NEW YORK — Gerald Schoenfeld had never been to the theater before going to work for the law firm that handled business for the Shuberts--the quixotic, combative dynasty that controlled much of Broadway's real estate in the 20th century.
"The only Schubert I had ever heard of was Franz Schubert, the great composer," Schoenfeld confesses in the recently published "The Shuberts Present: 100 Years of American Theater," a mammoth coffee table book published by Abrams that celebrates the centenary of the theatrical empire founded by three brothers--Lee, J.J. and Sam Shubert.
It is a lavish book, filled with rare photographs, drawings and sketches that pay homage to the theaters, the last of which, the Ethel Barrymore, was built in 1928.
These days, more than 50 years after his first taste of things theatrical, Schoenfeld, 77, runs the Shubert Organization in New York City and around the country. For the last 30 years, it has been his job as company chairman to fill the firm's many theaters, a juggling act that requires skill and shrewdness, not to mention a little luck.
Luck was what he needed in 1972 when he and another lawyer, Bernard Jacobs, took over the tottering Shubert empire, taking control at a time when Broadway was in decline and more than a few Shubert houses sat empty.
"There were not many hit shows," Schoenfeld says in his straightforward, understated manner. He and Jacobs turned things around first with such hit productions as "Pippin" and "Equus," and then, in 1975, with "A Chorus Line."
"It was a bonanza," Schoenfeld recalls. "A bellwether event because it was a product of the not-for-profit theater and the Shubert Organization. That show really changed the perception of the Broadway theater as far as nonprofit theaters were concerned."
"A Chorus Line" was followed by "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Evita," "Amadeus," "Dreamgirls" and "Cats," the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that held forth at the Shubert's Winter Garden Theatre for nearly 18 years.
"The object is to fill these theaters," Schoenfeld says simply, either by producing shows themselves or booking other producer's efforts.
"And if you are not in a time of plenty, then you put in whatever you can find," he says.