Jordan Roth is What a Broadway Mogul Looks Like Now
Posted June 7, 2018 5:51 p.m. EDT
Jordan Roth has put away his Prada suits. He had them in black, blue and gray, and they felt reassuring when he took over a small Broadway theater empire — a billionaire’s son facing more than a little skepticism about his readiness for an old-school job.
Nine years later, at 42, he has become Broadway’s singular showman, pushing the boundaries of what it means — and, yes, what it looks like — to be a theater tycoon.
In a famously flop-prone industry, he is wrapping up his best season ever — successfully luring not only Bruce Springsteen but also Disney (“Frozen”) and Tina Fey (“Mean Girls”) to his theaters, joining the long-running hits “The Book of Mormon” and “Kinky Boots.”
He has three Tony Awards as a producer, and this weekend he is vying for a fourth, for a starry revival of “Angels in America.”
As his confidence has grown, so has his appetite for provocative self-expression. He has become a red-carpet magnet, thanks to his luxuriant locks and penchant for avant-garde couture. And he is producing and hosting a biting series of web videos that take aim at the coarsening of American culture and its association with President Donald Trump.
If his appearance and his antics strike some as outlandish — well, he seems to be enjoying that, too.
“Part of growing into yourself is worrying less and less — which is not to say not at all — about what everybody else thinks you should be, wants you to be, doesn’t want you to be,” he said, “and hopefully more and more about what you want to be.”
So there he was with his husband at the opening of “Springsteen on Broadway,” swaddled in red leather via Alexander McQueen. At the vestment-themed Met Gala, he turned heads with what he called a “Jewish Givenchy cardinal” look: his 6-foot-1 frame, kept trim with ever-changing dietary restrictions that at the moment preclude gluten, dairy and sugar, draped in a bright red cape with beaded fringe.
“He’s taking a lot of risks,” said Anna Wintour, the influential editor-in-chief of Vogue, whose men’s editor has been helping him pick outfits. “Because of his work in theater, he’s appreciative of talent and craft and how things are made.” Explaining his choices (which he regularly documents on social media), Roth recalled the years when he sported a buzz cut and would leave the white shirts under his Prada suits untucked as his one nod to not being a banker. “My uniform served me really well,” he said, “until it didn’t.”
Broadway theater owners, who control which shows get homes, are mostly older white men, deal-makers and schmoozers in conservative suits. But if Roth is atypical for his industry’s leaders, he’s OK with that. In fact, he acknowledges that he is challenging societal gender norms with his styling.
“I feel my most powerful and authentic when I am holding both my masculine and my feminine in both my hands at the same time, and I don’t take that as unique to me,” he said. “We all can and could embrace ourselves wholly, and derive strength and power from that.”
Roth’s company, Jujamcyn Theaters, is the smallest of the big three Broadway landlords, with about 500 employees. The company is privately held by Roth, who would not discuss its financials.
But it appears to be punching above its weight, responsible for 20 percent of Broadway’s overall grosses while owning just 12 percent of the 41 theaters. Still, conversations about Roth within the industry invariably include some degree of puzzlement over his evolving appearance and his fondness for the spotlight.
Yet even those who are mystified by Roth’s performative extracurriculars give him credit as a businessman who has aggressively wooed the shows he wants, is generous to artists working in his theaters and has overhauled customer service practices in a change-averse industry. He locked down “Frozen,” the first Disney show for Jujamcyn, after executing a complex (and costly) real estate transaction that allowed him to expand the stage at the St. James Theater by building into an alley owned by a neighboring nonprofit.
He pursued the National Theater’s “Angels” revival even before it hit the stage in London, then, when he didn’t have space to house it in New York, persuaded one of his competitors, the Nederlander Organization, to provide a theater.
And he courted Springsteen — the biggest get of the season — with persistence and hunger, and a bit of a leg up because he already knew the singer socially.
