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Episode Transcript

When I first moved to New York City, years ago, I went to a lot of Broadway shows. My girlfriend was an actress; a lot of our friends were actors, and we would scrounge tickets for cheap, or, more often, we would “second act” the shows — that’s when you just walk in the theater at intermission and find an empty seat. It’s harder to do that these days. And then, in my first real journalism job, at New York Magazine, I wrote about the theater a good bit and I was suddenly invited to become a voter for the Tony awards. I thought this was an honor of some kind; it turned out to be more of a punishment. Because a Tony voter is supposed to see every show that’s nominated for any category. Which means you see a lot of theater that just isn’t very good. I don’t mean to be cruel; I know that everyone involved works really hard. But making a great piece of theater — a great piece of anything — takes more than hard work. It takes talent, and luck, and endurance, and something that feels like alchemy. Anyway, after seeing 20 or 30 Broadway shows a year — many of them mediocre at best — I pretty much gave up on it. I also stopped following the business side of theater, which I had found fascinating and weird. But I moved on. It just felt like, in a world of rapidly expanding entertainment options, Broadway had been left behind.

Meanwhile, the tickets kept getting more expensive. These days, the average Broadway ticket costs over $125; the average household income of a Broadway ticket buyer today is over $270,000. This steep inflation was actually predicted, back in 1965, by a pair of economists: William Baumol and William Bowen. They published a paper called “On the Performing Arts: The Anatomy of Their Economic Problems.” Even back then, they saw that when an industry is not able to use new technologies to raise productivity — which is what most industries do — then prices would spike, since the cost of labor continues to rise. This phenomenon came to be called Baumol’s cost disease. Today, it helps explain why sectors like healthcare and education have also seen massive inflation. There may be a lot of new technology in those fields, but it doesn’t change the basic fact that they require a lot of real people spending a lot of time doing or making a thing — and real people are expensive! Can you think of an industry more vulnerable to this cost disease than live theater? For starters, you can’t scale it. It takes dozens of people, sometimes hundreds, working very hard for many hours every day so that you and I can plop ourselves in a seat and watch something that is essentially handmade. And that’s not counting the thousands of hours, and dollars, spent creating the show in the first place. Writers, directors, producers, musicians, lighting and costume and scenic designers; then there are the staged readings and workshops, rehearsals, sometimes fistfights. But if all the elements line up — the talent, the luck, the endurance, the alchemy — it can also be something spectacular and unique, every single time.

A while back, we got an email from a listener. We had just put out a series on the airline industry, and this listener suggested something similar on the theater industry. So we started looking into it. We did a bunch of interviews, feeling around for a center of gravity, a hypothesis. One obvious working title came to mind: “Is Theater Dead?” or maybe “This Time, Is Theater Really Dead?” Because the demise of theater has been predicted for decades, if not longer. It is, after all, one of our oldest art forms, going back to at least the ancient Greeks; that’s more than 2,500 years ago. And who says everything has to last forever? Maybe live theater had just outlived its time. During those early interviews we did, it became clear that the economics of theater are still fascinating and weird. For those of us in New York, Broadway is just the visible tip of the iceberg; beneath it are many hundreds of professional, not-for-profit theaters — regionals and repertories and university programs, and others. And their economics have become dire. Even before the Covid shutdown, which hit them hard, a lot of the non-profits were in financial trouble. Part of the problem is that they’ve always relied on philanthropic donations, and most younger donors just aren’t that interested in the theater. But this is a big problem for the commercial theater too, for Broadway, because the non-profits are the farm system for Broadway shows.

Of the 26 new plays or musicals that opened on Broadway this season, 23 of them came up through the farm system, most in the U.S. and a few in the U.K. As we were trying to figure out how to make a radio series about all this, I started going to see shows again — quite a few, in New York and London and a couple other places. I am sorry to report that, once again, most of them weren’t great. I’d still get excited every time the lights went down, and you’d feel your heart beating faster: what am I about to see; where will it take me? Because there is a thing that can only happen in theater. And I kept looking for it — for something that didn’t feel like it was trying to be a concert, or a sitcom, or a theme-park ride. I went to see a musical version of Back to the Future; the highlight was, toward the end, the DeLorean flying out over the audience. I didn’t actually see this happen, because I left at intermission; but maybe someone else second-acted the show and got to see it from my seat? I hope so. I recognize everyone has their own taste; I’m not trying to yuck anyone else’s yum. I was just looking for something that could only happen in a dark room with real people, on stage, doing and saying things that you won’t see or hear anywhere else, or at least not as intensely and intelligently. I guess I was looking for a jolt. Finally, I found it. And the person responsible for creating it feels the way I do.

David ADJMI: I want to feel electricity, and I want to feel alive in a new way. I want to feel something unpeeling or unfolding in a very surprising way when I go to the theater.

His name is David Adjmi. He’s been writing plays for many years; this one — it’s called Stereophonicit took 11 years. Stereophonic is about a rock band in the 1970s recording an album. It’s a show about music, but it’s not a musical. It’s got the feel of a documentary but it’s more intimate, and more interesting. It might not seem “theatrical,” but it is; it’s just not performative in the way so much theater is these days. Anyway: I loved it. And I wanted to tell you about it, and I wanted to hear from the people who made it. So, we’re still working on that series about the economics of the theater industry — that’ll come out later this year, I hope — but Stereophonic is having a moment right now. It is nominated for more Tony Awards than any play in history. It’s the show that rock stars are going to see on their nights off. So, today on Freakonomics Radio: the first of a two-part series — trust me, it’s worth it — to find out how the alchemy happened. We will hear from the creators:

Sarah PIDGEON: We’ve been told throughout this show to have a bit of hostility to the audience.

ADJMI: It’s not a very fashionable play. It doesn’t have to do with identity politics.

Tom PECINKA: It’s about nothing, and it’s about everything. It’s about being in a room with creative people making something, or at least trying to make something great. 

And we’ll hear from the producers:

John JOHNSON: We just keep saying, “When will the sales slow down? When will it stop?” And it just has not yet.

Sonia FRIEDMAN: If you follow a formula for Broadway, what I’ve found is the biggest successes on Broadway tend to break that formula. And this is one of those.

How to break a formula, break some hearts, and — in this case — break the bank. The unlikely success of Stereophonic, and what it may say about the future of live theater, starting now.

