From Broadway to Austin
Marc and Carolynn Seriff see theater investment pay off with hometown tour stop
Carolyn and Marc Seriff don’t look or sound like stereotypical Broadway producers.
The soft-spoken, mild-mannered Austin duo smile easily and chat playfully at local arts events, such as the dinner party they threw last year for playwright Terrence McNally in honor of his 80th birthday.
They act not at all like the outlandish characters popularized in Mel Brooks’ 1967 cult movie, “The Producers,” or its 2001 hit Broadway musical adaptation, or the less successful 2005 film version of the musical.
The Broadway biz? It first came calling for these self-described “theater nerds” three years ago through longtime Austin connections.
Since then, they have invested in at least 11 shows.
Their first triumph, “Anastasia,” arrives Feb. 12-17 as part of a major tour stopping at Bass Concert Hall, courtesy of the Broadway in Austin series. Not long after that on March 31, the Broadway version will close after playing 808 regular and 34 preview performances, it was announced earlier this week.
"Every emotion connected to 'Anastasia' has been a happy one," Carolyn Seriff says. "From deciding to become a producer, opening nights and seeing it 15 times and some wonderful new friendships, it's been exciting. We feel incredibly lucky that this was our first venture into the wonderful world of Broadway producing with all its magic."
Native Austinite Marc Seriff, co-founder of AOL, has acted as a sort of theatrical producer in the past. He chaired the board of directors for the late, lamented Austin Musical Theatre, which staged top-notch shows, mostly at the Paramount Theatre. Later, he stood out on the Long Center for the Performing Arts board and briefly served as its CEO.
The couple also have been active with Zach Theatre, the University of Texas and the Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards, which return April 17 to the Long Center. More than 30 Austin-area schools now compete in this annual musical mania.
The road to Broadway investments started with theater-intensive trips to New York.
“We’d go for a week and we’d see seven shows,” Marc recalls. “And in 2014, we were going up to see ‘It’s Only a Play,’ a revival.”
The McNally nonmusical starred Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing and Micah Stout. Dave Steakley, artistic director of Zach Theatre, heard that the Seriffs were going and arranged for one of the producers to take them backstage.
“We get there and we learned, No. 1, it’s the last performance,” Marc says. “It’s a Sunday matinee, and it was the afternoon of the Tony Awards. So we knew everybody was going to be in a rush, and we figured some intern is going to come over, sort of point backstage, and that would be it.”
Instead, a well-groomed stranger, Tom Kirdahy, introduced himself as the show's lead producer and said, “Just stay in your seats.”
“After the show, he came and took us backstage,” Marc says. “The first person we meet is McNally. We didn’t meet Nathan Lane. We’ve since learned that he tends to go out the back door; he doesn’t do stage doors. But we met Matthew Broderick and Stockard Channing.”
Kirdahy, the producer, is also McNally’s husband, by the way.
A few months later, Zach Theatre staged a production of McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” in Austin.
“Tom came down to see it, and we got together again, and we just kind of hit it off,” Marc says. “And he happened to have a conversation with Carolyn, and she mentioned that she was fascinated by Russian history. ... I get a text out of the blue three months later. Straight out of ‘The Producers’ — ‘It’s Tom Kirdahy. Ignore this message if you want. I don’t really need your money, but this seems like something you might be interested in. I’m working on this great new musical that Terrence is writing the book for called "Anastasia." I’ll save a place for you if you want to invest in this show.’”
The story of "Anastasia," about a lost Russian princess, has been dramatized numerous times. The 2017 Broadway musical is based on the 1997 animated film. The composers, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, added new songs to the ones they had written for the movie.
“We agonized,” Marc says. “I mean, it’s just that we’d never really thought about investing in theater. We’d done a small project here before that, but nothing significant. And we’d never invested together, OK? … This one, we did together. We pored over the numbers and had multiple conversations. We finally decided, ‘You know, why not?’ And we wrote a pretty substantial check, and it has been a uniformly positive experience.”
The Seriffs have since learned a lot about the business; for instance, they didn’t know anything about what they were doing in the beginning.
“We were extremely lucky to get involved with Tom, who just about everyone on Broadway loves,” Marc says. “The show, we’re very proud of it. It’s a show we can take family and friends to see. It’s a show that, though we haven’t recouped (the investment) yet, every indication is, we’re going to make money and we’ll make money for a long time, because it’s the kind of show that every regional theater and every high school will do in the next 20 years.”
After "Anastasia," the producing bug bit the Seriffs badly. How many novices, for instance, invest in 11 shows in three years?
“The last one we did is a musical based on the old Dustin Hoffman movie ‘Tootsie’ that will open on Broadway in April,” Marc says. “It was the first time we decided to become a true co-producer and find other investors, rather than just writing a check.”
The Seriffs, thus, became “bundlers,” not unlike the mega-donors in the political arena.
“We were astonished at the reaction,” Marc says. “I sent out 60 or 70 emails to say, sort of, ‘This is what we’re up to. If you’re interested, let me know.’ And I’ve done this before. You do the math, 60 emails means you get six responses, which means maybe you get two that are interested. We had 22 people who asked for information and 14 who invested.”
Clearly, other Austinites wanted to join the game.
“You don’t do it for the money,” Marc says. “These are real risky investments. I think ‘Anastasia’ is going to make money; I think ‘Tootsie’ is going to do really well. We’ve done two that we knew going in we’d probably never see a nickel.”
But at least they get to meet the major artists involved, which could lead to new investment prospects.
One project with long-term promise is “Fire and Air,” a McNally play that will go through a rewrite and a new production at Zach this summer.
Marc won’t say how much the couple personally invest in each show, but to be called a “co-producer” on most projects, one either writes a check for $250,000 or one raises that amount of money from other investors, he says.
Along the way, the Seriffs documented their New York producing adventures on social media, including their gut responses to restaurants and shows. Although the couple usually share theatrical tastes, sometimes it turns into a split decision.
“It happens fairly rarely, but when it happens, it’s not slight differences,” Marc says. “Last year’s Tony winner ‘The Band’s Visit,’ she just loved. And she thought I was sick, because I kept dozing off during the show. I’m in the minority. I mean, everybody loves this show, but it just bored me to tears. Most of the time, we agree. And when we’re looking to invest or co-produce, both of us have vetoes.”
That’s fair. After all, the money belongs to both of them.
Marc: “And you know, our late-life goal is, we want to put a Tony on our wall.”
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 12-15, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Feb. 16, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive