Actors’ Equity’s unique 99-seat Theater Plan, which the union allows to operate only in Los Angeles County, has its proponents and detractors, but no one can deny it has provided a breeding ground for some of the worst and,Â more important, some of the most inventive theatrical ingenuity ever seen.
Of the professionals who have turned Los Angeles small theater into a living laboratory of artistic and even commercial success, few have had the impact of uber-publicist and award-winning producer David Elzer. YetÂ “for the most part,” he says, “the shows I produce begin on an Equity contract as opposed to the 99-seat plan.”Â Just a handful of producersÂ choose the same option while operating in an intimate theater space of fewer than 100 seats.
“I think actors should be paid and get benefits for their hard work as just a matter of principle,” ElzerÂ says. “The 99-seat plan is fantastic and makes sense for a lot of shows but I am usually trying to launch something new instead of doing a play that’s already been done countless times.” Therefore, he goes after the best actors he is able to get.
Using Equity contracts “opens up the talent pool of artists wanting to join our team and play in the sandbox of whatever show we are creating. Many gifted performers might not otherwise be able to commit to a lengthy run in a 99-seat house when they can book into some of our larger, better-paying institutions. There is an extraordinary amount of Equity [99-Seat Plan] talent out there. I just think talent should be compensated.
“So,” he continues, “it’s a win-win for both of us! But it’s absolutely the biggest win for Los Angeles audiences, who get to witness this caliber of talent up close and intimate instead of from the back of the Ahmanson. That experience is what drives them to spread the word about how great our 99-seat theater world is and that something special is happening.”
Elzer’s success withÂ The Marvelous Wonderettes and then its sibling showÂ Life Could be a Dream proved his ability to gauge audience reaction. Now he is bringing that same assured showmanship to the NoHo Arts Center, opening March 12 withÂ Having it All, a new musical conceived and written by Wendy Perelman, with a score composed by John Kavanaugh and lyricist-playwright David Goldsmith.
The title references Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 book that suggests women can, in fact, fulfill all parts of their lives simultaneously. In the musical five highly-charged women find themselves trapped at JFK airport. Through multiple delays they bond in stories and songs about life choices, sacrifices and success. The cast consists of Lindsey Alley, Kim Huber, Alet Taylor, Shannon Warne and Jennifer Leigh Warren.
Less than a week after the NoHo opening, Elzer teams up withÂ playwright and filmmaker Roger Kumble, whose previous playsÂ turnaround andÂ d girl attracted attention in Los Angeles theater circles. Known for his sharp attacks on Hollywood’s elite power brokers, Girls Talk skewers the lives of “Brentwood mommies” whose narcissistic intensity is centered on child-rearing, nanny-stealing and social climbing. Elzer’s and Kumble’s cast for the production at the Lee Strasberg Theatre includes Andrea Bendewald, Eileen Galindo, Nicole Paggi, Brooke Shields and Constance Zimmer.
As a producer, David Elzer brings the same set of skills he brought to his remarkable career as a publicist:Â reliable taste and the ability to predict what audiences will like, combined with an exacting organizational mind that manages every detail of every job.
He jumped into Hollywood immediately after high school, expecting to be an actor. He loved theater and wanted to be on the stage.Â Then life intervened and he became an accidental publicist, leading to a career beyond his imagining.
“When people ask me where I went to college I say I went to Columbia,”Â Elzer laughs, explaining his education came from Columbia Pictures, where he was hired with no specific title. “I was a floater. On call moving from department to department, IÂ found myself floating into marketing and PR for home video just as that business was exploding. I didn’t know much about it ““ I don’t think people grow up wantingÂ to be publicists.”
Nevertheless heÂ did so well that he soonÂ became an official publicist, creating campaigns for video releases such as Tootsie, Christine, Big Chill and Gandhi.Â “That was fantastic. But nobody wants to be in home video; they want to be in the film division.Â After four years I moved over to the film division, working in the photo department.”