*      *      *

Going to see a piece of live theater takes time, effort, and money, sometimes a lot of money. You could watch thousands of movies on Netflix for the cost of one Broadway ticket. So, what does theater have going for it? What does it still do that nothing else can? Here, again, is the playwright David Adjmi:

ADJMI: It is live, and the audience becomes an organism. And they are in collaboration with the actors. So there’s something about that kind of liturgy, the ritual of being in a space together, creating a new thing every single night. Because it is totally different every single night. And the energy and the electricity, what makes something funny or moving one night can be completely discrepant with what happens the next night. That kind of knife-edged liveness is something that you only can really get in the theater. And it’s a temporal art form. It takes place within a compressed amount of time. There’s a beginning, middle, and end that you can feel. When I was writing my memoir, I couldn’t get a sense of the shape, because it was so big. There were so many hundreds of pages that I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t even get a sense of what this shape is.” And in a play, it’s much more skeletal. You can feel the shape of it. You can trace the vertebrae of it when you’re writing it. It’s much easier to wrap your head around it.

Adjmi grew up in a fairly strange, often dysfunctional, always loud family of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn. In his memoir, Lot Six, published in 2020, he writes about seeing Sweeney Todd when he was eight years old. Sweeney Todd is a musical by Stephen Sondheim about a barber in Victorian England who, having suffered a great injustice, gets revenge by slaughtering people in his barber shop — and, with the help of his confederate Mrs. Lovett, turning them into meat pies. 

ADJMI: That play was about a real outsider, a cultural outsider. And it was my first time seeing something where an outsider, an anti-hero, was presented at the center of something. The violence of his emotions and the injustice of the world was being propounded in these crazy songs and in this wild comedy. And it was all cross-hatched together. That was very thrilling for me, and it was showing me something about my psyche that I didn’t have a language for, because I was too young to know how to speak about my life. But he became like an avatar for me. He scared me, and he scared me because he was in me already. 

Stephen DUBNER: You mean Sweeney, not Sondheim? 

ADJMI: Sweeney. And probably Sondheim. Because I think Sweeney is a part of Sondheim. I think all artists have that part to them: The exile, the outsider, the person who doesn’t fit in, that nobody understands and needs to be seen and needs to get revenge and needs all these things. So I was very taken by that show, but I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t have a language for it, and it was almost like I was knocked upside my head, I was dizzy, and I like theater that creates that experience for the audience. 

Sweeney Todd was recently revived on Broadway, with Josh Grobin playing Sweeney for a time, beside the endlessly entertaining Annaleigh Ashford as Mrs. Lovett. And there’s another Sondheim revival on Broadway right now — Merrily We Roll Along — which, like David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, may win some Tony Awards. But Stephen Sondheim, who died in 2021, is more of a theater person’s theater person. He did win many awards, and some of his shows, like Company and Into the Woods, did have long Broadway runs. But you have to go way back to West Side Story and Gypsy to find a time when Sondheim was considered mainstream. When you look at the shows that make it to Broadway today, especially the musicals, most of them are targeted at tourists, who want a fun and familiar piece of entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But people like Sondheim, and now David Adjmi, have always offered something different — something more original, more off-kilter than the blander entertainments and the Hollywood adaptations. But why isn’t there more of that?

ADJMI: There’s no funding for it. And people are discouraged to do it because they want to be produced. So they think they have to make their work producible. So they’re just chasing trends, and the artistic directors are trying to appease their boards, and they’re trying to bring subscribers in, and everyone wants something a little middlebrow because that’s easier to digest.

What Adjmi is talking about here are the non-profit theaters that feed Broadway — the theaters in places like Seattle and Chicago and La Jolla and Hartford.

ADJMI: A writer really has to risk being a splinter, and someone who comes in and disrupts, and you are not going to make money doing that, probably.

DUBNER: Well, you might.

ADJMI: Now I can. 

DUBNER: But this is lightning striking. This is a rare occurrence.

ADJMI: It is. And this play, I didn’t try to do this to be commercial or anything like that. I made it the same way I make everything else. But it has music in it, and I’m working with a brilliant composer and people like music, so it abuts being a Broadway musical, even though it has nothing to do with that. 

The brilliant composer he’s talking about is Will Butler, from Arcade Fire, the Canadian band who have made some very good records over the past couple decades. His brother Win Butler is the frontman; he was recently accused of sexual misconduct and bullying. By then, Will Butler had already quit the band. Some of the music he wrote for Stereophonic sounds like Arcade Fire: it’s dark and bright (at the same time somehow), it’s traditional in some key ways but also modernist. But the band that Stereophonic really reminds you of is Fleetwood Mac. The demographics are identical. There’s a British husband and wife who are in the midst of breaking up — as were Christine and John McVie when Fleetwood Mac recorded their blockbuster record Rumors. There is an American couple, very much like Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who are also in the middle of breaking up. Their names are Peter and Diana in the play. If you’re looking for further Fleetwood Mac parallels, both Lindsey Buckingham and the Peter character happen to have a brother who swims in the Olympics. And the fifth member of the Stereophonic band is a drummer who is also British, as was Mick Fleetwood. The entire play, more than three hours long, happens entirely inside a recording studio. The band is making their second record; their first had a slow start but now it has caught fire, and they’re turning into big rock stars — although that’s all happening outside the studio; we feel it but we never see it. We also feel the sudden pressure of huge expectations. There are also two recording engineers in the play — so, seven people, hermetically sealed on this stage, a fishbowl of ambition and talent and exhaustion and frustration; it is both thrilling and painful to so thoroughly eavesdrop on them. David Adjmi is in his early 50s, and he had written several plays before this one. But Stereophonic will end up being more commercially successful than the rest of them put together, maybe times 10. I asked him where the inspiration for Stereophonic came from. He said it was from listening to a Led Zeppelin recording one day.

ADJMI: I was on a plane ride, and I was going to a conference, a theater conference, and I was listening to in-flight radio. And that song, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” which is the cover they did, came on. 

That song was written in the 1950s by the folk singer Anne Bredon; it was first recorded by Joan Baez, before Led Zeppelin covered it.

ADJMI: My brother, when I was a really little kid — my brother’s much older than me — he used to play that over and over on his guitar when he was teaching himself how to play guitar. So I knew that song just from those chords. But then I started listening to the vocals. And it’s just so crazy and so volatile and so emotionally intense. There’s something about — it was just so transfixing to me. And I just imagined the studio. I was trying to visualize it because you’re trapped on a plane. What are you going to do? And it activates the imagination. And then I went, “Oh, wait a minute, what if that’s the set for a play?” And I just immediately knew that I was going to write this play. And I thought, But how am I going to write this play? It’s not so interesting. They’re just going to record an album? What is it? I just let myself not know for a really long time how I was going to do it, but I just knew. Sometimes you just know.

