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Jonathan Sanger on “Birthday Present 2050” and “Baby It’s You”

April 21, 2011

The jukebox musical Baby It’s You, which chronicles the rise of record producer Florence Greenberg and the group the discovered, the Shirelles, is in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway and opens April 27. It first premiered at the Coast Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2009 and moved to the Pasadena Playhouse ahead of its trek to New York.

It’s Jonathan Sanger’s first time producing a musical. “And it won’t be the last,” he says. “I truly hope it leads to more.”

Sanger has produced television and film since the late 1970s, including the Tom Cruise vehicle Vanilla Sky. “Directing is very narrow but miles deep. Producing is very wide but only an inch deep,” he says. And for a guy whose producing and directing credits now include theater, he can speak in broad terms. “It’s almost impossible to describe the role of a film producer because we all describe it differently. Some just raise the money, others are heavily involved. Credits don’t tell you what work someone does. I find I develop material, maybe hire the director and oversee every element from the beginning to the release. It’s an all-encompassing job.”

Sanger recalls his first big producing job in 1980: The Elephant Man. “Mel Brooks helped arrange financing for it. I saw The Producers on Broadway and told Mel if it becomes a movie I have to produce it. A month later he called and said he was ready to go with it. The play’s director, Susan Stroman, would be great for the movie, Mel said. I watched about 50 musicals with her on DVDs and arranged for her to meet movie insiders who could help explain everything to her.”

It worked and came out in 2005. And Sanger says he and Brooks continue to have “a really good shorthand and lunch every couple weeks.”

In the case of Baby It’s You, Sanger raised the money, got Warner Bros. involved, but also was involved in casting and went to every rehearsal and performance. “Richard Perry, the music supervisor, is an old friend from high school in Brooklyn. We were both president of the drama club – he was a year ahead of me. He’s produced records for Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Rod Stewart and others.”

The New York run offers some changes, Sanger says. “Most noticeably the woman who plays Florence is new. Half the cast is new; half is from the Coast production. The only book change is that it’s more of Florence’s story and less about the Shirelles. We’ve enhanced some dance numbers. It’s got more complicated sets and the music is larger.”

Sanger started as an actor and director. Not long ago, a friend gave him an opportunity to work directly with actors again by directing her play The Birthday Present 2050, which has been extended through May 22 at The Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles. “I love theatre in general. A friend of mine [Tania Wisbar] asked me to direct her play. It was a great opportunity to do what I love.”

Sanger’s aspirations are big. “I think we can move Birthday to a larger theater after its run, either regionally or off Broadway.”

Given his ability to identify Baby It’s You as a potential winner, he may not be off-base.  “And this won’t be the last play I direct,” Sanger claims. “There’s just such a wonderful acting pool in LA.”

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