Tonys: 'After Midnight' Producer's Journey Leads Back to Radio City Music Hall

Scott Sanders, who first came to New York at the age of 22 to serve as the talent coordinator at Radio City, now returns to the venue as a nominee for the top Tony.
Scott Feinberg
Scott Sanders

NEW YORK -- On Sunday night Scott Sanders will be at Radio City Music Hall attending the Tony Awards as the lead producer of the best musical nominee After Midnight. It would be a special night for Sanders if that was all there was to his story, but there's more: 35 years ago, in another lifetime, before he became one of the more respected figures on the Great White Way, he helped to save the venue in which his show -- an $8 million jazz revue -- will now open "the Super Bowl of Broadway," as he calls it, and possibly even take home its most coveted prize. Life can be funny like that.

I met 57-year-old Sanders last Wednesday afternoon, right after we both attended an After Midnight event timed to court attention and Tony votes prior to the close of balloting on Friday. Journalists and photographers had been encouraged by the show's publicist to meet at 3:30 pm at the corner of 47th and Broadway in Times Square. At that time, music began emanating from the direction of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, further down on 47th, where After Midnight has been running since Oct. 3, 2013, and where its Wednesday matinee had just let out.

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Soon, into view came the show's "emcee," Dule Hill, leading a large contingent of its cast and band as they marched toward the street corner. There, they were met by a large number of curious pedestrians who quickly whipped out their smartphones to document the festivities, as well as by Sanders, the show's choreographer-director Warren Carlyle, its costumer Isabel Toledo and the granddaughter of jazz legend Duke Ellington, Mercedes Ellington, who promptly danced her way up a ladder, introduced herself, endorsed the show and then pulled a string that revealed a fabricated street sign labeled "Duke Ellington Way."

As the gathering dispersed, I spotted Sanders, who had just been tapped on the shoulder by a man who introduced himself as 92-year-old Sal Zabozucca, a lifelong jazz fan who was born in Brooklyn, lives in Miami and comes to New York for a couple of weeks each year to see all of the jazz-related shows. He proudly showed Sanders pics that he keeps on his iPhone of his younger self with jazz greats Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Asked what he thought of After Midnight, he replied, "One of the best shows I've ever seen!" Sanders smiled and patted him on the back.

Sanders and I were then introduced and, as I'd requested, began strolling in the direction of nearby Radio City Music Hall. As we made our way through the rush hour crowds, Sanders took in the scene and told me, "When I moved to town in July of '79, I'd never been in New York a day in my life." Prior to that move, he had been managing the band that played at his high school prom while studying as an advertising major at the University of Florida. During the spring of his senior year, he sold the band to nearby Disney World to play for the summer at Tomorrowland Terrace. Walter "Sonny" Anderson, the talent booker there, was impressed by Sanders and, knowing that he was about to graduate, offered him a job as his assistant. With a few months left in the school year, and uncertain of what he wanted to do with his life, Sanders demurred.

But a month later, Sanders' phone rang again. This time it was Bob Jani, the president of entertainment for Disney World and Disneyland. Jani told Sanders that he and Anderson had worked together for 35 years, and in that entire time Anderson had never passed along a resume to him until Sanders' landed on his desk. His curiosity was piqued and he wanted to know if Sanders would meet him in New York. Why New York, Sanders asked? After all, the Disney properties that Jani oversaw were in Florida and California. Because, Jani explained, he was leaving Disney to become president of Radio City Music Hall. He offered to fly Sanders to the Big Apple and put him up for a few days so that they could meet. Sanders consented.

Radio City Music Hall first opened in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, to cater to the hunger of the masses -- including a tidal wave of new immigrants -- who coveted affordable entertainment. Under the oversight of Samuel L. "Roxy" Rothafel, who operated several theaters in New York, it initially offered only stage shows. But, within a year, it was outdrawing Rothafel's own new RKO Roxy theater on 7th avenue, leading RKO to close that venue and begin offering Radio City exclusive RKO bookings. Consequently, Radio City began showing movies during the day and stage shows at night.

One of its most popular acts, starting on its opening night, featured a group of long-legged, high-kicking dancers who were modeled after the Ziegfeld Follies' John Tiller Girls. When they first teamed up in St. Louis is 1925, they were known as the "Missouri Rockets." When Rothafel brought them to his Roxy theatre, they became the "Roxyettes." And when they followed him to Radio City, which is technically part of Rockefeller Center, they changed their name once again, to the "Rockettes," and became the centerpiece of Radio City's Christmas show, which helped to make Radio City New York's premiere entertainment venue for nearly a half-century.

By the late seventies, though, when Sanders first arrived on the scene, Radio City was in dire financial straits and on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. New York City itself was in a rut, with poverty and crime reaching new heights and deterring many from walking its streets and riding its subway. But, more pertinently, the movie-and-stage show format, which had always sustained the place, was no longer working.

Cineplexes were beginning to pop up all over the place, causing distributors to stop offering exclusive bookings to Radio City and the public to watch films closer to home, rather than schlepping into and through midtown. Moreover, Radio City's chieftains wanted to screen only family-friendly films -- rated G, under the new MPAA ratings system -- which, at a time when American cinema was becoming edgier, only further impeded their ability to fill their roughly 6,000 seats. In 1979, the venue stopped showing films altogether, and plans were being made to convert it into office space. A backlash ensued, leading to a change in management. Jani came on the job. And, soon afterwards, so did Sanders.