DUBNER: I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard anybody have the genesis of a great piece of art come from in-flight radio.

ADJMI: Welcome to me.

DUBNER: From that day until today is about how many years?

ADJMI: That was 11 years ago.

DUBNER: Were you working on it during that time or did you just let it germinate for a while in your mind?

ADJMI: I let it germinate for a while. I was doing other things. I was supposed to write my book. I was late with my book. And I had another project that I was commissioned to do. I was doing this on the side, and the way that I decided to make it was, I just decided to invite a director to come on, and invite my composer and invite the music director and invite a team before I had a word on the page. And I just said, “Would you guys all just commit to doing this with me? I’m going to make this.” It became almost like this weird totemic force, this weird — 

DUBNER: Well, you formed a band. 

ADJMI: I formed a band. And we are a band. It feels like it. 

DUBNER: Had you been in a band before? 

ADJMI: Never, ever. I knew I wanted to work with Arcade Fire from the first time I heard the Funeral album. And then when I thought about this project and just the feeling of the music that I wanted, I just thought of them. So, I had a friend who knew the creative director of Arcade Fire. So we reached out to Arcade Fire, and Will was the only one who came back and said, “I’ll meet with you.”

DUBNER: Where was he living then? 

ADJMI: He was living in Montreal right before that, but he just moved to New York. So it’s perfect timing. We met and we talked about Herman Melville and Moby Dick for a really long time. Will’s a polymath, he’s not a normal rocker. He’s really smart. Really smart. He knows about everything. I just was like, “This guy’s cool, and he’s a unicorn.” I could tell right away. He’s adaptable. He can do different kinds of things. And I said, this isn’t going to be the kind of thing where you come in with a song and then we put the song on. We have to go through iterations. It has to be right for this play. It has to fit exactly into what I’m doing. Are you open to that? And he said, “Absolutely.” He was super cool about it. He agreed to do it in 2014. And then I don’t think it was until 2018 that I had a draft that I could show him. And, we read it together. I read it. Will played some parts. I played parts. Daniel and my music director — 

DUBNER: That’s your director?

ADMJI: Yeah, my director and the music director. We all read it together a couple of times. And then he went home and he read it. And then he built out songs in character.

DUBNER: Did he build out many of the songs right in that first round of writing, or did it come slowly? 

ADJMI: No. He had a couple. And then a few that we didn’t use. And it went on like that for a while. Like, “Masquerade” didn’t have a bridge, and I was like, dude, that song needs a bridge. Can we do this and that? I’d say I want it to be a little more heterogeneous. I don’t want it to just have one feeling to it. I want it to switch and turn more. And I would like dramaturg the songs and he let me do it because he was cool like that. And when he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t, and then I’d say, okay, I’ll shut up. I was researching this play by — I mean, I read books, but I also watched a ton of documentaries.

DUBNER: What were some of the docs, and what were some of the bands that you watched and liked? 

ADJMI: Oh, so many.

DUBNER: I mean, I’m guessing there was a Fleetwood Mac doc.

ADJMI: There were definitely Fleetwood Mac docs. They have one. I think it’s from when they were making Tusk that has a lot of great, very private feeling stuff in it. The Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster. And there was something about this documentary style and feeling that I myself was watching, eavesdropping on these people in this very private recording process, because nobody gets let into these studios. So the fact that I was watching them and hearing these sotto voce conversations, and seeing these private moments. It’s just — 

DUBNER: Yeah, but here’s what I like about your show more than those docs — which I also like — but when you’re a musician in a studio and there’s a camera, you know it’s there. You may act as if it’s not, and you might forget about it once in a while, but generally you’ll behave in a way that burnishes, in your mind, your reputation at that moment, because you understand you’re being observed. So it might look like real life but it’s not, really — whereas in your fictional version, it feels more like non-fiction, because you don’t have those constraints. It feels like we’re eavesdropping for real.

ADJMI: Well, thank you for saying that. That’s a real compliment to us. Whether it’s an illusion or not, that was what was so seductive to me about those documentaries. I think when I was composing the play and I wanted to use a different style — and realism for me is a style — I started to borrow from that. And that’s why there’s so much overlapping dialogue in that first scene. I really wanted people to understand,  no, you’re not going to get it all. This is not for you. You have to lean in from the beginning, and know you’re going to miss stuff, because you’re eavesdropping. So that creates the latticework through which you peek in and watch the play from the very first scene, that was very deliberately constructed. 

GROVER: Can you check to see if the mic pre is on?


DIANA: My head is like a brick.

CHARLIE: It’s on.

GROVER: It’s on?

SIMON: Go have some aspirin. 

DIANA: I don’t need an aspirin. I need to get, like, one hour of sleep. This is insane.

CHARLIE: Is the phantom power on?

SIMON: I know, I know.

DIANA: Did you sleep through that?

GROVER: Is the cable not seated properly?

SIMON: Look at my eyes. 

DIANA: Oh, they’re bloodshot. 

DUBNER: So, I used to play music and record music and, of many things I love about your play, one is simply how well the playing of music is rendered. It just feels real, and thrilling, and painful and all those things you feel when you’re in a band. But I also loved how well you rendered the recording process, which is a totally different animal. So can you talk about how you got to that?

ADJMI: So much of it was me faking stuff early on. I would look at things in documentaries and they’d say these phrases and I’d go, ooh, that sounds cool. And I’d write it down. Just every time a phrase sounded like something cool that I would believe sounded like a real production thing, I would write it down.

DUBNER: Like, “Your snare is rattling a little bit.”

ADJMI: Well, yeah. And that I got — I knew I wanted there to be a problem with the drum. And I didn’t know what kind of problem would happen with a drum. So I said to sound guy Ryan Rumery, who’s brilliant, “What kind of problem would happen that would cause this drummer to melt down? And what would he do to fix it? And then how could that go wrong?” I wanted to construct a scene where he goes down a black hole. Ryan really talked me through it for about an hour. That’s how I did that scene.

SIMON: Now the snares are ringing again.

GROVER: I didn’t hear it that time. Did you hear it?


GROVER: I didn’t hear it that time. 

SIMON: We keep trying to fix it and it keeps making everything worse. You know, I wish I hadn’t touched it, I really do. I really do wish we’d just left it alone.

GROVER: Sorry, man. 

