Roger Berlind, 90, dies; Broadway businessman who accumulated 25 tons

Roger Berlind, who has produced or co-produced more than 100 plays and musicals on Broadway, including critical and box office hits like “The Book of Mormon”, “Dear Evan Hansen”, “City of Angels” and “Caras and Dolls” revivals “And” Kiss Me, Kate “died on December 18 at his Manhattan home. He was 90 years old.

His family said the cause was a cardiopulmonary arrest.

During a four-decade career in theater, Berlind supported some of Broadway’s most original work and racked up an astonishing 25 Tony Awards, one of the biggest awards ever recorded. (Hal Prince, another Tony-winning prodigious producer, collected 21.)

Berlind helped bring cheerful musicals to the stage, like the 1992 revival of “Guys and Dolls” with Nathan Lane, as well as sophisticated literary dramas, like the original 1984 production of “The Real Thing”, Tom Stoppard’s stunning exploration of the nature of love and honesty. “The Real Thing” swept the Tonys, winning best play and best director (Mike Nichols) and winning awards for best acting for Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Christine Baranski.

His route to Broadway was indirect. Able to play piano by ear, he thought of himself as a composer, but his dream of earning a living like this didn’t work out and he went to work on Wall Street.

He was a partner in a brokerage when the tragedy struck: his wife and three of his four children died in a plane crash at Kennedy International Airport. Within days, he resigned from his company.

“The idea of ​​building a business and making money no longer made sense,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “There was no more economic motivation.”

After a period in the desert, he found his way to Broadway, which helped him to rebuild his life and establish a whole new career.

“What is significant about Roger is that he has made an incredible turnaround,” Brook Berlind, his second wife, said in a telephone interview.

“His life was totally forked by the accident,” she said. “There was Act I and Act II. I don’t think many other people could have been so successful after such a catastrophe. “

Broadway success came slowly. Berlind’s first production, in 1976, was the disastrous “Rex”, a musical by Richard Rodgers (with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) about Henry VIII, which Times theater critic Clive Barnes said “has almost everything that goes wrong “.

By chance, Rodgers’ music marked Berlind’s career. His last show, of which he was one of several producers, was the 2019 revival, Tony, Rodgers and Hammerstein winner, “Oklahoma!” (This show made Broadway history when actress Ali Stroker became the first person to use a wheelchair to win a Tony.)

After “Rex”, Berlind co-produced six other programs before having his first success with the original 1980 production of “Amadeus”, in which a mediocre composer is jealous of the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play, written by Peter Shaffer, directed by Peter Hall and starring Ian McKellen and Tim Curry, took home several Tonys, including the best play.

Two other hits followed quickly: “Sophized Ladies”, a 1981 magazine with music by Duke Ellington; and “Nine”, a 1982 musical based on Fellini’s film “8½” about a tortured film director facing professional and romantic crises.

Along the way, there were many failures. Producing on Broadway is always risky, without a surefire formula for success. It became even more challenging in the late 20th century, when theater personnel migrated to Hollywood, labor and advertising costs skyrocketed and high ticket prices discouraged audiences. Getting the shows started required more and more producers to pool their resources, and even then, it was unlikely that they would recover their investments.

One of Berlind’s achievements was to stay in the game. Despite the challenges, he ventured into shows because he believed in them and because he could lose whenever he won.

“I know it’s not worth it economically,” he told The Times in 1998. “But I love theater.”

His hits include “Proof”, “Doubt”, “The History Boys”, the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.

Scott Rudin, who produced about 30 shows with Berlind, said that Berlind was driven by “enormous strength and persistence”.

“He was not deterred by the obstacles that deterred others,” said Rudin by email. “He had enormous positivity, which is much, much rarer than you might think.”

This was evident after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Broadway went dark for 48 hours, a sign of the economic uncertainty that hung over the city.

At the time, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani asked cinemas to reopen quickly, and they did. But half a dozen programs ended, and one about to do it was “Kiss Me, Kate”, in which Berlind had been deeply involved and which he was very fond of. He was delighted with Cole Porter’s music, and everything on the show had worked. The winner of five Tonys, including best revival of a musical, “Kate” was on display for almost two years and was not scheduled to close until December 30, 2001.

But because of a sharp drop in ticket sales, production would close earlier. The September 23 closing date has been announced.

