to really get to ask them about their Broadway experiences, which is what we're doing with each other right now! A lot of people have invited me into their apartments or to the restaurant that is their favorite restaurant. I feel like I've gotten to see a lot of New York and little pockets into people's lives because of interviews for the book. I've done so many of them at Sardi's or at the Edison, but also so many in people's personal spaces.

When is the book coming out?
JAT: It is definitely in the fall of this year, so it's super soon. It will definitely be by December, but it's just the first one. As the process of putting it together went on, we realized that the amount of amazing people who said yes to doing interviews was overwhelming. Based on the number of people who wanted to be involved, it seemed like we could tell really detailed stories about the lives of the theatres, but only include eight theatres for length in the first volume.

What are the first eight?
JAT: The theatres that are in the first book are the Winter Garden, the Marquis, the Al Hirschfeld, the Richard Rodgers, the Lyceum, the August Wilson, the Neil Simon and the Mark Hellinger. There's eight, and there's also a bonus chapter.

Did you ever imagine you'd be releasing a book like this at 27 years old?
JAT: It's funny because one of my goals has always been to write a book, but I didn't have a date to do that by because I thought it would evolve into happening. I'm a big fan of the idea that you do what you feel passionate about, and you work as hard as you can, and the right opportunities — if you do those things — will find you. During [title of show], when I was the assistant [to the director, Michael Berresse], I took like four notebooks filled with notes, and the idea was that someday I would write the [title of show] book, like the coffee table book or the book about the experience — something like that — but I didn't feel like doing it right away was necessarily what I wanted to do. Those notebooks are in a very safe place. I thought that maybe that would be the first thing I did, but as I met people and the world kind of evolved, it became very clear that this was the perfect first book that I wanted to write.

What would 27-year-old Jen Tepper say to 13-year-old Jen Tepper or any of the 13-year-old Jen Teppers across the United States, who have these big Broadway dreams?
JAT: My book is a good example… When you read the book, you get a snippet of what it's like to be a Broadway stage manager, and you get a snippet of what it's like to be a Broadway writer, and you get all these snippets…. That's what I want the book to be because I want the 13-year-old Jen Tepper to read the book and go, "I'm interested in stage management" or "I'm interested in concept musicals," and then go read more about that — do more of that in your hometown, get really involved and teach yourself.

I think teaching yourself is the most valuable thing to be able to work on Broadway — educate yourself, buy cast recordings, go see shows, read what's happening in the current Broadway scene. If you arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can, then you will be in a good place here. So much of my early jobs in theatre and early internships were literally because I wrote a letter to someone who I really admired and told them how much I admired them and got a job or an internship out of that — so I think to not be afraid to write a letter, make a call and really educate yourself.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)