SIMON: A drum is a piece of wood: A piece. Of wood. It’s ephemeral. You can’t keep changing things. Now we’ve changed everything and I can’t change it back!

FRIEDMAN: Stereophonic is about a band, and it’s about a band early on in its career that’s finding fame. They all happen to love each other, and have relationships with one another. I’m Sonia Friedman, and I’m a theater producer. 

Friedman, based in London, is one of the most prolific theatrical producers in recent history. At the moment, she has more than a dozen shows in production — on the West End in London as well as on Broadway and in several other countries. Her shows have won more than 60 Olivier Awards, in Britain, and, as of this recording, 39 Tony Awards. I asked Friedman why she’d been attracted to Stereophonic.

FRIEDMAN: We watch them through the course of the making of an album, which will end up being a great album for the ages, but they don’t know that at the time. Watch them battle through creativity, trying to find their own individual voices, but also be as one, and crash through their relationships, and see them just battling through. And the thing is that what David, the author, and Daniel, the director, have done is, they’ve been incredibly bold with this show because there’s this rule in New York. You can’t have shows running over a particular length of time. And it’s got to have stars in it. If you follow a formula for Broadway, actually what I’ve found is the biggest successes on Broadway tend to break that formula. And this is one of those. It has to run at three hours-plus because you have to get this sense of this album taking forever to make. And you never, ever, ever feel the length. You want to be with this group forever. And of course, the music is sublime. And they’re really brilliant with the way they tease the music. They don’t give it to you easily. You have to wait. But there’s this moment of absolute ecstasy when 45, 50 minutes in, you hear it and you go, “Oh God, that’s what they’re making. Oh wow.” And it begins to make sense as to why this group who seem at each other’s throats, and then they get in the room together and they make magic. And that’s art. That’s art. 

The band in Stereophonic is never named. The actors do have a pet name for the band, but I promised not to tell. They are led by Peter, who writes, sings, plays guitar, and winds up imposing his will on everyone else. We hear about Peter before we see him; here are Simon, the drummer, and Diana, who writes and sings; she is also Peter’s girlfriend.

SIMON: The last album took three weeks, so this can’t take more than another two, three weeks tops. We can make it two more weeks.

DIANA: Peter said last night he was ready to snap and he wanted to confront Reg and I said no, don’t escalate things. 

SIMON: It was good you did that. 

DIANA: And now you have to do your part.

All of the characters are interesting, and at least occasionally charming, except for Peter, who doesn’t do charm.

FRIEDMAN: He’s got a very, very difficult role because, how I see it, that’s maybe because I’m a producer, I see him trying desperately to wrestle this group and keep this group together, and he has a vision, and maybe he’s got such a strong vision that he’s not seeing what’s going on around him. 

PECINKA: Peter is one of the lead vocalists in the band. He’s the lead guitarist of the band and becomes the producer of the album as the show goes on. I’m Tom Pecinka, and I’m an actor.

DUBNER: How would you describe the Peter character, emotionally?

PECINKA: He’s a control freak, but there’s reasons why. He’s a guy that is a survivor, in a lot of aspects. I won’t go into all the backstory of his father and all that stuff, because I think that’s for me.

DUBNER: Some of it’s in the writing.

PECINKA: Some of it’s in the writing. But I think the emotional landscape is for me. I think he’s been taught a certain amount of savagery. He’s had to develop a work ethic that can be harmful to himself and to others, but can also produce great results. 

DUBNER: What does it feel like to play this character? Forget about the endurance requirements of a three-hour show. I mean, you’re on stage — everyone is on stage — a lot. But what’s the experience feel like? 

PECINKA: This show has been an incredible experience and a challenging one, in the fact that my character is not the most palatable person in the room. So I’ve been heckled. There’s loud groans of disapproval. I always used to say that, “Oh, I’m an actor who doesn’t care if he’s liked or not, that’s not what an artist cares about.” But I think deep down, as human beings, we all care if we’re liked even a little bit. So I think the universe brought this play into my life to be like, “Yeah? Prove it.”

DUBNER: What’s a line in Stereophonic that you know that every night you say it, you’re going to become the object of scorn?

PECINKA: “No.” She asks me, “Can I speak with you privately?” And I say, “no.” And before that I say, “Then don’t get in your own head, be a professional.” So those are two guaranteed groans from the audience. 

PETER: I think you romanticize who you are a little bit. You’re looking out for yourself just as much as I do; you’re very ambitious.

DIANA: I am not ambitious, don’t sling mud at me. 

PETER: You wanna use me to arrange a song but then when I’m telling you it’s too long or to cut something you have no interest and then you take it as criticism, then don’t ask me to arrange a song.

DIANA: Because you can be very aggressive Peter!

PETER: How am I?

DIANA: I don’t like to be forced, okay?

PIDGEON: He says some pretty out-of-pocket stuff. I’m Sarah Pidgeon, I’m an actor, and I’m currently in Stereophonic playing Diana. He also says, “If I don’t force you to have a baby, then it’s never going to happen.” It’s like — oh, you don’t say that.

DUBNER: Is it hard for you, as a female actor in 2024, to get into that mode in 1976 and 1977, where those things were said by a man, and not respond the way you might want to respond in 2024?

PIDGEON: Yeah, I think that was one of the more difficult hurdles that I had to get over. I was judging Diana a lot at the beginning for staying in this relationship. And I was bringing my 2024 self to it. A guy just should not talk to you that way. And how have you stayed in it for this long? But she doesn’t know what feminism is. She doesn’t know who Gloria Steinem is. She knows she has these feelings. It’s a time in rock history where there’s no one to look to for direction and guidance. I don’t think that there’s this feeling that she can go off on her own. I don’t even think it crosses her mind until she’s offered a solo album. I think her understanding of her artistry and songwriting is so tied to Peter’s orchestration of it, and his editing and his advice. 

Here’s David Adjmi again, talking about the Peter character.

ADJMI: That character is very similar to me in a lot of ways. He’s very damaged. And that’s a lot of my damage. It’s all this weird cross-hatching, but in the end, it’s a self-portrait. And I think all great art has to be that. You have to put skin in the game. You can’t just write about those people over there. They have to be inside of you in some way for it to really work.

DUBNER: What I love about Peter, even though he’s odious sometimes, is that he sets the bar really high. And that pisses everyone off — but they’re also grateful for it, in the end. How much of that is you?

ADJMI: It’s me. It’s all me.

DUBNER: Remind me not to collaborate with you.