When 22-year-old Sanders landed in New York, Jani put him up at the Hilton, a short walk from Radio City. Sanders, who "had never stayed in a room more expensive than a Days Inn in my whole life," asked the front desk how much his room cost per night. (The answer, which left him awestruck, was $80.) That first night, Jani asked him to dinner at the fancy Sign of the Dove restaurant, and it was there that Jani asked him to become his talent coordinator -- really, his entire talent department, since no one else was a part of it -- and report directly to him, with responsibilities such as auditioning and hiring singer-dancers and Rockettes. Sanders, suitably wooed, said yes, and was promptly moved into a room on the seventh floor above Radio City, which used to be Rothefeld's apartment. "I was living in Radio City Music Hall," Sanders laughs as we walk through the building's ornately decorated, Art Deco-style lobby, and make our way up a grand staircase to its balcony.

As we take a seat, Tony rehearsals are taking place on the stage below us. "Is that Sting?!" Sanders whispers excitedly. "Oh, my God! I brought Sting to Radio City years ago!" During his time at Radio City, Sanders' responsibilities grew to include executive producing shows for many of the world's greatest entertainers, including Peter Allen, Ella Fitzgerald, Liberace, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross and Frank Sinatra. He also tried to attract different sorts of concerts and variety shows. "Back in the day," he says, "I used to try to lobby to get the Tony Awards here, and I went over to meet the old head of the Wing and the League, Roy Somlyo, and said, 'Please, why don't you bring the Tonys to Radio City?' I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the Tonys would never be held in anything other than a legitimate musical theater."

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Of course, that proved not to be the case. Beginning in 1967, when the Tonys were first televised, they rotated between different Broadway theaters, the largest of which seats only 1,933 people. But in 1997, they moved to Radio City, which can accommodate more than three times that number, and which also offers a huge orchestra pit, wingspace, flies and stage, enabling Tony producers to put on a far more impressive show than they could at any other venue in New York.

The show took place there each year until 2010, when Cirque du Soleil moved in, forcing it to relocate to the much smaller Beacon Theater (2,894 seats), on the Upper West Side, for the next three years -- during which the show's ratings plummeted. They returned to Radio City last year, though, generating their highest ratings in years, and there are no plans for it to leave again.

"It's been wonderful for the Tonys to have the kind of stage and production capabilities that this theater has," Sanders says proudly. "The Music Hall, I think, is the greatest theater in the world. I have a bias, obviously, but it really is spectacular. When you go underneath the Music Hall, you see the hydraulics that were guarded by national security during World War II because it used the same technology that was used for aircraft carriers. And the orchestra pit goes down -- and elevators 1, 2 and 3 can go down -- to the basement." The rest of the facilities have also been upgraded over the years. Sanders notes, "When I came here in '79, we did a complete redo of the seats and the carpet."

In 1994, after 15 years at Radio City, Sanders left to partner with Peter Guber in the launch of a new film and television production company, Mandalay Entertainment, ultimately serving as president of Mandalay Television and executive producing six network series in association with Columbia TriStar, including two short-lived but still-remembered ones: ABC’s Cupid (1998-1999), which starred Jeremy Piven, and the WB’s Young Americans (2000-2000), which starred Kate Bosworth.

Sanders left in 2002 to form Creative Battery, a theatrical production company that he ran until 2007, and through which he produced solo Broadway shows starring Elaine Stritch and Dame Edna -- Elaine Stritch At Liberty (2002-2002) and Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance (2004-2005), respectively -- winning the best special theatrical event Tony for the former (at Radio City, poignantly enough) and earning another Tony nom for the latter. Additionally, he bagged a best musical Tony nom for producing the Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple (2005-2008).

In 2007, he formed his own operation, Scott Sanders Productions, through which he produced Evita (2012-2013), earning a Tony nom for best revival of a musical. In 2012, his company signed a five-year deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment providing them with first refusal on properties from Sony's vaults that could be developed and produced for Broadway. And, most recently, they led the production charge on After Midnight, which, he notes, is modeled after Harlem's legendary and long-gone Cotton Club, but is also "patterned after my life here at Radio City."

How so? In Radio City's Christmas show -- which became the stand-alone, 90-minute Radio City Christmas Spectacular in 1979, under the oversight of Jani and Sanders -- the Radio City orchestra is stationed on a rolling band car, which eventually moves forward to the front of the stage. "Just the mere movement of the orchestra makes the entire audience applaud," he marvels. As a result, he says, "I asked our scenic designer, [two-time Tony Award winner] John Lee Beatty, would he please design a moving band car that we could put our orchestra on?" Consequently, at the end of After Midnight, the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Star Band makes a similar trip to the front of the stage. "We wanted to give them the kind of star-wattage and star-entrance that they deserve," Sanders explains.

But nothing Sanders has done has gotten more attention than After Midnight will at the Tony Awards -- whether or not it actually bags any Tonys. That's because Carlyle, After Midnight's choreographer-director, is also choreographing the Tonys, and the singers and dancers of After Midnight will kick off the show with a number that they have been rehearsing -- while putting on eight shows a week -- for more than a month.

"Everyone wants that opening number," Sanders says as we look down at the stage on which it will be performed in front of not only thousands of Broadway insiders, but also a television audience that is likely to number around seven million. "We did not ask to be the opening number. But being chosen to open the show is quite an honor. We all have a lot to prove, and we have a lot of thanks to give to [Tony Awards executive producers] Ricky [Kirshner] and Glenn [Weiss] and CBS for this opportunity. And I promise you: we will deliver."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg