Sondheim at the Playhouse

Pasadena Playhouse’s Producing Artistic Director, Danny Feldman

Producing Artistic Director’s focus is on community

JLife: Danny, you’ve been in the theater industry for a while. When did you first fall in love with theater and know that this is what you wanted to do?
Danny Feldman: It was a little late. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the San Fernando Valley and have parents that took me to the theater. I was a little late to saying I wanted to do this for a living. It wasn’t until even late in high school that I became more of a music guy. My very first memory of seeing a show was “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. I remember the set. I remember how cool it was. I remember the fiddler playing on the roof and I remember it being important for my family—how important it was to say that our stories are elevated on the stage. And how important that story is. It’s still one of my all-time favorite musicals.
    So I was a theater fan, I was a pianist and friends of mine were involved in the theater department at my high school. They said they needed someone to play piano for this play they were doing, so I played piano for the show. It was kinda fun and the next year they were doing “Pippen” and I was asked to music direct. I didn’t know what music direction was, so I said “yes.” I remember my music teacher saying, “Well, it’s not just playing piano; you are also teaching. And I was like, ‘Oh.” So I started studying and music directed a high school production.
    From there I went to UCLA as a music education major and during my time there I was playing and music directing the musicals, and then I began producing.
    If someone had told me prior to college that I would be the artistic director of a theater I would have been shocked. But here I am. 
JLife: So, you’ve been at the Pasadena Playhouse now for just over 6 1/2 years.
DF: Yes, incredible.

Ragtime, Tateh (Marc Ginsburg), Photo by Jenny Graham

JLife: What has surprised you most about this theater?
DF: The Playhouse’s resiliency. You know this place had a rocky journey before my tenure due to difficult financial situations and there had been a growing concern of whether we could remain viable from the funding community and from audiences. We have worked very hard to turn this place around and put our effort into creating great art, great shows on stage that would galvanize the community with a much more community-focused lens. In 2019, we were just kind of feeling some sea legs finally.
    We started having some box office successes and fundraising successes, we were rebuilding our staff, we were rebuilding our board—and then the pandemic hit. But we used that time to prepare for things to reopen. We were one of the first theaters in LA to come back. Our first show was an immersive Go-Go’s dance musical and now we are in the midst of our Sondheim Celebration.
JLife: The Pasadena Playhouse is unique not just because of its history, but also because while you do big shows, you’re not doing the national tour stuff.
DF: Correct. The public doesn’t understand that fully. Unlike theaters like the Ahmanson or Pantages, where national tours bring their shows and then pick up and move on to the next city, we make theater here. We build it in our scene shop with our local union crew, directly below where you and I are sitting. The wood is bought at the Home Depot down the street in San Gabriel Valley[We are] community focused. On our current show “Sunday in the Park with George,” we have 100 people employed on that one show.
JLife: What do you wish more people knew about Pasadena Playhouse?
DF: I wish people knew so much more. First of all, we have been the State Theater of California since 1937. [California has] a state flower, a state animal and a state theater (us), which is a huge honor. It did not come with money, and it still does not come with money.
    So I want everyone to know that we are a not-for-profit theater. Even if we sold every single ticket for each performance, we don’t even come close to paying for the art and paying for the administration here. So, it is all based on community members donations from people that have a shared vision of what they want to see here in Pasadena. Because of this relationship, we strive to do things in our 600-seat theater that larger theaters choose not to, like have a full orchestra for “Sunday,” and we care deeply about that. We want to create very special experiences that you can only experience in this building.
    I also want folks to know that the mission of the Pasadena Playhouse is making theater for everyone and that has been the case since our founding in 1917.
    My predecessor, Sheldon Epps, opened the doors, even wider, and expanded that definition. One of the things that we are really focused on now is community programming and youth and family programming. It was intentional that we kicked off the celebration with “Into the Woods,” with hundreds of Pasadena public high school students working with professionals for six months. It was magnificent to create a show from their imagination. That is just as important to us as “Sunday in the Park with George” and Bernadette Peters. The idea is that making art should be for the full spectrum of the community. There’s a place for you here.

The cast and crew of Into the Woods

JLife: It has been interesting as another community organization, being able to partner or reach out with opportunities. Even the idea of doing our joint Holocaust play reading each year is an example.
DF: One hundred percent. That’s part of the Playhouse’s responsibility. We strive to be a theater that is the top tier in terms of excellence and professionalism and also a place where you can see high school kids and community members perform all in one.
JLife: OK let’s change gears. Let’s talk about us.
DF: Let’s talk about Jews.
JLife: Jews have had a profound impact in the development of theater. Do you believe that there is an innate connection with Jews that draws us to theater? And if so, what do you think it is?
DF: I think about this a lot. I mean, I am a deep lover of musical theater. The grandfathers and great grandfathers that pioneered the American musical that I love so much were predominantly Jewish and were predominately immigrants and from immigrant families. There’s a connection there. Marginalized people, like Jews, have a very unique perspective on things, and can see things that people who were in the mainstream of culture can’t see.
    The American musical is one of only two original American art forms to me; the other is jazz. Everything else came from somewhere else. These two things did come from other places, but my take is they are uniquely American, invented by uniquely marginalized people on both sides, and there’s something kind of interesting about that.
JLife: How has your Jewish experience influenced you professionally in your role at the playhouse?
DF: That’s really tricky. Both sets of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. And it wasn’t until very recently that I realized how formative that was for me in terms of my passion for fighting for marginalized people. The call for some overriding sense of justice for creating space here at a theater, for those who have been oppressed in certain ways. In general, I think that’s due to our Jewish community, because of past experiences.
    From kindergarten through sixth grade I went to Kadima Hebrew Academy in the West Valley. It’s where I started studying piano and the first place I did anything show related and that was very formative. Judaism is the lens that I look at the world through.
JLife: Do you find that you draw on that experience in the work that you do? Or has it just been kind of built into your ethos as a whole?
DF: I think it is built in. That’s what theater is about, ultimately. We are empathy machines. We are literally asking an audience to sit with strangers and play pretend. Which sounds so stupid, but it is what it is, right? We’re watching “Sunday in the Park with George” and we’re watching a character, feeling what they feel, and it’s sort of a magic trick, right? And it’s not that unique experience watching it that I’m having, it’s that I’m watching this as a collective experience with a room full of 600 other people. When I read a script, I’m thinking about our audience and what I want them to feel.  I think that is tied to my formative experience. Going to Jewish day school and learning about the history of Jewish people and oppression.