ADJMI: I just maintain — I’ve said it over and over to the cast, because I’m a big, staunch defender of Peter, even though I know he’s got a lot of problems —Peter’s biggest flaw is that he has no bedside manner. He doesn’t understand how to be politic about offering his criticism, and he has bad timing. If he just could be more gracious and more tricky about how to deliver these criticisms, and he could lie better — but he’s not a liar. He’s really, really blunt. And it’s part of an ethos that makes him great, even though it’s really annoying, and it’s hard to work with somebody who doesn’t attend in a sensitive way to your feelings when this process is so — everything is so charged and heightened. You need to be sensitive to people. You can’t just deliver these sledgehammer criticisms. But he’s right a lot of the time. And in the play you see how he’s right. And it drives everybody crazy that he’s right. But I don’t judge my characters. I think Peter is sexist. Because he grew up in a sexist culture and it was 1976. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I think he’s living in a weird soup of the time. It was a tight-wire act, because I really don’t want people to turn against Peter. They do, no matter what I do. I mean, they do and they don’t like him, but I love him.

DUBNER: Where were you tempted to rewrite to make him a little bit more likable, at least in moments? 

ADJMI: No. Tom Pecinka, who plays Peter, is really adamant that we stay true to the character. He is hardcore, man. I just love that guy, because it comes from an ethical spine. He’s like, “My job is not to make you love him. My job is to show you who this person is, and to show him in as much dimensionality as I can.” And he does that, beautifully. 

PECINKA: I love that he said I have an ethical spine, because I think I do, as an artist. I have strong artistic values, and I don’t care. Because it’s not me. I don’t know if it’s because we live in the age of social media, or we live in the age of reality television. People just assume that, “Oh, well, you must be like your character.” And it gets to you. Off-Broadway, someone was like, “I hated you,” or “I hate you.” And I was like, “You hate me? That’s insane.” It’s not my job to make people like Peter. It’s my job to make people see Peter, and be in the room with him. Which a lot of people don’t like. And maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a contrarian or I’m a bit of a, I don’t even know what the right word is, rebel or something, but part of me loves it. Part of me loves it because it’s like you are throwing all your manners out the window, as an audience member, to jeer at me, I’m triggering something in you that’s real.

PIDGEON: We’ve been told throughout this show to have a bit of hostility to the audience.

DUBNER: By whom, your director? 

PIDGEON: Our director, yeah, Daniel Aukin. There’s a lot of laughs in the show and there’s moments and beats and pauses, and there’s a lot of musicality outside of the music, just in David’s writing. The hostility is in the sense of not allowing the audience’s reaction to throw us off the rhythm and tempo that we’re exploring in the show.

Coming up, after the break: how did that rhythm and tempo, those beats and pauses, turn into such a big hit?

*      *      *

David Adjmi was originally given a commission to write Stereophonic by two non-profit theater companies: Second Stage, in New York, and Center Theatre Group, in Los Angeles.

ADJMI: It was a co-commission from the two of them. So they paid me for the commission. But I mean, over the course of ten years if you divide it, what I got paid is, you get more working at McDonald’s — 

DUBNER: What’d you get paid for the commission.

ADJMI: I think I got something like 30 grand.

DUBNER: What did you do with all that money over those 10 years?

ADJMI: I survived. I mean, I paid my credit card bills. This is what you have to do. 

DUBNER: It does strike me that committing to life in the theater, as you did pretty early, and as many people still do, is essentially a commitment to poverty and struggle as well. I mean, what’s happening now with you is an anomaly. And it’s a great break. And I’m so, so happy for you. But can you just talk about, not only for all the other writers, but the performers and everybody else that goes into making these things that — we just show up and sit down in the seat. Can you just talk about what that kind of commitment is like to a life like that?

ADJMI: Thank you for asking that question. Look, I was able to write this play because I had patrons, essentially. There were two architects, very wonderful, well-known architects living in the Hollywood Hills who had a floor of their home. And, I hooked up with them and they let me live in that floor. I lived there for about seven years. Gratis. And I did a little bit of T.V. work, but basically not that much. That’s how this play was written, because of their generosity.

DUBNER: There are people who argue that the government should just support the arts more. They argue there’s a compelling rationale for that, etc. and many other countries, especially in Europe, do that. What’s your position there?

ADJMI: Yes, I absolutely agree with that. I think it’s obscene that we don’t fund our artists. It’s the hallmark of a civilized society. Paula Vogel told me that in like 1975, she got a grant from the N.E.A., which at that point funded individual artists, before Trent Lott and the Moral Majority got involved in the 90s. And she got $25,000, which was enough to live on for a year at that point. And she was able to kick-start her career. I was fortunate because I ended up getting private grants. I was at one point locked in a job as a paralegal in 30 Rock and I was working all day and night, I had no time to write. And I was like, “I’m never going to be able to be a writer. I don’t know how to eke out a living.” And I got this miraculous call saying that I won a grant for $25,000 in 2003, I think it was. And I took the money and I thought, “Well, I can really make this last if I move to Germany.” So I moved to Berlin. I lived in Prenzlauer Berg, which is a gorgeous neighborhood, it’s like the West Village. And my rent was 200 bucks a month. That’s how I generated the beginning of my body of work that made my name.

Adjmi wrote plays that ran Off-Broadway, at regional theaters, at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was a relatively successful career for a playwright. So what was his thinking before writing Stereophonic?

ADJMI: I mean, ironically, I was planning to quit plays altogether. I had a very bad collaboration. Actually, a really torturous collaboration. I made no money from the production, and I was so beaten up, I thought, I’m not going to do this anymore.

DUBNER: What was that, if you don’t mind me asking? 

ADJMI: That was a play that went sideways. I’m not going to talk about it too much. But it was a play about the composer Oscar Levant. So it was another show about music, but a very different kind of play.

DUBNER: And the producers were regular, standard Broadway commercial producers who liked your stuff? 

ADJMI: Yes. But they came with an actor attached. We talked a little bit, and I came up with this idea and thought, oh, what about Oscar Levant? Then I said, “Okay, I’ll write this play.” But they had deadlines, “Oh you have to do it by this time” and stuff. It was a little more stringent because it was a commercial theater apparatus. 

DUBNER: So this was a commercial production from the outset, correct? 

ADJMI: Yes. 

DUBNER: And what kind of house or theater would it have gone into initially if it had worked out? 

ADJMI: Broadway. 

DUBNER: Straight to Broadway? I mean, that almost never happens, does it? 

ADJMI: When Broadway producers commission you, and there’s a star attached to them, yeah, you can do it. 

