Ken Davenport - Tony-Award winning Broadway Producer.
[Interview Date: December 16, 2020]
13, Godspell, Kinky Boots, Spring Awakening, Once on this Island and more.
Where were you on March 12, 2020, the day Broadway shut down? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?
I was in Cleveland, Ohio on the 10th of March, seeing Jesus Christ Superstar, for my work with Andrew Lloyd Webber. We had flown on the morning of the 10th, and when we landed, we could tell something was up. Already, planes were not busy. There was concern and talk, and there was a New York case by then. And I was starting to get a little nervous. I don’t know that I ever thought about a Broadway shutdown. That’s not something we think about.
I remember being in the audience of Superstar; the house was full, and I was surprised. Then, the show ended, and our president at the time had just announced the European travel ban. And then, I flew back to New York the next morning, and that’s when things really got crazy. But to put it in my frame of mind: On the 11th, I looked around my office, and I said to everyone, “Isn’t it amazing? We’re going to have four musicals debut across the country in the next 18 months! And they’re all good! This is going to be the best two years of our business’s life-cycle.” We were all so excited and so happy. And then, on the 12th, I said to my office, “Let’s just test working from home tomorrow. Let’s stress-test it. We’ll take the day off, work from home, see how it goes. So, if anything serious happens, we’ll know what to do.” And we did that, and then Broadway shut down, and stay-at-home orders were next. I’m at my office right now, but there’s nobody else here. No one has been back here since then.
When did it finally hit you that Broadway was going to be closed for such a long time?
It still hasn’t hit me. What’s strange is that right now, even though we have a vaccine, I’m finding that it’s a tougher time for a lot of people than it was two or three months ago. We should be excited and positive, but the COVID walls are still closing in around us as cases are exploding. And even though we have an end-date, sort of- they tell us when the majority of the country will be vaccinated-it’s still a long way away. A Broadway power-player said to me the other day: “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel is longer than we ever expected it to be.” So, it’s tough, and I don’t think anyone imagined it would be this long. And we’re still trying to find ways to make it shorter, whether it’s streaming or bubbles or whatever we’re doing, but none of it is really working out. So, we’re just holding on.
How has your day-to-day changed since the shutdown? How have your plans changed?
It totally upended my routine. And I’m a Virgo, Type A, every-day-same-thing type of person. And that’s what keeps me operating at a very high level of efficiency. So, I had the schedule down, and I was feeling very good about managing the many different things that I manage. And, you know, “Man plans, and God laughs.” And that’s what happened. Whatever higher power you believe in- God, Mother Nature, the Universe said, “You know what, guys? You’re getting a little too comfortable down there. I’m going to shake things up.” And it reminds you who’s boss.
Staying home for several months; I was able to be reminded what’s important. I have a two-year-old, and one of the blessings was being around her for those three to four months straight. (That) was amazing.
I’m a big tech guy, so the adoption of Zoom technology was not foreign to me. I was in the IPO of Zoom, and then sold it! The funny thing is I bought it again on the Tuesday before the 12th, and then sold it again! That’s why I’m in Theatre and not a Financial Advisor.
The schedule is off, but it’s a little bit easier to deal with, as I’m also an introvert. So, it’s easier for me to figure out ways to do things. But it’s hard; I’m in the Theatre because I don’t like being by myself. I like being in a room and creating with people, and you can’t do that. It’s hard.
Have you made any big life decisions since the shutdown? How have your priorities shifted since the pandemic began, if at all?
I’ve made 147 new life decisions, and then reversed them all 24 hours after making them! I think everyone who lives in the city has thought, should I move outside the city? We had just decided to ‘go long’ on the city; we had just purchased an apartment bigger than we really could handle, at the time. But we thought, “We’re going to be here 20 years. It’s a long-term investment.” We looked into living outside the city; we looked at living in other states; all sorts of things.
My office already had a couple people working remote, but now, everybody’s remote. And it will probably stay that way. I don’t see anyone coming back. And we tested that last summer. I sent everyone home for two weeks to work from home. And (I said) “I want to hear the feedback.” So, we were a bit prepped for it; the aspect has been a little bit easier for me.
I will say this. A lot of people don’t talk about in-person meetings. Of course, I miss them. But I see a lot more people’s faces now than I ever did. Because everything is a Zoom, when it would have been a phone call. That’s actually extraordinary, if you think about it. So, I would say, I have closer relationships with some people because of not being able to meet in-person. Because the company that I sold the stock in way prematurely has become a generic word for phone call. You don’t say, “Lets jump on a call.” (It’s) “Let’s jump on a Zoom.” And there’s a bond that happens that you would not normally have.
What have you been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
For me, it’s reestablishing a routine of some sort. I come to the office every day. There’s no one here. Hardly anyone is in the building- it’s a very theatrical office; my building. That’s the big thing. I come every day; I sit down; I do the things that I would do. The establishment of a routine of some sort. I try to plan; I try to look ahead; but that gets heartbreaking, because every time you try to plan, it gets upended. Everyone in Theatre; deep-down we’re all optimistic and positive people. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be in the Theatre. We’re in a business where success is so rare. Why else would we do it, if we didn’t believe? So, every day we wake up and try something else. And like boxers, we get punched and fall to the ground. We climb the ropes and pull ourselves up- “Ok, let’s try this idea…” The virus has smacked us down for the last several months, and that’s tough. But the routine has helped. Coming to the office has helped.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
Laying off people. Not being able to provide employment for artists and theatermakers. As I said, we had four musicals set to debut, and it wasn’t just me that was looking forward to them. It was Neil Diamond, himself; Joy Mangano, herself; the ensemble members that have done our workshops. All I want to do is provide people with a place where they can do their thing. And that has been very hard. Including my own people that have worked for me. When it’s like, “I don’t know what to do; I can’t keep you on.” And then, all these people that were pinning hopes and dreams on- “Oh, that musical I worked on is so great! And it’s going to be coming in the next year or so…” And that’s been hard.
