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  • The Friars Club presented the third in its Centennial Luncheon Series on September 9th at their East Side clubhouse, feting Broadway and film producer [and former hoofer and movie casting director] Martin Richards, who along with Roger Berlind is one of the few "gentleman" producers left in New York theater.

    Friar Randie Levine-Miller, of Accent on Broadcasting and Special Projects Director for Drama Desk, produced the event, titled From Broadway to Hollywood. Theater expert, author, Theatermania.com columnist and Newark Star Ledger critic Peter Filichia was the very animated moderator.

    Richards regaled with recollections of coming out of The Bronx as Martin Klein and performing in clubs, including the legendary Copacabana. Fulfilling a dream to be on a Broadway stage, he took a gigantic leap of faith and auditioned for Mike Todd's 1944 production of Cole Porter's Mexican Hayride. He got the job and joined the huge 60 + [yes, that's right!] cast, which included comic Bobby Clark and June Havoc. His fascination with movies led him to Hollywood, where he became an assistant casting director.

    Back in New York, he played the Village Bon Soir around the time a young gal named Babs Streisand was making an impact. Hhe thought she was on her way to stardom but wished she dressed better.

    It was meeting and marrying the late Johnson & Johnson heiress Mary Lea Johnson that changed his life. She not only encouraged Richards to produce for theater but also bankrolled productions as co-producer.

    That life in theater and film has been a fascinating one. There have been plenty of ups and several downs. But, he reports, "I've never done it for the money. It's the thrill of seeing what you love put before an audience."

    There have been some heartbreaking moments, such as Kander and Ebb's 1975 Chicago. Gwen Verdon, of whom no one speaks of in less than saintly terms - after he raised the bulk of the money for the show, didn't want but two producer names over the title. The other producers asked Richards to take the reduced credit of associate producer.

    Richards had the last laugh. Because he held on to his rights, he was able to out do, to his great satisfaction, the Weisslers, and become executive producer of the film adaptation [after their multi-million dollar windfall from the Broadway revival of the Encores! no-frills presentation]. Almost 30 years later, at the 2003 Academy Awards, he took home the Best Picture Oscar. He broke up the luncheon guests with his story of not even knowing he'd won until he was literally pushed out of his seat and toward the stage; and, then, how he froze and couldn't remember a single name to thank until members in the audience prompted him.

    Richards spoke fondly and regrettably of the late Madeline Kahn. He told of her brilliant performance in Cy Coleman and Comden and Green's 1978 On the Twentieth Century. "The only problem was she couldn't deliver it two or three in a row," he reported. He and director Harold Prince tried everything, including pep talks before performances; but Kahn, whatever her demons, couldn't meet audience expectations and muster the strength to deliver a spectacular performance except once or twice a week. "One of the hardest things I ever had to do was fire Madeline," he says. Understudy Judy Kaye took over the role and became the toast of Broadway.

    One of Richards' favorite films was Sweet Smell of Success, and he was keen on seeing it turned into a musical. "The workshop was brilliant," he recalls. "It needed some fine-tuning and I gave a list of suggestions to the director [Nicholas Hytner; Miss Saigon, Carousel revival, London's National Theatre]. "He listened, but on the way to Broadway [in 2002; book by John Guare, Lyrics and music by Craig Carnelia and Marvin Hamlisch] the changes were never made, which I believe, led to the ultimate failure of the show."

    Richards says the hardest thing about being a producer is posting a show's closing notice. "And I've made it a practice to be with the cast at last performance of all my shows."

    Among Richards' stage shows as producer or co-producer are Sweeney Todd, The Will Rogers Follies, The Life and Grand Hotel. Another successful film was The Boys from Brazil, which, he announces, belatedly, will soon have a sequel. He is co-producing this season's revival of La Cage Aux Folles, which he originally co-produced in 1983 with the late record mogul Alan Carr.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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