DUBNER: I see. So, it was really about the star here. Because then you’re guaranteed, whatever, 24 weeks of box office. 

ADJMI: Exactly. 

DUBNER: Otherwise you’re guaranteed nothing. 

ADJMI: Yeah, exactly. If there’s no star attached, they’re not going to do this. 

DUBNER: Okay, so when that fell apart, and you were thinking about quitting the theater, were you willing to go back to your paralegal career?

ADJMI: No, I was going to do T.V. That’s why I moved to L.A. And then they sucked me back in because I got this commission from the Broadway people, and then I got a grant. It was a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation. And they said, “Well, you have to write a play as part of this grant.” And I thought, Okay, well, I’ll do it, but I’ll do  a one-act play. And I thought, that’s what this play was going to be. My one-act, short, little throw-away play. 

DUBNER: And instead it’s like three hours and 15 minutes. 

ADJMI: It just grew and grew. 

DUBNER: You have no self-control do you? 

ADJMI: No. But as I started researching it, I realized, “Oh, I can never leave the theater.” The play became about me wanting to leave the theater and knowing I could never leave it. “Babe, I’m going to leave you.” 

So Adjmi didn’t quit. He kept grinding away on Stereophonic, thanks to a free place to live, and a commission from those two non-profit theaters.

ADJMI: During Covid, everything just fell apart. And we went through various iterations of potential commercial producers, but then they all fell apart. And then my agent sent it to all these non-for-profit theaters in New York, and everyone said they didn’t want to do it.

DUBNER: Is that because it was tainted from the falling apart, or no?

ADJMI: I don’t think so. You know, it’s not a very fashionable play. It doesn’t have to do with identity politics. It wasn’t really of the moment at all. It takes place in 1976. It doesn’t have a particular agenda. I think they were like, “Well, why would we do this? And, it’s expensive, and who cares?”

DUBNER: And long.

ADJMI: Yeah. And it’s long, and maybe they didn’t even read it. I don’t know, who knows why? And I knew Adam Greenfield, the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, for decades because he produced my first play in Seattle a long time ago. So I said, can we go back to Adam? We’d gone to him initially, like a year or two before. And he said, No, no, I have too many plays backed up, because of Covid. I can’t think about this. But when we came back to him, he said, “Listen, this is really expensive. Tell us what you feel you need to produce this properly, because this is going to be a big production.” And my director and I said, “This is how I think we need to do this. We’re going to need a soundproof booth and we’re going to need a functioning recording studio, and we’re going to probably need music lessons for the actors, and we’re going to need more rehearsal time.” And he said, “Okay, if I can get the money, I will do it.” And a few months later he called back and said, “Okay, I have the money, let’s do it.” 

DUBNER: How much was it?

ADJMI: It definitely cost over a million. 

DUBNER: Wow. For Off-Broadway, that’s a lot.

ADJMI: Ours is the second-most-expensive thing they’ve ever done. And they had to rejigger the season to accommodate the play. But that’s how much he believed in it.

Here, again, is Tom Pecinka, who would be cast as Peter.

PECINKA: There were many workshops, and some of our cast had been part of those. I was not part of any of the workshops. I just got a cold audition to audition to play Reg and Grover. 

DUBNER: Reg is the bass player. Grover is the main engineer, correct?

PECINKA: Yes. And then I got called into the room, for a callback, an in-person callback for the entire team. Which apparently was like, I sucked the air out of the room. This legendary audition that I can barely remember.

DUBNER: Meaning you brought something to Peter that is similar to what Peter is now? 

PECINKA: Yes. When you’re doing it, you don’t know. And I felt like it was great. I definitely embraced the connections between myself and Peter in a way that I don’t know if I had ever done in an audition, so I could feel that for sure. You never know if it’s going to make an impact or you never know if the stone-cold faces behind the — I mean, I do remember David Adjmi nodding, furiously. So I was like, “Okay, well, maybe that is good.” But other than that, no. Then I got some messages from my reps, being like, “They want you. You were the best actor in the room, but you need to play guitar way better.” I played garbage guitar for five years, and I had to really up my game. Then they put me in guitar lessons, twice a week for two months, and I had to send them video updates every week. And then I was down in D.C. with my girlfriend, she was doing a show at the Studio Theater. I thought it was done. I thought they were ready to make a decision. And then my manager called me and said they want one more tape. And I almost jumped off the balcony in frustration. And then I went to a Guitar Center because I didn’t have a guitar with me. I bought a guitar. I was going to return it. And then I got the part. That guitar now is in my dressing room at the Golden Theatre. I think so many actors are frustrated rock stars. Like they want to be a rock star. I knew I did, because rock stars have their own character and, you’re adored. And I think it taps into that thing when you’re little and you do the first play, and you hear that applause and you get addicted to it. in order to have a career, you have to get past that at some point. You still love it, but it’s not the end all be all. Being in a band and making music and creating something live every night is so incredible. It’s like a mainline into your veins of just artistry. It can be also really nerve- wracking, because you’re like, “Oh, what if I mess up? Or what if I sing the wrong line?” The first month, most of the rehearsal day was just making the music, and learning how to play the music. I think the direct result, and I think you see it in the play, is like we know each other as an acting company so much better than probably any acting company because we have to rely on each other and we have to trust each other that the songs are going to sound good. It’s a build.

Here’s Sarah Pidgeon again, who plays Diana.

PIDGEON: Off-Broadway, the fights were not as equal. We’re coming up on nine, maybe ten months of knowing each other. We know each other better. So there’s this push and pull that feels more reflective of an actual relationship. There is a certain amount of intimacy and trust and knowing of each other, that was different from when we started in August. We were playing at this idea of having been in a relationship with someone for nine years and, well, I haven’t known Tom Pecinka for nine years.

PECINKA:. I mean, familiarity goes two ways. Familiarity is lovely. But you can hurt someone more.

DUBNER: Right. You know how to hurt them. 

PECINKA: You know how to push their buttons. You know how to “unravel the thread,” like Diana says in the play. I mean, they would never say it, but I know Sarah and Juliana were pissed with me certain times when I got the harmonies wrong. Or when I was so nervous playing “Masquerade” that I would drop out of the song and Juliana would have to pick up the slack. We never talked about it, but I get it. I get it. And same way for me, when they were getting on me about the harmonies, I was pissed off. But it’s all love, it’s like fam — It is. I mean, it’s so cliche, but it’s like it is family. It’s family. 

