A Life in the Theatre
By Mervyn Rothstein
15 Jan 2004
Elizabeth I. McCann
Stage Professionals Look Back at Decades of
Devotion to Their Craft: Elizabeth Ireland McCann, producer.
Every once in a while," Edward Albee says,
"a playwright will be lucky enough to run into a producer who is crazy
who is willing to take chances, who feels that a producer's responsibility
is to find work you think really should be seen, to whom financial concern
is not the main adventure the main adventure is trying to get plays on."
The producer that Albee is talking about is
Elizabeth I. McCann, who in 40 years on and Off-Broadway has co-produced
an astounding array of hits, including The Elephant Man, Amadeus,
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Morning's at Seven
and Copenhagen all Tony Award winners.
McCann has had a special relationship with
Albee, as a producer of his Off-Broadway hit The Play About the Baby,
his Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women and his Tony
Award-winning The Goat or Who is Sylvia? Since 2001, she has also
been managing producer of the Tony Awards.
Sitting in her West 44th Street office with
her eight Tonys from Dracula in 1978 to The Goat in 2002
displayed on a shelf before her, the producer (whom everyone calls Liz) is
fresh from the opening of the recent Beckett/Albee, four short
works by the two master playwrights. She is reminiscing about how it all
came to be.
"I didn't come from a theatregoing family,"
says McCann, who grew up on West 31st Street, less than a mile from the
Great White Way. Her father was a subway motorman, her mother a housewife.
"My parents went to the movies."
She was in her teens before she ever saw
live theatre. "My cousin decided to take me to see José Ferrer in
Cyrano de Bergerac. It was all very romantic and I was hooked."
From then on, she went every time she could
"save enough money for a $3 seat." She acted in plays at Manhattanville
College, "but I had no clue of how I could get into the theatre." Then one
day, she continues, "I picked up the paper and saw that a group of kids
from the University of Wisconsin were starting a theatre company in
Greenwich Village. I thought I could get a job there. I couldn't. But I
could be a gofer."
She worked as a production secretary and
for bus and truck tours, earned al aw degree at Fordham, and in 1967 was
hired by Broadway's theatre-owning Nederlanders as managing director.
There she met Nelle Nugent, and in 1976 they formed a co-producing
partnership that for a decade was the stuff of Broadway legend.
McCann's favorite is their 1980 revival of
Morning's at Seven. "The sweetest is always the most unexpected.
Never did we imagine it would be such a big hit." But also on her special
list is anything by Albee. "Some days when we're on the phone I can't
believe that's what I'm doing. I never dreamed I'd be working with a
playwright of that caliber."
What is it about the stage that has so
moved her? It's that it's live a thought best expressed in a letter she
found that was written more than a century ago by Henrik Ibsen. Theatre is
"born for and bound to the moment," Ibsen wrote, and so is "immune to the
gnawing of time's worm. And that is what life truly means: to live in
memory. . . to rest in people's minds free of the mildew and rust of age."