What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?
I think people will be more kind to each other; I’ve already seen that. My time with my daughter has been incredible.
A mentor of mine said to me early on: “This is the time to look at the plumbing of your business.” I also call it, “cleaning out your garage.” It’s something you never want to do, but this is the time when you can do it. And I mean physical garage; I mean computer files; I mean finding efficiencies in businesses; emotional garage. ‘What am I dealing with right now? How can I get back to the foundation of my business and myself, and build it back up; so that when we go back, we’re stronger than before?’ The big thing is, I really don’t want these words to ever come out of my mouth: “Oh, if I could get that nine months back, you know what I’d do?” We always beg for more time, and Mother Nature gave us time. You said, “I wish I had time to write that novel; to do that thing; start that; learn how to cook; spend time with my kid…” Don’t come back five years from now and say you don’t have any time.
As a producer, what is your biggest concern right now?
How fast audiences will come back. I know they will come back. I also believe that when this is over, the world is going to party like they’ve never partied before. I feel it in my gut. “I’m going to go on three vacations; I’m going to go out to dinner every night; I don’t drink-I’m ordering a bottle of Patron!” It’s going to feel like that type of thing, so I know that there’s energy there. But how fast that tourist crowd decides to get on a plane to party and come to New York and go see a show… That’s going to happen, but I want to do everything I can to compress that time. Because I’m in a beneficial situation. I didn’t have a show running, or about to (open), so I can sit back and let the smoke from the battle field clear. There are a bunch of shows and artists that are going to be faced with this. “My show was up,” or “My show just opened, or was about to.” That’s what I worry about the most; making sure those people have the audiences.
What do you miss most about live theatre?
For me, personally, I often don’t sit through the entire show-of my shows-after the last dress rehearsal. But what I do a lot is, I watch the last five minutes. So, I will go to a theater and watch the last five minutes, and then, when the show is over, in those last few minutes, I don’t watch what’s onstage. I’ll turn and watch the audience. And for me, there’s nothing better than watching 1500 people, united under one message. Watching these incredible actors and performers, and just seeing them enraptured; crying; laughing; standing up, and realizing that we all came together to make that. There’s nothing better.
What’s your favorite theatre memory?
It’s the memory that changed my life. I was involved with the theatre since I was 5-years-old, got too cool for it when I was 12 and thought I was going to play for the Red Sox. And then, I got re-bit by the bug my Senior year of high school, when I saw Les Mis.
I remember the exact moment. It was just a leaning forward that I did. I had never been so pulled in to anything until that moment. And I just remember it making me feel a certain way, just like the feeling that I described a moment ago. And just saying that, “I want to be involved with that.” And “I want to make people feel the way I feel right now.” Because I just felt like a tractor beam pulled me in.
I was lucky enough to stand on the stage and get a Tony Award and all that stuff. But for me, the memory that I described is what I believe, at its core. All of us who do this for a living, are theatre fans. That’s it. We’re just theatre fans who grew up and figured out how to make a living doing what we love. I’m a professional theatre fan; that’s it.
What is the thing you’re most excited to do when live theatre is back?
I have these four shows that are looking to open, and it’s not even that I’m excited to open them; I’m excited to work on them. There’s nothing more fun than being in a room with other people and figuring it out together. I just think it’s cool. The debates and discussion and arguments; the input from performers and the input from writers and designers, in making something so special. That collaboration is what theatre is all about. It’s what is unique about it.
What advice do you have for young Broadway hopefuls during this time?
My advice is just to keep creating. Now is the time to expand what you do, and to look at the plumbing of your business. If you’re a singer, great. And if you have an audition book with ten songs in it, make it thirty songs. Expand your range by a note and a half. Get new pictures; get a new website; do all the things you never had time to, because you were running from audition to audition, and survival job to survival job.
Another thing I say to performers is, figure out how to create your own content. Everyone can create something; now more than ever. Write songs; write a book; write a one-person show. If you look back at the most successful performers of all time; that’s what they did. They somehow found a way to put themselves out there, and the putting themselves out there, was how they got discovered. No one bumped into them on the street and said, “You, you, you!” They developed some piece of original work, or got friends together and developed their version of Twelfth Night, set on the moon, and someone saw it. We’ve all realized that we are not as in control as we think. So, control what you can, and you can control what you create. And creating something is the quickest way to get hired for someone else’s creation.
Favorite Broadway Musical: Les Miserables
Favorite Broadway Play: A Few Good Men and Love! Valor! Compassion!
Favorite Movie Musical: Dreamgirls
Movie that you think should be a musical: The Vacation movie franchise! We’re developing Broadway Vacation, so it’s taking the characters and making it into something new.
Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual and/or Tradition: My personal ritual is not watching Opening Night. It’s the first time that I can’t control anything. So, in a way, I just let it all go.
Favorite NYC Restaurant: Churrascaria Plataforma, Sushi of Gari, Blondie’s Wings.
Favorite Broadway Icon: Hal Prince
Favorite theatre quote: Cameron Mackintosh- “It is my instinct that the theatre has always survived on mavericks – people with a passion for the theatre who go their own way.”