The planned 2016 production 'Nerds' has become one of the biggest debacles in New York theater history, spawning a $6 million lawsuit and leaving at least one castmember feeling "stranded" by the experience.
On March 8, 2016, the cast of Nerds, a musical based on the lives of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, was working up a sweat inside an Eighth Avenue rehearsal studio. Previews at Broadway's Longacre Theatre were just two weeks away, and the ensemble was running through a big gospel number called "Think Different," a nod to the iconic Apple advertising slogan. They made it all the way to the song's rousing final lyric — "Liiiiiiive yoooour dream!" — when they noticed the creative team had left the room.
"I was like, 'Where's Casey?' " says actor Kevin Pariseau, referring to Casey Hushion, the show's director. "Then the door opened and she entered in tears, just sobbing." Right behind Hushion was Carl Levin, the show's lead producer. "I don't know what the vacuum of space feels like," says Pariseau, who played IBM president Tom Watson Jr. in the show, "but it probably feels a bit like what happened the moment that door opened."
What happened was that Levin dropped a bombshell. "Stop! Stop what you're doing!" he told the actors. "We've lost a major investment. The show is off. It's not happening."
Benny Elledge, the actor who played Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, still shudders at the memory. "It was the worst thing ever," he says. "The last thing I ever sang was 'live your dream.' If that's not a big, swift kick in the dick, I don't know what is."
Broadway is not a sound investment. The conventional wisdom is that only one in four productions will recoup its costs. An ignominious handful, like 1974's Home Sweet Homer — a musical based on The Odyssey starring Yul Brynner — have managed to close after only a single performance. But never making it to opening night after an announced Broadway run, nor even to a first preview, is exceedingly rare. The last time it happened was in 2012, when an announced musical based on the 1938 novel Rebecca collapsed amid revelations that four of its European investors didn't actually exist. The mastermind behind that scheme — a Wall Street huckster named Mark Hotton — was sentenced to 34 months in prison for the deception.
The mastermind behind Nerds won't go to jail like Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland; he's just being sued for $6 million, in a complaint that accuses the producer of leaving behind "a trail of disappointment, anger and unpaid vendors." But Levin can take credit for mounting a hell of a fiasco — an alleged perfect storm of financial mismanagement, deception and cringeworthy lyrics that resulted in one of the greatest tire fires in Broadway history.
Nerds was the brainchild of Jordan Allen-Dutton and Erik Weiner, two NYU undergrads who co-wrote The Bomb-itty of Errors, a hip-hop take on Shakespeare that had an off-Broadway run in 1999. The pair eventually would settle in Los Angeles, where they'd write for Robot Chicken. But in the early 2000s, they were New York playwrights looking for the next big idea. They found it in the Apple-versus-Microsoft turf war. Together with composer Hal Goldberg, they concocted a fast-and-loose take on the tech rivalry. How fast and loose? Gates and Jobs' climactic face-off is depicted as a lightsaber duel. Dorky as it was, it wasn't a musical-theater premise one was likely to forget.
But it wasn't until 2012 that the show set upon its doomed journey to Broadway. That was when Levin, whose only musical credit was as one of seven producers on Rock of Ages, got his hands on the script and was instantly convinced that he'd found the next Book of Mormon. Ruddy and round-faced with thinning gray hair and a sharp V of a smile, Levin, now 48, came out of the finance world but by that time was running 87AM, a since-shuttered social media marketing company with several Broadway clients. Levin, who shares a Central Park West condo with husband Hans Kriefall, a former dancer who once played Macavity in Cats, also landed a prestigious appointment as the business and operations manager for the Tony Awards.
There was one glitch in Levin's plan to bring Nerds to the Great White Way, however: The rights to the play belonged to Vicki Halmos, a Palm Beach socialite who mounted Waiting for Guffman-like productions of Miss Saigon and other shows in South Florida. She bought the rights from Allen-Dutton and Weiner after seeing a threadbare version of the show at a new musicals festival in New York in 2005. But Levin convinced Halmos that he could turn Nerds into a Broadway hit, and the two joined forces as co-producers. "She and he were the ones we would see at every rehearsal," says Pariseau. "It was a pairing I always found strange. This was Carl's first time lead-producing a musical. And Vicki didn't seem like she had the sort of experience to get this going. It struck me as odd."