Elzer was amazed to see how marketing and PR could be so creative. He remembers as a teenager scouring the LA Times film section. “I just loved movie ads.Â I was excited about fall sneaks, summer sneaks, seeing the campaigns for all the upcoming films.Â I loved the pop art of that advertising. I didn’t realize it was a job you could have.”
His instincts made him very visible in publicity. Soon he landed a job outside the studio with Andrea Jaffe, a leading private publicist. “I was there five or six years.Â From the time IÂ was 26 to 30Â we represented people like Tom Cruise,Â Bette Midler, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Warren Beatty ““Â film projects as well as individuals. We assisted studios.Â ForÂ Born on the Fourth of July I escorted Tom Cruise to the Golden Globes when he won.Â I was personally responsible for Ron Kovic’s [whose life the movie was based on] publicity.
“I was young and naive and I was so excited. There were so many extraordinary films we were working on at the time.Â It was just a crazy, heady, amazing time of life.Â I would be in the room pinching myself.Â I was not a total star-fucker, but oh my God, I could not believe this kid who didn’t go to college is suddenly a publicist at a top PR firm in Hollywood.Â The little boy who wanted to be the actor found himself surrounded by stars!
“AndreaÂ was so smart at what she did. Barry Diller and Joe Roth were heads of Fox. I noticed Barry and Joe kept talking to Andrea. She came to me one day and said, “˜Fox just offered me head of marketing. I am closing the office and taking the job.’Â I couldn’t believe it.Â No way would she give up this huge agency with all these clients. Then she said, “˜I want you to come with me.’Â I was her first hire.Â I spent three years as director of national publicity working on True Lies, Sandlot, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, such fun films.
Then just as suddenly as she was hired, Jaffe was fired from Fox along with her “people” including Elzer. But he quickly landed on his feet with a job at the independent studio Trimark. “We had a great string there:Â Eve’s Bayou, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss.Â I was going to festivals.Â It was during that time, I was in my 30s, that I rememberÂ Rent coming to Broadway.Â The little boy who loved the theater knew the film job was great but wondered, “˜What happened to the boy who loved theater?’ That call got louder and louder as I found the movie business got more and more corporate and I was approaching my 40s. Trimark was sold so I was out of my job. Then Paramount, which was starting its own independent division Paramount Classics,Â hired me as their first VP of publicity.
“But I was working with two people who didn’t “˜get me’ the way others had in my past.Â It was a horrible situation, so I ripped myself out of the contract and was really at a crossroads.Â I wanted to get back into the theater and didn’t want to do film, but the money and success was also very heady and pulled me in that direction.”
Then serendipity stepped in. “I got a call saying Disney Theatricals was looking for someone to oversee publicity forÂ The Lion King at the Pantages.Â I never thought I’d get the job because I had no theater experience, but I met with everybody and their brother and I got the job.Â It was a tough year. I had bosses in New York andÂ Los Angeles. The Lion King was the biggest thing on Broadway and it was coming home.Â They wanted it done right.”Â Elzer came to the attention of Disney Theatricals president Peter Schneider. “He ended up being one of those guys in the room who got me.”
Tom Schumacher, head of the theatrical division, was one who didn’t quite understand Elzer. “He didn’t agree with a lot of the ideas and suggestions I was presenting.Â But some came to pass and they ended up being some of the biggest publicity events in Disney Theatricals history.Â I came up with the idea of creating street theater the first day of ticket sales. Because of my years doing premieres, I knew how to close down Hollywood Boulevard.Â I said let’s do a number or two from The Lion King on the streets of Hollywood. Tom was definitely against it: “˜We cannot take the animals out of the environment. They are not going to look good on the streets of Hollywood.’ But Peter and a couple others said, “˜Wait a minute, why can’tÂ we?’Â We did. It was covered by every news outlet in the city as well as most national entertainment sites and some international. It was a huge successful press event and their first day of ticket sales went crazy.Â Thousands of people on the streets watched it live and it was broadcast live on networks.Â One of my proudest moments.”