“He doesn’t follow the rules that others would,” said the veteran producer Roy Furman, who described seeing Roth last month at a luncheon for Tony nominees. Many men were in suits, but Roth was in an embroidered Haider Ackermann jacket over a green graphic sweatshirt, and shiny brown pants with a purple stripe. (Furman: “He came like he was going to a grunge fest downtown.” Roth had a different description: “It was chic as hell.”)
But Furman said he has appreciated Roth in action — aggressively pursuing shows, nurturing his theaters and tending to artists and investors (“The notes he leaves you!”).
“It’s not an accident that he keeps booking the right shows,” Furman said. “He knows the market, he knows what he wants, he knows what’s good, and he makes things happen.”
Roth’s producing projects are reflective of his personal passions as a gay man, a father, an activated liberal and an unabashed sentimentalist.
There was the recent revival of “Falsettos,” the musical about a gay man’s relationships with his lover, his ex-wife and their son; the current revival of “Angels,” subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”; and, this summer, he is among the co-producers of the bubbly, bawdy “Head Over Heels,” which manages to locate a lesbian love story, a transgender oracle and gender-bending high jinks within a mashup of Go-Go’s songs and a 16th-century prose poem.
He is also an outspoken Democrat — not unusual in the bounds of Broadway, but striking because his father, the real estate investor Steven Roth, is a Republican who is a business partner, friend and confidant of President Donald Trump.
Making the situation more awkward: Donald Trump was a guest at Jordan Roth’s 2012 wedding. And Larry Kramer, the writer and gay-rights activist who has been close to the Roth family, two years ago posted to Facebook a scathing open letter to Steven Roth, saying: “I challenge you to leave his orbit. The very health and existence of your extended family is in peril.”
“We just have very different points of view,” Jordan Roth said of the father-son Trump divide. “But he’s my father, and he will be my father long after this president is president, God willing.” (His father did not respond to an email seeking comment.) Roth’s anti-Trump activism has traditional manifestations. He is a frequent political contributor who gave $134,000 to Democratic causes in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And this month he is hosting an event introducing the theater industry to Swing Left, which is seeking to influence midterm congressional races.
But he also is producing and starring in a satirical video series that, with raunchy humor and Broadway stars, periodically takes impudent aim at the president. (The first one, about the problems with making fun of people’s appearances, alluded to the president’s penis size.)
The videos have been “a coming together of where I am creatively and where we are politically,” Roth said. “The second we let insane things happen without calling them out is the point at which we lose the republic.”
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the nonprofit Public Theater, called Roth’s video series “wild” and “out there” but also “completely surprising and completely delightful.”
“It feels almost unprecedented that somebody in commercial theater is willing to lead the charge for social justice change,” he said.
“Jordan is a complete eccentric and also an incredibly wise man,” he added. “I asked him to sit down and talk with me about how we do our commercial work, and I walked out with my head spinning. He feels like a comrade in a pretty deep way.”
Roth’s journey to moguldom was, obviously, eased by his family’s money and connections. Not only is his father one of the most successful businessmen in New York, but his mother, Daryl Roth, is also one of the most prominent Broadway producers, with 10 Tonys and a long history of support for work about gender and sexuality.
“His mom is a great producer, and his dad is a real estate tycoon, and like it or not, being a theater owner is real estate — that’s the name of the game,” said the director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “Head Over Heels”). He has known Jordan Roth since he was in college, when Daryl Roth, wanting her son to have a gay role model, introduced them, Mayer recalled.
“He can synthesize his father’s business acumen and his mother’s taste and passion,” Mayer added, “and he’s the best part of both of them in one.”
During a series of interviews, Roth was open but careful — he speaks slowly and takes long pauses to consider his words. And he was emotional, tearing up, for example, as he talked about how much he loves “Frozen,” both as he imagined that it could be the first show to which he brings his younger son, and as he marveled at the public vulnerability of its stars.
Roth saw a lot of theater as a child, and through that he learned to accept himself. “Through my life, at different stages, the things I felt wrong about me offstage were right onstage,” he said. “And that is why we tell stories. We tell stories to show who we are. And who we can be.”
