The Show That Ate Off-Broadway

This is an excerpt from the new book Stages: A Theater Memoir, which recounts Poland’s career as a New York theatre producer.

IN 1976, HOWARD ASHMAN ASKED HIS FRIEND Kyle Renick if he wanted to start a nonprofit theatre company. Kyle was the business manager of the American Place Theatre and Howard was an editor at Grosset and Dunlap. Soon after they took over the floundering WPA Theatre and immediately put it on the map. The opening productions were an Albee adaptation of Ballad of the Sad Café and Gorey Stories, a revue mentored by Ashman that moved to Broadway.

Howard spent the next six years honing his craft as a writer and director, and he began a collaboration with Alan Menken, who he met in Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, as his composer. In 1982, with Howard as author, lyricist, and director, Ashman and Menken created a show that had 25 commercial producers in hot pursuit. It was called Little Shop of Horrors, and I’ll never forget Kyle’s breathless phone call telling me he was considering me as a possible general manager. I rushed to see it that night.

What I saw was a certified hit. Hits have a swagger that nothing else has, and it was right there from the very first note of music to the finale. I ran home to call Cameron Mackintosh in London. He was, of course, asleep. I told him I had found a huge hit. “You have to do it. Everyone in town is after it. I’ll get you a tape.”

“Call Bernie,” he urged.

Bernie was, of course, Bernard Jacobs, of the Shubert Organization. I called him that morning to tell him Cameron and I wanted him to see the show. Could he go tonight? He could, and he promised to call on Saturday morning with his report. Excited, I told Kyle I had spoken to Cameron,

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