Just before the curtain was raised over what should have been the last performance, Mr. Berlind, a modest man who showed little evidence of typical theater performance, took the stage. He held the closing notice in his hand and tore it up.

“The show will continue,” he declared, to an audience already moved.

The cast and crew agreed to give up 25 percent of their salary and donate another 25 percent to buy rescue tickets for the show. The change allowed “Kate” to continue running until the closing scheduled for December 30th.

“That was my Merrick moment,” Berlind later told The Guardian in London, referring to David Merrick, one of Broadway’s famous showmen.

The Guardian continued to praise Berlind’s exuberant London production of “Kate”, which debuted that October as “a symbol of untouchability and grace under pressure from a community, in fact a city, which has been suffering since 9/11 “.

Roger Stuart Berlind was born on June 27, 1930, in Brooklyn, the son of Peter Berlind, a hospital administrator, and Mae (Miller) Berlind, an amateur painter who taught painting classes while raising her four children.

The family moved to Woodmere, on Long Island, when Roger was 3. He attended Woodmere Academy and went to Princeton, where he graduated in English.

His campus life revolved around the theater. He joined the Triangle Club, which hosts student-written comedies, and Theater Intime, a student-run theater organization. Years later, in 1998, he donated $ 3.5 million to build the 350-seat Roger S. Berlind Theater as part of an expansion of the Princeton McCarter Theater.

After graduating in 1952, he enlisted in the Army and served in the Counter-Intelligence Corps in Germany. At one point, he was on a troop ship with Buck Henry, the actor and comic writer who died this year, and the two regularly created programs for soldiers.

When Berlind returned to New York in 1954, he was determined to become a composer.

“He loved big band music from the 1940s, he played almost any song in the American songbook and had a great memory for lyrics,” said his son William in a telephone interview. Their own songs went for the simple and nostalgic, as reflected in their titles, “Lemon Drop Girlfriend” and “Isn’t It a Rainbow Day?” between them. But Tin Pan Alley was not interested and, needing a job, Berlind was referred by friends to Wall Street.

“I never took a college economics course,” he told Playbill in 2005, “and I did 26 or 28 interviews before someone hired me.”

He worked for four years in an investment house, then in 1960 he co-founded a brokerage, Carter, Berlind, Potoma & Weill, which went through several iterations before being acquired by American Express in 1981. His partners along the way included Sanford I. Weill, who became chairman and chief executive of Citigroup, and Arthur Levitt Jr., future chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It was an exciting time for Mr. Berlind. But on June 24, 1975, his world stopped.

He had gone to the airport that day to meet his wife, Helen Polk (Clark) Berlind, and three of his children – Helen, 12; Peter, 9; and Clark, 6 – who was returning to New York from New Orleans after visiting Helen Berlind’s mother in Mississippi.

As it approached Kennedy in a severe storm, the Boeing 727, Eastern Air Lines flight 66, was swept by a wind force and crashed, killing 113 of the 124 people on board, including Berlind’s family.

Her son William, 2, was at home in Manhattan with his nurse at the time. As he grew up, he had unresolved problems around what had happened.

“Roger was so hurt by the accident that he didn’t spend as much time with William talking about it as he could,” said Berlind, who married Berlind in 1979.

Finally, a psychiatrist told Mr. Berlind that he needed to answer William’s questions, even though he asked the same question over and over. Eventually, this proved to be therapeutic for both father and son.

“He was there and strong for me,” said William Berlind, a former reporter for The New York Observer and writer for The New York Times Magazine, who accompanied his father to Broadway and collaborated with him on several shows.

“He was marked by tragedy,” he added, “but she did not consume him and he persevered.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Berlind leaves two granddaughters and a brother, Alan.

Over time, friends connected Berlind with people in the theater, and he was soon immersed in the whole process of performing a show. He had a reputation for being more careful than many producers not to interfere with the creative process.

But Berlind always insisted that the work he supported had merit. As long as he kept a cool eye on financial results, he could be seduced by pure art.

“He had been a tough and successful businessman, but in his life in the theater he was obsessed with talent and that was what he invested in”, Rocco Landesman, who produced “Guys and Dolls”, “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Proof” with him, said in an email.

“He loved his flops almost as much as his successes,” added Landesman. “And whenever one of his programs closed, Roger was ‘available’ again.”