She wasn’t meant to be a titan in the theatre. The only child of a subway motorman and a homemaker, she grew up in Manhattan’s Garment District, where, as she liked to tell it, her options were to get married, become a nun, or work for the telephone company. She did not even see a Broadway show until she got dragged, with great reluctance, at 14 to see Cyrano de Bergerac, starring José Ferrer, with a cousin from New Jersey who had an extra ticket.
By the time she died of cancer, at age 90, Elizabeth Ireland McCann—Liz to everyone who even pretends to know anyone in the theatre—was a legendary producer with nine Tony Awards. She was a pioneering woman who dared to play hardball with the big guys on Broadway, a force of nature with visionary instincts, a character more complex and unpredictably delightful than many who appear in plays.
And we weren’t meant to be friends. As a theatre critic for almost half a century, I’ve tried to avoid the third rail of relationships with people I review—the emotional conflicts of interest that, to me, have the potential to tilt candor more than a lifetime of free meals ever can. But I became intrigued with her shrewd, no-nonsense insight and her surprising combination of theatrical faith and irreverence when I interviewed her for an oral history series with the League of Professional Theatre Women in 2002. From then on, I would often count on her for a sharp quote to enliven a reported story, and, when I began to review less, I let myself know her more.
Eventually, we were buddies, frequent lunch dates at her favorite, Cafe Luxembourg on the West Side, where we traded conspiratorial theatre gossip and drank dark rum cocktails. Her greeting, always, was, “Seen anything good?” We shared far too many orders of French fries and looked askance whenever a server suggested a salad substitute.
Yes, she was already a legend, most conspicuously as the trusted producer of the late works of Edward Albee, a notoriously hard grader. And yes, she was responsible, as a producer and/or general manager, for more than 60 Broadway productions, many of which linger up there with my most treasured theatre experiences. Beginning in 1976 and for an astonishingly productive 10 years, she and business partner Nelle Nugent swept Tony Awards for Dracula, The Elephant Man, Morning’s at Seven, Amadeus, and the history-making, eight-and-a-half hour, two-part Royal Shakespeare Company epic, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Aside from costing a boggling (for 1981) $100 a seat, the unforgettable Dickens adaptation was the first time the rival giant theatre landlords, the Shuberts and the Nederlanders, cooperated on a major project—as unlikely a friendship then as the farmer and the cowman in Oklahoma! Explaining how the deal got made, she told me that each side didn’t want the other side to book what they suspected would be a big event, and, if the gamble paid off, which it did, it could make the city “interested in theatre again.”
She thrived on the gamble, what she relished as the “craziness” of her unlikely life and this “business of strange accidents.” She was a self-described lonely girl on roller skates—a Scottish kid (Elizabeth Ireland was her grandmother’s name) in an Irish community. She would roll around the neighborhood, getting to know the hat trimmers, the cigar makers, and the Jewish pushcart family mentality she’d later find so appealing on Broadway. She just happened into the Cyrano that hooked her on theatre. By 1984, she and Nugent were co-producers on the RSC’s heart-shredding Cyrano, which came to Broadway starring Derek Jacobi on a double bill with Much Ado About Nothing.
She practically stumbled into a career-altering producing alliance with Albee, who was little more than an outcast in New York theatre when Three Tall Women opened at the Vineyard in 1994, then earned him his first Pulitzer in almost two decades. But perhaps the most audacious Albee/McCann adventure was The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, about the catastrophic love of a married man for a goat. Initial reviews were decidedly mixed, but Albee and his producer stuck it out on Broadway until critical and popular opinion came around and The Goat won the 2002 Tony for best new play—Albee’s first in 30 years.
Everyone has a story, but Liz’s stories were better. She could talk like a blue-collar dame when she pleased, but she had a Masters in English literature from Columbia and a law degree from Fordham University. She said she went to law school at night because she couldn’t get a job in the theatre, then couldn’t get a job in an entertainment law firm. Things changed in 1967, when James Nederlander hired her to be a managing director. She believed, only half-jokingly, that Nederlander had always wanted to be a lawyer, and he thought someone who went to law school at night in her 30s “had to be very interesting.”
If the pandemic had not slammed Broadway shut in March 2020, no doubt she would have had at least another Tony nomination as a producer of Hangmen, the dark Martin McDonagh comedy that was in previews to open that spring. If she were not diagnosed with cancer during the lockdown, she would have been celebrating from the sidelines when Indecent, Paula Vogel’s gut punch of a play-with-music, finally officially opens tonight on the West End. Liz was a co-producer when the moving history of a controversial 1923 Yiddish play had its Broadway premiere in 2017. The London production was in previews when COVID struck there too.
If there is something that unifies Liz McCann’s best choices, it may well have been her love of theatre language, which she believed to be different from TV and movie language. She enjoyed repeating that Tennessee Williams and Albee began as “bad poets” before finding their voices in theatre. “Who goes to her husband’s funeral and says, ‘Attention must be paid?’” she joked during our interview long ago. “Who says they always depend on the kindness of strangers? You remember that.” She wanted words to soar and carry the actors with them. “This is the kind of play I like.”
She never got over the thrill that first hooked her. “I like strange things,” she said. “I like to be able to walk through the door of a theatre and not have a ticket. I love just walking into the middle of the first act and watching a piece of a play with the ushers. Or watching from the wings. I’m hopeless about that kind of thing.”
Although she could appear unsentimental, she was wildly romantic about the roots of the theatre. She appreciated the people before her who came to Broadway from the Depression and the war years. She called their spirit “a small community turning out dreams.” The community is profoundly smaller without her.
Linda Winer was theatre critic at Newsday from 1987 to 2017 and at the Chicago Tribune from 1969 to 1980. She has taught critical writing at Columbia’s School of the Arts since 1992.
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