Danny Feldman

JLife: Over the years, the Playhouse has done some truly remarkable shows. Any shows on the horizon that you’re beginning to think about that have Jewish themes?
DF: It is my goal to do “Fiddler on the Roof” one day. It is such an important show to me personally that it has to be right. And it has to be like all of our revivals of classic shows. There has to be a reason for it. The rampant antisemitism going on right now in America, in the world—that’s a pretty good reason in some areas. But since the show was recently done, we will wait until I can figure out a new lens that we can look at it through because I’m not exactly into bringing shows back because they are comfort food. What is the new insight? What is the relevance to today when we look at these works I think the secret of any classic or masterpiece is no matter when you experience it in your lifetime, multiple times, it’s different to you because it’s such a great piece of art. You respond to it differently. So I hope there will be a “Fiddler.” I just don’t know when.
JLife: You’re not actively looking for Jewish themed shows per se.
DF: I never look for anything specific in that way. I look for stories that grab me and stories that are worth telling. Sort of extraordinary stories that are responding to the world today and are responding to what audiences need today. There’s a bit of fortune telling on this because I have to think right now of summer 2024. What are people going to want? In this particular post-pandemic time, theaters are struggling to get people back. Shows that are serious and more dramatic are not selling as well as shows that are more joyful and full experiences. So I’m on the hunt now.

The Pasadena Playhouse

JLife: About your big Sondheim celebration: How did you come up with the idea of doing the celebration? And what led you specifically to choose these shows?
DF: The truth is that Stephen Sondheim, of course, passed away in November 2021. We were planning to do this before, and we were approved to do this before by him. So it had been in the works, and the genesis of this came during the pandemic when I was in lock down. I was thinking, how are we going to use this time to reflect and move forward? We knew we wanted to do something stellar.
    I always trust my own gut. What do I want to see? I want to see big things, including big musicals. How can we do that while people feel disconnected? Ultimately, Pasadena Playhouse is about bringing people together. That’s our belief and that’s what we do. We bring people together in a room so they can do stuff together so they can thrive together. So, Sondheim emerged.
    I found great refuge listening to musicals during the pandemic. If you ask anybody who was around me at the time if it was a problem, it was not fun because I think I listened to “Sunday in the Park” every day for about 300 days in a row. I was listening to it when I got the news that Sondheim passed away. Because we were already deep into the festival, planning for the celebration started really very different than how it ended.
    I also knew that along with the smaller events and concerts, we really needed to have some landmark meaty, juicy productions that people wanted to see. So I fought like hell to get “Sunday in the Park.” Half because it was the most personal show to [Sondheim] and he talked publicly about how the show is so deeply personal, and I thought we had to do that. I thought after his death, we really needed to do that one.
    This is the first major production since he passed away and I think you hear the show in a little bit of a different way. I think that’s part of a success. Frankly “Night Music” is the polar opposite of “Sunday in the Park with George.” It really shows his range as an off-Broadway playwright and almost a reaction to commercialism. A show that was kind of a big commercial hit, which it was, and they’re just two completely different experiences for an audience.
    “Into the Woods” is probably his most often done show. It’s the perfect gateway drug to Sondheim for high school students and families and friends. I think when you look at those three shows, they are wildly different from one another. They really begin to paint the picture of the range of his work, and I was very much drawn to the idea that the community could have an experience and conversation about an idea for an extended period of time.

Ragtime Ensemble Photo by Jenny Graham

JLife: Well, it’s also interesting to have a theme for a season the way you have done your Sondheim Celebration.
DF: Correct. Starting with high school students performing to the ultimate master’s diva, his muse, Bernadette Peters, performing and everything in between.
    We have other concerts throughout this celebration as well. In the end, I think the celebration will have well over 50,000 people participate. For a small theater that is in San Gabriel Valley on El Molino to be having that outside impact … that is what we’re trying to do here.
JLife: And it’s amazing from where the theater started. Where you took over and started and where you are today.
DF: That’s right, and to show everyone their actions like this festival is perfect. And it was built not just to celebrate Sondheim, but to show what we’re really all about– there’s a class being offered for lifelong learners. Kids performances, the next generation coming in as well as one of the greatest ever, Bernadette Peters, and that’s what we’re all about.
JLife: Amazing. All right, so what’s next?
DF: Following Sondheim, we have two wonderful new plays. What is certainly important to me and everyone here at the Playhouse is moving American theaters forward. So it is “Sanctuary City,” which we did this past fall. In the summer, we have a new play called “Stew” by a wonderful young playwright, Zora Howard. It’s a very exciting play about three generations of Black women and it’s centered on the kitchen, the rituals of food. My reference point is matzo ball soup, of course, and the recipes passed down, but there’s an open connection. There’s a connection we have to food. It is essential to how we grieve. Food is central to our cultures, individual cultures. And then we will be announcing in a couple weeks the next season, which I have nothing to say about at the moment. But is it an exciting follow—up season.
JLife: Thank you. 
DF: Thank you for spreading the word.  

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