After graduating from Princeton University, he headed straight into the industry. At 23, he successfully produced “The Donkey Show,” a risqué riff on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” at a downtown club. By 25, he was bringing the “sweet transvestite” to Broadway, producing a revival of “The Rocky Horror Show” that ran nearly 10 times longer than the original.
He joined Jujamcyn in 2006 as a resident producer; the next year, he became a vice president. In 2009, he bought a stake and became president, while simultaneously working on his MBA at Columbia, and in 2013 he became the company’s majority owner.
He lives in a high-style apartment, overlooking the Hudson River in the West Village, with his husband, the television producer Richie Jackson, who this fall is producing the Broadway revival of another classic of gay theater, “Torch Song.” Together they are raising two boys — they co-parent Jackson, who is 18, with Richie Jackson’s ex, the actor BD Wong, and they also have a toddler, Levi, who is about to turn 2. The family has a second home in East Hampton, where Roth has discovered a new passion: English gardens. Even as he redefines the role of a Broadway bigwig, Roth is surrounded by its history. He works from an office above the St. James once occupied by David Merrick, the legendary Broadway producer, and when I asked about the Merrick legacy, he dropped his voice to a stage whisper.
“I can’t believe you just said that,” he said, before grabbing a copy of a new book called “Becoming Barbra.” (Actually, he asked an assistant to grab the book. Roth has a lot of helpers.) He opened to a series of photos of Barbra Streisand meeting with Merrick in 1963, and pointed to one in which, over Merrick’s shoulder, you can see the weather-pockmarked facade framing an office window. Roth brought me to his window to proudly point out the same dimpled masonry, untouched by time.
A few days later, he walked me up to the building’s roof, where a 40-foot-high latticework of scaffolding holds up a luminous marquee now advertising the first Disney show to reside in one of his theaters, “Frozen.” “It’s so cool, isn’t it?” he asked. “Isn’t it thrilling? It’s so New York. It’s so Broadway.”
His office is spare — the one nod to razzle-dazzle is a set of 22-inch-high electrified letters, T-H-E-A-T-R-E, that Roth salvaged from the Virginia Theater, which was being rechristened the August Wilson, and mounted on his wall. He has a clutter-free black standing desk (no chair, just a black exercise ball), with a side table on which rest his three nickel-plated Tony medallions, plus the bronze Olivier Award.
The heart of his day-to-day work, of course, is not his style or even his producing, but the less glamorous reality of maintaining five theaters, which, at the moment have high attendance and little turnover.
He has prioritized customer service, with an overarching goal — that theaters need to find a way to stop saying “no” to patrons so often — guiding his work. When he took over, he brought in a company started by Danny Meyer, a prominent restaurateur with an emphasis on people pleasing, to counsel staff.
Tired of telling people they couldn’t bring food or beverages to their seats, he repealed that rule, but then set about finding fast-melting ice (the secret: small chunks) to reduce rattling noise.
Knowing that women are frustrated by long lines for the restrooms, he has attempted a bit of reassuring humor at “Mean Girls,” stationing ushers with pink placards reading “#FollowMe (I’m the line for the ladies’ room).”
And trying to balance fans’ wishes to document their experiences with rules that ban photography, he is attempting a compromise, starting at “Springsteen on Broadway.” A Playbill insert warns against phone usage during the show, adding, “We love that you want a special memory of this night, so when the house lights come up at the end of the show, feel free to capture Bruce’s bow on your cellphone from your seat.”
What’s next for the restless Roth? He recently spent a semester in Anna Deavere Smith’s NYU theater class as an artist-in-residence, performing a personal narrative for the other students. He is about to launch an email magazine about culture, called “Warmly, Jordan,” which is the way he signs his letters. And, he said, “Very much in development are more creative projects — things I’m writing and creating or performing, as well as producing.”
In the meantime, he said, he’s perfectly pleased to be a work in progress.
“I always knew that I would grow into myself, and it seems to be bearing out,” he said. “I’m not done yet.”