Elzer left Disney Theatricals soon after. He had some financial independence and wasn’t quite sure where he would turn. But the idea of theater continued to churn in his mind. “I had some movie studios sniffing around.Â Then as I was figuring out what to do, I had some friends call and say, `I have this little show I am doing, would you help?’Â I thought sure, I wasn’t doing anything.Â I didn’t even have a plan to start [his publicity company] Demand PR.Â It started itself.Â With much thanks and love to [publicist] Ken Werther. He was the big dude in town. He was busy, so he introduced me to theater companies like West Coast Ensemble and the Colony Theatre. They started to hire me and I suddenly found myselfÂ with this little business I could do out of my house.”
Elzer applied his previous methods toÂ small theater. “I didn’t go into theater saying, “˜Let’s write a press release and send it out.’ I went in and talked to them about their campaign. I looked at them like films: postcards and posters needed great copy and great images.Â You need to sell the show and there are many other ways to do it besides publicity.Â It was a message a lot of people needed to hear. IÂ was choosy about who I decided to work with. I touched a nerve with a lot of people because I suddenly had an awful lot of work.”
As small theater’s most ubiquitous marketer, Elzer began to know everyone. He didn’t plan to become a producer but, as with so much of his career, he fell into it. He developed campaigns for the playsÂ Jewtopia andÂ Bark! which helped brand those shows and assisted in their long runs. “That’s when I started thinking if I was so right with my instincts, I should try to find a show myselfÂ I could sell, deliver a good production and see if it would work.Â Then I was presented with this musical calledÂ The Marvelous Wonderettes by Roger Bean.
“I had made some money from my movie days. I had an extraordinary friend in Peter Schneider so I called him and he saidÂ he’d have lunch with Roger and me…That lunch was so instructional: Producing 101.Â Peter asked what I was looking for.Â I gave him a number and said I had a third raised.Â He said, “˜I’m in.’Â Literally, I was shaking under the table.Â Wonderettes ran two years here and won the Ovation Award for Best [Intimate] Musical.”
While his Demand PR remains as an ongoing marketing shop for theater, Elzer is continuing his development as a producer. Schneider is a silent partner in several ventures includingÂ the world premiere musicalÂ Having It All. “It’s an amazing score. I sent it to my friend Richard Israel who liked it. So we did a staged reading and it went really well. I could see clearly what the problems were and the writers were so open to taking notes. They wrote new songs and raised the stakes and did a lot dramaturgically to the point where we did a subsequent table read. I was amazed. The cast is so extraordinary and I am totally drinking the Kool-aid on this one. I hope audiences will respond.”
Girls Talk came to Elzer from a long-standing relationship with playwright Roger Kumble, with whom he is co-producing along with Molly O’Keefe. “Roger and I got along great in past stage productions.Â He got sucked back into the Hollywood movie machine doing a lot of things for Disney.Â But eight years later he has this new play. It is a fantastic piece.”
Beyond Elzer’sÂ prescience about what will appeal to audiences, his professionalism and charm help him cement relationships, as he connects artists with the journalists who cover them. “I have always treated press people very well. They deserve respect for what they all do.Â As for theater clients,Â I just took on the Road Theatre Company and Theatre of Note. Whenever anybody is in it for the right reasons, I’ll be in it with them.”
** All photos by Michael Lamont
Having It All, presented by David Elzer and Peter Schneider for Having It All Productions LLC, opens March 12; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3 pm; through April 24. Tickets: $40. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., No. Hollywood; 323.960.7776 or plays411.com/havingitall.
Girls Talk, produced by Roger Kumble, David Elzer and Molly O’Keefe, opens March 18; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3 pm; through April 24. Tickets: $34. Lee Strasberg””Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 800.595.4849 or tix.com.