It’s spring, 2019, and the nominees for Tony Awards have just been announced by Bebe Neuwirth and Brandon Victor Dixon. Once again, there is a connection to McCarter Theatre.
Hadestown, originally produced by Mara Isaacs — a former producing director at McCarter and still a Princeton resident — has the most nominations this year, 14 in all.
Singer-songwriter/musician Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the music, lyrics and book for this folk opera, has performed at McCarter numerous times. In fact, following her March 2018 concert in Princeton, Mitchell and Isaacs gave an on-stage discussion about the creation of Hadestown.
In an interview at the Theatre Michael S. Rosenberg, McCarter’s managing director, says the musical is one of the most extraordinary things he has ever seen, and is especially pleased that folks in McCarter’s extended family are some of the creative forces behind it.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he says. “It’s a retelling of the Greek myth (Orpheus in the underworld), but in a modern and accessible way. It’s very open-hearted, beautiful, and smart. It breaks your heart and gives you hope.”
Rosenberg is a nationally respected arts leader whose long career has taken him from New York City to California and back East again to Princeton when McCarter hired him in spring, 2018. While living and working on the West Coast, he kept a house in Maplewood, Essex County, so maybe he suspected he’d be back on this side of the country someday.
With expert skills in management and finance, as well as a passion for performing arts, Rosenberg is a new breed of managing director.
You could describe him as a true Theatre lover who happens to also be good at handling finances. He’s highly focused on turning McCarter into more than “just a place to see a show,” and his approach is to create engagement.
“I love the performing arts, and I see the arts district as a form of town square,” Rosenberg says. “We want to think about how open McCarter is to the range of community, with activities for families as well as for date nights.”
“We can also (present works) that are educational and thoughtful, especially in this time in our country, when we’re engaged in conversations about where our nation is headed,” he adds. “A community center has to be a place to host those kinds of conversations.”
One such unusual and enlightening event might include the recent visit from “The New Yorker Radio Hour,” which saw New Yorker editor David Remnick sit down with author and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro for a live taping of the podcast and radio program.
Speaking of tete-a-tetes, Rosenberg also wants to spark after-performance exchanges, as well as innovative performances in the newly remodeled, more spacious balcony bar.
“You will see more experimentation,” he says, mentioning a pop-up performance of Dorothy Parker stories this past March in the upstairs space, where things were set up like a Speakeasy, with drinks served in coffee cups and whatnot.
He’s struck by the innovation in the Princeton-Route 1 business community, and sees things in common between this innovation and the Theatre. “You need diverse points of view, and you have to listen to the ‘oddball’” he says. “The process of putting a play together is not unlike discovering a new (pharmaceutical).”
Drawing in more young people, and getting them to develop a habit of coming to the Theatre is another part of his vision for McCarter.
When Questlove, virtuoso drummer/composer/producer/author/educator and founding member of The Roots visited McCarter in February, Rosenberg was struck by the very young and diverse audience, captivated as the iconic musician took a break from music and spoke as a writer and poet. (Questlove was interviewed by Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University.)
Of course, McCarter is not just for Theatre, and Rosenberg welcomes all the outstanding dance, as well as pop, rock, jazz and classical perfumers in the McCarter Presents lineup — not to mention beloved stars like Joan Baez, who played to a capacity crowd on April 30.
Although he’s happy to be back East, it’s been a bit of an adjustment coming from seaside San Diego, where Rosenberg had been managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse since 2009.
In addition to being a part of a robust creative community in La Jolla, Rosenberg led the Playhouse team to increases in subscription, ticket, and philanthropic income, and is looking forward to rousing those in the region who might not have discovered McCarter yet. He reflects that subscribers and supporters here are already some of the most dedicated in the country.
“The subscriber renewal rate is in the top 5 or 10 percent,” he says. “That’s partly because of the diversity of the community, but also the fact that it’s so easy to go to McCarter. It’s easier to see a play here than to take a train to New York.”
“It’s a super easy night out, and now you have a great bar and restaurant across the street — the Dinky Bar and Cargot,” Rosenberg says, noting other nearby restaurants and bistros such as Jammin’ Crepes on Nassau Street.