So, at the non-profit, Off-Broadway theater Playwrights Horizons, the band was coming together. During previews of the play, word of mouth started to build. Would Stereophonic become one of the rare shows that make it through the non-profit farm system and onto Broadway? Here’s David Adjmi again:

ADJMI: We talked to a bunch of commercial producers, but it never fully congealed. Either I was having misgivings or they had misgivings, or they wanted us to make changes or whatever. And then there was another commercial producer that was at one point attached at Playwrights Horizons, but then in the middle of the audition process, that fell apart.

And then the show opened at Playwrights Horizons, and the reviews were … very enthusiastic.

ADJMI: And then they all started coming. One commercial producer would talk to another, and then they slowly started. I had no idea how this all worked, because I had never done anything commercially before. I thought it would be the different commercial producers come and then you interviewed them. You know why should I let you commercially-produce this? But instead it was more like they form a cartel. And then some got kicked out and some congealed. And then we met the leader of the cartel. 

The cartel actually had a few leaders. After the break, we hear from two of them.

*      *      *

John Johnson is one of the lead producers on Stereophonic, and he has produced many other shows, on and off Broadway, over more than a decade. Along with his business partner Sue Wagner, he is half of Wagner Johnson Productions. They act as both producer and general manager. This hybrid business model is common in London and used to be common on Broadway, but is much less so today. Let’s start with this: what does a producer do?

JOHNSON: So, the pure producer side is from conception of the show — either commissioning a writer to write a play or musical, or getting the rights to a play or musical to revive — all the way to assembling the creative team around that, to the raising of the money, to the marketing of the show, to securing a building. That is the job of the producer. If each Broadway show and each Off-Broadway show is essentially an individual small business, they are the C.E.O. of said small business.

Okay, and what does the general manager do?

JOHNSON: The G.M. is the person that does the contracts, does the budgeting, does the day-to-day operations, hires the staff surrounding the show, and the producer is involved in that, and advises on that. Again, using the small business analogy, both a C.F.O. and a C.O.O. combination.

So how did John Johnson become co-C.E.O., C.F.O., and C.O.O. of Stereophonic? Remember, when the show premiered off-Broadway, at Playwrights Horizons, it had no commercial producers attached.

JOHNSON: Sue went the first week of previews, and absolutely lost her mind, called me and said, “You have to go see this play.” 

DUBNER: Did you lose your mind, too? 

JOHNSON: I went but I went after it opened. So I go after my partner sets the bar a certain level high. Then the reviews come out and the reviews are transcendent, and it sets it another level high. And I went and it cleared both those bars.

DUBNER: And what month and year are we talking about now? 

JOHNSON: We’re talking November 2023.

DUBNER: Okay. So the Covid shutdown was over by now, and business was returning to Broadway, but the overall numbers were still way down. And costs had risen a ton during Covid. And, from what I understand, all the theaters were already full, yeah?

JOHNSON: So at the time, there were no buildings available on Broadway. There was another show that was not announced for the Golden, but everyone knew, Oh, that’s what’s going into the Golden in the spring.

The John Golden Theatre is one of the smallest on Broadway, with roughly 770 seats. It’s owned by the Shubert Organization, the biggest landlord on Broadway; their C.E.O. is named Bob Wankel. There is a famous old saying about Broadway economics: “You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing.” What’s that mean? Most people in the theater work very hard for relatively low pay. If however you’re involved in creating a hit, something that plays for years and lives on in touring companies, maybe a film, you will make millions. But that’s rare. The best way to make a killing is to be a landlord. The Broadway business is to a large degree a real-estate business, with a handful of owners controlling the vast majority of theater space.

JOHNSON: We had gotten the show on the radar of the Shubert Organization. We had heard there was the potential of the Golden being available. And at the time, Bob Wankel had given it to Sonia Friedman, who’s a legendary producer in London as well as in New York. And I was in London, and I went to Sonia and I said, “Are you going to do this other play at the Golden?” And she said, “I can’t fit it in the Golden. I need it to go somewhere else.” And I said, “Well, we want to do it for Stereophonic.” And she said, “Well, I need to do it with you.” And at the time she was opening Stranger Things on the West End. She had not been to New York in weeks. And I said, “Well, you haven’t seen the play yet.” She said, “I don’t care. Everyone I know who has seen it has loved it. I need to be a part of it.”

FRIEDMAN: That is a first for me. I have never been involved with a show before that I pitched myself heavily to produce that I hadn’t actually seen. I’d read it, but I was in London when it opened, and I couldn’t get there.

JOHNSON: And by early December, we stood on stage and told the cast that we were moving it to Broadway.

DUBNER: What was that like? 

JOHNSON: It was incredible. I mean, for six out of the seven of them to find out they were going to make their Broadway debut was amazing. This is a playbook that we’ve run before. Here’s the hot play of the fall, and we’re going to take that momentum from the fall, find a building for it in the spring and run the awards playbook as well as the prestige-play playbook to have it catch on with a newer and larger audience.

DUBNER: Tell me a little bit about your investors on this show and the capitalization of the show on Broadway, how it compares to other things you’ve done. 

JOHNSON: It was demand unlike anything that we’ve seen post-pandemic, in terms of folks wanting to get in.

DUBNER: Meaning you had to turn people away?

JOHNSON: Yeah, we absolutely had to turn people away.

DUBNER: What was the minimum investment you accepted? 

JOHNSON: $25,000. 

DUBNER: I mean, traditionally, that’s really small. Producers didn’t used to do that kind of thing very much, did they?

JOHNSON: Yeah. And there were some people who wrote $150,000 checks or more. And then there were others who would bundle $25,000 units to come up with a larger — but again, our capitalization, because we were taking the production from Playwrights, was capitalized at $4.8 million. We spent less than that. You want to build in a certain amount of reserve, because we didn’t know how it was going to sell at the beginning. We were lucky enough to break even in those first couple of weeks, but having a little bit of a cover if it had not, was something we wanted to build in.

DUBNER: Here’s a line from the New York Times review when it opened on Broadway. “The play is a staggering achievement and already feels like a must-see American classic.” Where were you when you read this? Who were you with, and how did that make you feel? 

JOHNSON: I was with Greg Nobile and Sonia Friedman in the press room at our opening night party. The review came out, we opened it, we read that first paragraph, and we all looked at each other and said, “Wow.”

DUBNER: So let me just ask you now, several weeks into this run that is very successful and looks to be even more successful, especially if you win a boatload of Tonys — do you wish, in a perfect world, you’d put it into a bigger theater than the Golden? 


DUBNER: Because why not? 