Over the next three years, the play was retooled in workshop stagings, including ones in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Philadelphia, during which Levin and Halmos brainstormed ways to attract investors. Pariseau describes flying to Palm Beach at Halmos' insistence for "dog-and-pony shows," performing highlights at "circus-themed fundraisers" and in "rich people's living rooms." (A ballad sung by a teen Gates, "I Am Just a Nerd," was always a crowd-pleaser: "It's time that I climbed out of the locker I'm inside/You can take my lunch but you cannot take my pride.") Once, Levin arranged a performance at Apple's Cupertino campus, figuring that since the play was about the tech industry he might find investors in Silicon Valley. Elledge remembers going "to San Francisco and singing about Segways," but in the end no money ended up being raised at the tech giant.
On April 16, 2015, a developmental lab — a full run-through of the show minus sets and costumes — was mounted for a group of 100 potential investors in New York, where Levin made grandiose promises of cutting-edge bells and whistles, things like "onstage holograms," "projection mapping" and "app integrations that allow users to interact with the set and other audience members and choose the show's ending," according to production literature.
What Levin was proposing was something known in the industry as a "mini-max" offering, in which a show that already has raised its minimum operating budget seeks a cushion of additional revenue — a common move for new shows with no stars. The only problem was that Levin hadn't raised its minimum operating budget, projected at about $7.5 million. He'd brought in only about $200,000. At any rate, his spiel was convincing enough that even an experienced investor like Elizabeth Williams — a producer of more than 20 Broadway shows, including a 2013 revival of Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart — got taken in. She agreed to sign on as a co-producer on Nerds, as did another veteran producer, Seth Greenleaf, whose Broadway credits include the Tony-nominated 2015 revival of Fiddler on the Roof.
A window of opportunity opened nine months later after Allegiance, a musical based on the life of George Takei (and showcasing the Star Trek star) announced that it was closing prematurely, leaving a vacancy in the Longacre on West 48th Street. Levin swooped in and — according to his fellow producers, without their knowledge or approval — persuaded the Shubert Organization to fill it with Nerds. "Carl told them our money was in place and we could be open in 90 days," Halmos later wrote in an email to Greenleaf, which was untrue. On Jan. 11, 2016, after Levin sent $100,000 to Shubert as a down payment on the theater, the ledger showed only $14,302.58 left in the account, the lawsuit claims. That kind of discrepancy is virtually unheard of, according to one Broadway producer, who says "you may not have all the money in hand" when booking a venue, "but you should have 75 percent of the budget committed."
Another outreach was swiftly organized, including a stop at New York's Soho House, where Levin again assured 200 potential investors that "the capital was all in place," according to the complaint. There was very little interest in the project, but the producers fanned out and over the course of a couple of months managed to raise $606,250 from 13 additional investors, several of whom were first-timers who'd dipped into their savings — and now say they thought they were buying into a show that had already raised $7.5 million.
A press release announcing Nerds' April 21, 2016, opening was drafted and dispatched on Jan. 14, 2016. The momentous occasion was commemorated by a snapshot of the show's writers, producers and director grinning over salad greens at a Times Square restaurant. That picture was posted to the show's new Twitter feed alongside a hastily designed logo — the lowercase word "nerds" in a strikingly bland Helvetica. There was some confusion regarding what the show was about. "A lot of people thought we were doing Revenge of the Nerds: The Musical," notes Elledge.
If red flags were mounting, Hushion was ignoring them. With Nerds, the longtime assistant director on musicals like Aladdin and Elf was at last a lead director on a show — and she had precious few weeks to track down a Broadway-caliber cast and crew and get the production running in time for opening night. Hushion found her Bill Gates in Rory O'Malley, a Tony nominee for his role as closeted missionary Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon. He was joined by several other veterans, including Wicked's Patti Murin and Lindsay Mendez.
Elledge, who'd been with Nerds for four years and as many incarnations, managed to stay with the show for its leap to the big leagues. So did Rob Morrison, who'd played Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in many of the show's previous incarnations. He'd quit a gig in off-Broadway's Avenue Q for Nerds — and the promise of originating a role in a new work on Broadway, something Levin dangled a lot. "He's the one saying Broadway this, Broadway that. Kind of baiting everybody," Morrison says. At one point, to pay the bills, Morrison took a job as 87AM's office manager. "I mostly just ran around fixing printers and trying to get the Wi-Fi to work," he says. "It was terrible. But I wanted to stay in good with Carl. I was willing to do whatever it took to stay attached to the show." When he learned he'd be keeping his role as it finally did go to Broadway, Morrison "felt like I'd dodged a bullet."
