A Profile of BC/EFA’s Recent Tony Honoree Peter Neufeld
By Andy Smith
From Ruby Keeler to Eartha Kitt to Patti LuPone – drop a theatrical celebrity’s name from the past 50+ years and BC/EFA’s Peter Neufeld probably knows where to find them, be it in Switzerland next door to Julie Andrews, or at the bar at Joe Allen on Broadway’s Restaurant Row.
In a long, varied career, Neufeld (now pushing 70 and admitting to 65) has worked behind the scenes to help manage and in some cases produce some of Broadway’s biggest musical hits, from nostalgic (No, No Nanette) to groundbreaking (Sweeney Todd) and smash hits (Annie) to audience cult favorites (Chess).
Recently, his contribution to both the Broadway stage and the theatrical community as a whole received the theatre community’s highest recognition.
At a special luncheon held at Tavern on the Green on October 25, Neufeld received the 2005 Tony® Honor for a lifetime of excellence in the theater. There he was serenaded by some of his favorite performers – Kim Varhola, Gregory Jbara, Howard McGillin and Andrea McArdle – who performed a medley of songs from shows managed by Neufeld and his late partner R. Tyler Gatchell, Jr. For over 25 years the highly regard Gatchell and Neufeld office managed and was involved in the production of five Tony Award winning musicals – Crazy for You, Cats, Annie, Sweeney Todd and Evita, as well as 30 other musicals and plays, heartbreaking flops as well as unexpected hits.
BC/EFA Executive Director Tom Viola introduced Neufeld who then received his Tony Honor from Sweeney Todd’s Patti LuPone, Broadway’s original Eva Peron in Evita.
A Lifelong Love Affair
Born and raised in Brooklyn, on the corner of Church and Ocean Avenues, Neufeld’s love of Broadway began early.
“My mother took me to my first show, the original production of Oklahoma,” he recalls, adding: “I got my first autograph while having dinner at Sardi’s with my family. I must have been about 10. Alfred Drake (Kismet, Oklahoma, Kiss Me, Kate!) was at another table. I was so excited; he was my Joe DiMaggio.” (Neufeld even dedicated his Tony Honor to Drake, his childhood hero, who he remembers as possibly the most compelling performer he’s seen onstage.)
During high school Neufeld spent his summers attending Adelphi University’s summer theater program, doing everything from building scenery to appearing onstage in Once in a Lifetime. Attending William and Mary, theater-obsessed Peter was sometimes the odd man out. “I was in a dorm with the captains of every high school baseball and football team in the state of Virginia. They would tell me, ‘stop singing those f—ing show tunes!”
After college Neufeld worked at a variety of jobs: technician in summer stock, production assistant on Channel Five, and a jack-of-all-trades position at the now-vanished Sheridan Square Playhouse where he met the legendary Lynn Fontanne…on the arm of Noel Coward.
The encounter, however, was inauspicious. “The usher put them in the wrong seats and I had to make them move,” he remembers. “Noel Coward said, ‘Don’t worry, dear boy, you’ll have something to tell your grandchildren.”’
A Knack for Picking Hits
Peter’s career began gaining momentum in the late 1960s, when he served as company manager on Illya Darling (1967), a musical version of the 1960 film Never on Sunday, both of which starred Melina Mercouri, the larger-than-life Greek actress/politician who Neufeld describes as “the best woman in the entire world. Unique.”
R. Tyler Gatchell had already managed a few Broadway hits (including George M) when he and Peter teamed up in 1969. In 1971, the duo took on a questionable proposition: managing a revival of the jazz-age musical No, No Nanette with a cast (Ruby Keeler, Patsy Kelly) whose careers peaked in the 1930s. It would be the first Broadway musical to be managed by Gatchell & Neufeld. The entire venture was a big question mark, viewed quite skeptically by Broadway’s then established producers and managers until the fist preview in Boston.
“The first positive sign,” remembers Neufeld, “was evident during the overture, when the audience completely unexpectedly sang “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy” along with the 26-piece orchestra. The proof was then delivered on Ruby Keeler’s entrance wearing her tap shoes. The theater simply exploded,” Peter says.
“We were the third managers involved in this musical that by that time was the joke of Broadway,” Peter admits, adding that the production had no box office stars and couldn’t even secure a New York theatre prior to the first performance out of town. “But we left Boston a hit and when we opened at the 46 th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) we were a huge smash hit. It was magic and ran for two years, which in the early 1970’s was a considered a long run.”
The business partners followed this nostalgic revival by providing management for a string of productions, happily including such hits as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Annie (1977), Sweeney Todd (1978), Evita (1979), Cats (1982), Hurlyburly(1984), Starlight Express (1987), Lettice and Lovage (1990) and Crazy for You (1993).
From Volunteer to Indispensable Team Member
When Tyler Gatchell died unexpectedly in 1993, Peter lost the passion he once felt for theatrical management. Meanwhile, he was coping with the process of coming out in his 50s as a gay man while many friends and colleagues were succumbing to AIDS.
Neufeld closed Gatchell & Neufeld, Ltd’s offices and for the next year volunteered at a number of AIDS service organizations. He found the perfect fit while helping out at BC/EFA and within a year joined the staff in 1995.
Since then, Peter has turned the celebrity table at BC/EFA’s Annual Flea Market and Grand Auction into a rousing success by persuading some of Broadway’s biggest names to mix, mingle, sign memorabilia and pose for photos with fans, as well as developing unique auction experiences, often securing a television walk-on or tickets to an exclusive Broadway opening night from a producer or general manager who began their career as an assistant at Gatchell & Neufeld.
Neufeld takes a modest view of his fundraising success. “I think my experience became a value to Broadway Cares because I discovered that after 30 years in the theater, I have very few enemies,” he says. “There aren’t that many people who would like to see me fall under the wheels of a Clark truck.”
And those who might ain’t talkin’ – which for this neck of the words is quite an accomplishment in itself.