JOHNSON: Because it’s the perfect fit. It has this way of wrapping its arms around a play and making it intimate. As with all shows, plays and musicals, finding the right fit of building — and sometimes you don’t get a choice, but this is where the timing worked out in this way, because it could have easily been, “Oh well, we don’t have the Golden or the Booth available, but we have this 1,100-seat theater available with a second balcony.” And I don’t know, necessarily, if it would have had the same reaction. 

On Broadway, as elsewhere, awards drive ticket sales, and Stereophonic is nominated for 13 Tony Awards. It can’t possibly win that many, since some categories contain multiple Stereophonic nominees. Tom Pecinka, for instance, is nominated for best actor in a featured role in a play, along with two other male actors in Stereophonic: Will Brill, who plays Reg, the band’s bassist; and Eli Gelb, who plays the recording engineer Grover. I asked Pecinka what it’s like to compete in the same category against his castmates.

PECINKA: It’s awesome. And I’m a super-competitive person and  super-ambitious person. That’s why I think I can play Peter, because I definitely have had many years of therapy that have brought me to this place. But deep down in my heart, I just want to win. The morning of the nominations, I got a text from Will Brill that said “Man, you.” And that’s how I found out.

DUBNER: Man U, like the football club?

PECINKA: No, like, “It’s you, man.”

DUBNER: Oh, I see, okay.

PECINKA: Yeah. And then I called him, and then I called Eli, because so many shows are like, “It’s an ensemble piece.” But our show really is. If someone is not at their best every night, the show can so easily fall apart. Everyone is so dedicated. And it’s funny that I auditioned for those two roles. And I know for a fact why I didn’t get those roles. Because those guys are perfect. And I’m perfect for mine. Yeah, would I like to win a Tony? For sure. And I keep joking that I’m going to break their legs or whatever, but ultimately, God, this is my Broadway debut in this play with this part and I got a Tony nomination? All right. Whatever.

DUBNER: You’re saying, “Like, whatever,” like you don’t even need to win it, you’re saying?

PECINKA: No, no. No, I want to win it. I’m telling you, I want to win it. But if I don’t win it, it’s, again, it’s cake. 

DUBNER: So Tom, you’re 36 years old, you’ve been at this for a while, and this is your first time on Broadway, and you’ve found yourself in the kind of hit that happens quite rarely. Are you worried about what comes after?

PECINKA: I’m not worried. I’m more excited. And I don’t even think I know how much it’s opened the door to certain things. The morning of the Tony nominations, I was sitting with my girlfriend, and I was like, “Okay, a certain era of struggle for me is over.” And that feels liberating. It was a good ten years of eating crap. I’m not worried about the next job in the same way I was.

DUBNER: How struggly was the struggle?

PECINKA: It feels worse than it was. I’d been working pretty consistently. I’m very ambitious and, I want to do the big stuff. My therapist said, after I called her on Tony morning, she was like, “Did you think this would happen?” I said, “No.” And then she was like, “Yeah you did, like you were confused for so many years as to like, you knew that you were great and you knew that inside of you, you had something to offer. But people weren’t recognizing it.” That frustration was more of the struggle than getting a job.

Sarah Pidgeon is also nominated for a Tony Award, in the same category as her castmate Juliana Canfield. I asked Pidgeon what it’s like to compete against her onstage bandmate and real-life friend.

PIDGEON: I’m just really excited to see everybody dressed up. It’s like theater prom. I feel like we’ve all just won already. I remember taking the stage at combat class and it doesn’t matter how good you are doing a fake punch if your partner doesn’t sell it. It’s like we’ve created this spider web to hold each other up and support this piece that we all believe in so much. And theater people are amazing because they spend hours every single day in dark theaters, playing make-believe and figuring out how to make most sense, and be so magical and be thrilling and exciting and true.

DUBNER: Are you a little surprised at this relatively late stage in our civilization with so many modes of performing and entertaining — most of which are electronic or digital in some way now — are you surprised that this old- fashioned, handmade, theatrical thing still exists as intensely as it does? 

PIDGEON: I think that people like something real. It’s like a home-cooked meal. Sure you can go and get penne pasta with vodka sauce in the freezer section of Ralph’s. But if somebody makes you homemade penne pasta, it’s going to taste better and you’re going to want to eat it. I think also with theater, and in particular with this show, it all happens in front of you. If this were to be a movie one day, I would be curious to see how do they make — what’s so thrilling about this is that you see it all happen in real time. And the music’s all live, and you see the mess-ups. Watching someone do like a high wire act of theater — they walk on stage and there’s nothing but the set and their body and their scene partner, and you can’t call cut and you can’t do it over, is what’s so thrilling. It’s like one of the oldest art forms in the world. Just storytelling. And I think there’s a reason that it’s lasted so long. I don’t think people would go to see a robot theater performance. Maybe once, but I feel like it’ll close six weeks after opening. 

And I went back to David Adjmi, the playwright. Without him, none of this other stuff exists. I asked Adjmi if he wins the Tony for Best Play, what kind of speech he would give.

ADJMI: Oh, they just told me about this the other day. My publicist said I had to do it. 

DUBNER: You hadn’t thought about it until your publicist told you? 

ADJMI: No, because I don’t — I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t usually get these kind of prizes where you sit in the audience, then they call your name, or they don’t call it.

DUBNER: Let’s assume that you’re drafting the beginning of an idea right now for your Tony acceptance speech, should you win. And maybe that’s terrible luck to even think about it. But if you’re willing to engage, what do you want to say?

ADJMI: Well, Sue said our producer said something like, “I mean, we were talking about this the other day.” I was like, “Sue, let’s not have this conversation.” But she said, “You should not thank a lot of people. You should more say some personal thing.” I can extemporize without going too crazy. So, maybe I would extemporize on stage and just say what was inside of me. That’s what I like seeing. I want to see someone talk about something that’s real to them in the moment. I mean, in the theater, everyone struggles so hard to get to where they are. It’s such a hard job. It’s a really weird job. And there’s just something so moving about theater artists getting together and celebrating each other. Not in the spirit of competition, but just look at us, we are all doing this and somehow we’re surviving. How are we doing it? So that’s maybe the spirit of which, if I’m lucky enough to be up there, I would say something like that. 

DUBNER: That was — that was pretty good. 

ADJMI: See, I told you I could do it.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Augusta Chapman, Dalvin Aboagye, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, Theo Jacobs, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; our composer is Luis Guerra. Additional music in this episode by Will Butler, Justin Craig, and the cast of Stereophonic.

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