Turns out the bullet was running late. After Levin somehow managed to pay $600,000 to the Longacre Theatre and another $250,000 to Actors Equity to cover the cast's salaries, the show was more than $1 million in debt, with expenses rapidly mounting, according to a letter Levin sent to investors March 15. According to the investors' complaint, Levin still continued to insist on a Feb. 8, 2016, producers' call that the majority of funding was in place. He even allegedly maintained that both Microsoft and Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, were among the show's deep-pocketed investors. (He also was still muttering that every seat in the 1,100-seat theater should come equipped with an iPad to allow for audience interactivity.)
It's unclear what finally convinced Levin to abandon ship — he declined comment for this article, as did the former business partners now suing him — but some recognition of reality must have kicked in when, on March 8 of that year, he burst into rehearsals to announce the show was closing just two weeks before the first public performances. There are, however, some clues to Nerds' behind-the-scenes implosion during its final days in a series of irate emails and other exchanges between the producers that were obtained by THR. "I was absolutely floored at how quickly it all happened … and how Carl saw no alternative but to abort in a matter of minutes," Halmos wrote to Greenleaf and Williams on March 12. On March 19, Halmos emailed Greenleaf, "For all his big talk … There were no big Cal investors from tech world he has been talking about for years."
According to a March 11 email from Lee Keele, Allen-Dutton's agent at Gersh, Levin had called "to explain himself. ... He wanted us to know what happened from his pov: Carl put in $1.5 million of his own money. Within 24 hours, his producing partners, Vicky, Seth Greenleaf and Elizabeth Williams were supposed to put in their promised portion of the budget and didn't. … So when this didn't happen, Carl had to shut down the production or be on the hook for their portion of funds which he did not have." Greenleaf and Williams were stunned by Levin's characterization of their business arrangement. "I'm doing anything but throwing him under the bus in the ridiculous hope that he manifests some of those big-money people he's been alluding to all this time and by some miracle can re-rail this," Greenleaf wrote in a March 13 email. "No one has more motivation than him to use his snake oil charm to make that happen."
However it went down, after Levin delivered the bad news to the cast — looking "a little sad," Elledge allows, "but he has a big, mopey fucking puppy face anyway" — he bolted out the door forever. The room then erupted in "tears, panic, some maniacal laughter," Murin wrote in a blog post. "People sliding down walls to sit, like you see in teen movies." O'Malley calls it "one of the worst things that I have ever experienced in my career." It was arguably hardest on Morrison, who spent all that time changing printer toner in 87AM's office for Levin. "I legitimately stared out the window for 10 minutes thinking, 'What am I going to tell my mom? What am I going to tell my dad?' " he recalls. "I felt ashamed. It just felt very unfair."
The cast numbed the pain with a wine and pizza party, then reassembled the next morning to run the show from beginning to end, for closure. Most of them have since landed on their feet in Broadway shows or touring productions. Even Elledge has made his Broadway debut: He's currently playing Cal the diner cook in Waitress. But there's been no such luck for Morrison, who feels "stranded" by the experience.
Since its Broadway collapse, the rights to Nerds have returned to the show's three creators, who tell THR in a statement that they "are looking forward to what lies ahead." One thing that Levin has to look forward to are some court dates, as the investors' lawsuit winds its way through the legal system. They're asking for their $606,250 back, along with $5 million in punitive damages. But in a legal response filed April 1, Levin's attorney Zach Kuperman countered that the plaintiffs — Greenleaf and Williams among them — were "sophisticated investors" who "understood the risks inherent in Broadway theater" and "had full access to the production's financial records before investing" and that each recognized "that funding for the production might never be completed and that their investments might never be reimbursed." As Kuperman tells THR, "There's no guarantee of success on Broadway. That's business. That's show business."
Levin, meanwhile, retains his high-ranking position with the Tony Awards, a fact that Elledge, for one, has a hard time wrapping his head around. "It's just mind-boggling to me that anyone lets him be involved in the theater community, handing out theater awards," he says while munching on Mexican food between his matinee and evening performances of Waitress. "I want to send him a 'Congratulations on This Eight Tons of Irony' Hallmark card."
This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.