Growing up across the country and around the world, Rosenberg and his family followed his father, an Air Force fighter pilot, to various bases including those in California, Virginia, Texas, even the Philippines.
This military family was steeped in the arts, however, and Rosenberg says both his mom and dad loved music and Theatre, and were dedicated to exposing their children to lots of mind-expanding creative experiences.
He got the Theatre bug when his high school put on “Pippin,” but hadn’t settled on Theatre as his life’s profession when he started college at James Madison University in Virginia.
“I thought, ‘I’ll need a real major, let me try business,’ but after two weeks I thought ‘this is terrible!’” Rosenberg says. Leaving business studies behind, he did indeed major in Theatre, graduating in 1990 with a B.A.
Those years at James Madison were the launch pad for his long career in Theatre, truly transformational, Rosenberg says.
“For one thing, I was part of the black box Theatre, which had once been a turkey hatchery,” he says. “It was all student-directed, student-designed and student-run, and it was a great way to try things and understand what it means to be a producer.”
Rosenberg was also fortunate to be offered an internship in his sophomore year within the General Management firm Weiler/Miller/Carrellas.
“That was really ‘it’ for me,” he says. “My mom had been a payroll accountant, so I guess I inherited some of those skills. I was young to be doing an internship, working and living in New York City.”
“The summer I was there we did two shows, both works by Eugene O’Neill, which starred Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst,” he adds. “Also, this was the 1980s, and we were still in the Cold War, but one of the producers brought over a Theatre company from (the former) Leningrad in Russia. That was daring and fun.”
“I was hooked after that summer internship,” Rosenberg says, “and once I got back to school, it really focused me to find the best and fastest way to get my degree and then get back to New York.”
Another stroke of luck from this internship was meeting prolific playwright and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane, who would turn out to be an excellent partner in theatrical endeavors.
Their friendship led to the founding of the Theatre company Drama Dept in the mid-1990s, with visions of doing new takes on works by such past masters as Ring Lardner, George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart and Irving Berlin.
Actress and 2018 New York state gubernatorial primary candidate Cynthia Nixon was also one of the company’s founders. Rosenberg was with Drama Dept for about 14 years, until he took the position in San Diego.
During his time at La Jolla, Rosenberg helped develop and produce new work by Ayad Akhtar, Trey Anastasio, Quiara Alegría Hudes, John Leguizamo, Herbert Siguenza, Basil Twist, Doug Wright, and the Flaming Lips.
He’s mused about inviting his friends from the San Diego Theatre community to perform at McCarter, but that’s still down the road a ways.
Rosenberg lives in Maplewood with his wife, who is a K-8 Supervisor of Math and Science for one of the public school systems within Essex County.
“She has a real job,” he says with a chuckle. The couple has a 13-year old son.
Interestingly, Rosenberg’s first paying job in Theatre was in the early 1990s in Atlantic City, where he managed an immersive theatre show at the Claridge Hotel.
“Coming back to New Jersey really is a homecoming,” he says.
Having replaced McCarter’s longtime managing director Timothy Shields, Rosenberg is part of the ongoing changing of the guard at McCarter. You probably have heard that playwright and director Emily Mann, who has served as the artistic director and resident playwright of the McCarter Theatre Center since 1990, will retire from the position following the upcoming 2019-2020 season.
She has overseen more than 160 productions at McCarter, including more than 40 world premieres, and has created a home for Theatre legends as well as upcoming artists. During her tenure, among myriad awards, McCarter won the 2013 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, and Mann herself was twice nominated for Tony Awards as a playwright and director.
“So, these will be enormous shoes to fill,” Rosenberg says. “We hope people will be part of the celebrations around Emily, celebrating her impact not only on Princeton but on American Theatre (overall). But then, what’s next? What will McCarter look like in the future? For one, we’d like to do more experimental things, like the Dorothy Parker event.”
“At this time of so many changes at McCarter, you think you might know us, but put us on your radar and take another look,” Rosenberg says. “There will be many very interesting and different things going on.”
McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787.