Interview with Jennifer Ashley Tepper

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Jennifer Tepper is a musical theatre historian, writer and producer. In September, she took the reigns as Director of Programing at Broadway’s hottest cabaret venue 54 Below. On the eve of the release of her first full-length book “The Untold Stories of Broadway” from Dress Circle Publishing, Jennifer sat down with me to talk theater, her book and upcoming shows at 54 Below.

When did you first notice your interest and passion for theatre materialize?

My parents both love theatre and they took me to see local and touring productions when I was growing up in Florida. I immediately responded to shows like A Chorus Line and Annie, and wanted to learn more. Then, it was really cast recordings that made me the theatre aficionado I am today. From the age of 9 onward, I would buy cast recordings with my allowance every month; I got 8 cast recordings for Hanukkah every year. I loved to read the liner notes and listen carefully and teach myself what each musical was about.

What made you realize you didn’t just want to stand in the wings and watch theatre as a fan, but you wanted to be a part of the community and make theatre your profession?

I always knew I wanted to work in the theatre, but I never wanted to be a performer. For kids who know that, there’s always a challenge. You can usually perform in school shows and even community theatre as a child, but who’s going to let a kid produce the show or company manage or do the publicity, etc? Luckily, I had some great mentors growing up in Florida who taught me about playwriting, directing and producing so I was well-armed when I got to NYU.

I think it’s so important to let young people interested in theatre see that there are so many fulfilling, important jobs in the theatre other than performing. In my book, The Untold Stories of Broadway, I spent a good deal of time interviewing house managers. Each Broadway theater is their domain and they are responsible for so many operations that make shows happen! I hope that some kid reads the book and thinks: Ooooh, house management is awesome.

 You recently became the Director of Programming at 54 Below, can you give us any insight into what you’re working on?

I’m working on so many things right now! Essentially, the majority of what happens on our stage is my responsibility, and we have 18 shows a week- so check the 54 Below site and you’ll see MANY things we’re working on.

I’m producing and hosting Once Upon A Time In NYC 3 on Tuesday November 19 at 9pm. It’s our third evening of world premiere songs written by today’s best musical theatre writers about New York City or someone who has changed it. We have brand new songs from everyone from [title of show]’s Jeff Bowen to Truckload’s Louis St. Louis, and they are being performed from everyone from Jeremy Jordan to Katie Thompson! It’s always a really inspiring evening about what it means to live in New York City. And you get to hear all of these songs the very first time they’re sung!

Then on December 8 and 9, HIT LIST takes 54 Below by storm. I’m thrilled beyond belief to have the show-within-the-show from Smash come to life on our stage, starring Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy, Andy Mientus, and Carrie Manolakos.

On December 17, I’m putting together a big evening celebrating one of my favorite writing teams, Maltby & Shire, with an all-star Broadway cast. On December 20 and 21, I’m producing the 6th Annual Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular.

There are so many amazing artists coming up that I’m just thrilled about.

For two shows in December, HIT LIST from NBC’s SMASH is getting a second life on the 54 Below stage in concert form. How did this show come together?

I collaborate often with the musical theatre writer Joe Iconis, who is also one of my best friends. He had several songs featured on Smash this season, that were in the musical Hit List. Because of that, I got to know some of the Smash folks, and after the series ended, show runner and executive producer Josh Safran, writer Julia Brownell, and I talked about how incredible it would be to do Hit List in concert. I was a huge fan of Smash, and I can’t believe it’s actually happening!

Your first book, “The Untold Stories of Broadway: Tales from the World’s Most Famous Theaters, Volume 1”, comes out tomorrow. What can we expect to learn from it?

Ah, tomorrow! Crazy. The book is a love letter to Broadway theaters, it is a love letter to people who work on Broadway in every profession, it is a love letter to the theatre community as a whole. People can expect to learn a whole bunch of things they never knew about all of the people, shows and secrets of the Al Hirschfeld, Marquis, Lyceum, Winter Garden, August Wilson, Neil Simon, Richard Rodgers, and Mark Hellinger Theatres!

While conducting your interviews was there any interesting stories or tidbits you learned that really stuck out for you?

There were SO many. I read the book now and on each page, I remember where I was and how I felt when I originally heard that story. One story I will say that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is Gavin Creel’s tale of when the entire Hair revival cast slept over in their theater. Since the book is about how these historic places become our homes, that story was very striking.

Did all of your interviews make it into the book? Or were some saved for later volumes?

I conducted over 200 interviews, where I asked people about all of the Broadway theaters they’ve worked in, but only 8 of the theaters are in the first book! So yes, I have tons of material and stories about the other 30+ theaters that will be in future volumes.

After all of your research and interviews have you found yourself having a greater appreciation for theatre?

I have always loved theatre with my whole heart and soul and I’m not sure that I have a greater appreciation for theatre itself… I do however have a greater appreciation for the roles of so many theatre professionals that I learned more about in this process. Speaking to sound designers, I was really able to understand their work more. Hearing stories from door men and women made me more in awe of their roles in the community. I feel like my understanding and appreciation of all of the people it takes to put on a show, is greater!

What do you like most about being a part of the NYC theatre community?

It really is a community. It’s almost like a high school! Worldwide Plaza is the courtyard and the Café Edison is the cafeteria and Sardi’s is the after-school hang. In all seriousness, once you’ve been around for awhile, you know everyone. You get to do what you love with other people who grew up loving Broadway, and you walk down the street and feel like you’re in a small town because all you see are the faces of friends. What I like most about the theatre community is getting to help make theatre that I believe in happen, alongside people I believe in.

For more information on “The Untold Stories of Broadway” or to purchase your own copy, visit Dress Circle Publishing’s website.

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