NYU Alumni 


View From the
Driver’s Seat

Broadway producer Barbara Whitman talks about steering shows to the big stage

by Justin Warner

On the twisty, precarious road to Broadway, producer Barbara Whitman (GAL ’88) has proven herself a deft driver. In her 10-year career, she’s helped to steer many hits, including Legally Blonde, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, the Broadway production of Donmar Warehouse’s Hamlet, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. So it’s fitting that her current Broadway-bound vehicle features an actual vehicle: the hollow shell of a Nissan pickup truck, which anchors the set of the new musical Hands on a Hardbody.

In Hands on a Hardbody, Barbara Whitman brings a long-standing Texas competition to the Broadway stage.

Hardbody’s subject matter isn’t obvious fodder for a musical. It’s based on a 1997 documentary film of the same name, which chronicled a competition still held every September sponsored by a radio station and auto dealership in Longview, Texas. The rules: Contestants must keep one hand on a pickup truck at all times—no sitting, lying, squatting, or leaning allowed. (The only exceptions are a five-minute break every hour, and one 15-minute break every six hours.) The last person standing takes home the truck, and that took almost 93 hours in the longest contest. Originally staged at the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California, the show features music by Trey Anastasio of the legendary jam band Phish and book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright (TSOA ’87).

Like the Hardbody characters, Whitman has always been a “hands-on” producer, and likes to be a part of a show’s earliest development. Perhaps that’s because she understands evolution. As a singer and actress in New York in the 1980s, Whitman mostly landed traveling shows while dance-heavy productions such as Cats, A Chorus Line, and 42nd Street dominated Broadway. Motherhood prompted her to transition into a less itinerant, more lucrative position at M.J.Whitman, a family-owned brokerage firm, where she became a managing director. Still, her passion for theater eventually led her to pursue a master’s in theatrical production, where one of her mentors, David Stone, invited her to be a producer on A Raisin in the Sun before she even graduated.

NYU Alumni Magazine spoke with Whitman about what inspires her to get behind the wheel of a show, and what it takes to drive one all the way to Broadway in the digital age.

What attracted you to Hardbody when you first saw it in the New York workshop?
It was a world I’d never seen before in a Broadway musical, with characters I’d never seen before in a Broadway musical. They’re blue-collar Texans, and they’re treated with such respect and love and care. And it’s fascinating to me that for these people, to win a $22,000 truck would truly change the circumstances of their lives.

It’s also a show in which people sing and dance while keeping one hand on a truck. Was that the biggest challenge?
Certainly, the tricky part for me is explaining what it is, because people say, “Really? They just hold the truck?” And I say, “No, they really do move.” It’s kind of like saying, “What do they do in A Chorus Line?” Well, they stand in this line and talk about their lives. It doesn’t sound so interesting.

What I love about the show now is that the audience is so caught up in the story, that when the contestants start falling, you’ll hear gasps, because they don’t see it coming, and they like these people.

What makes you want to get behind a show? Is there a common theme to the ones you have produced?
Well, marketability. I think you have to say: Who’s going to buy tickets to this show? But if I look for me, personally, it’s a story I’m interested in hearing. Next to Normal is a bipolar mom, and Legally Blonde is a Valley girl who went to Harvard. And on the surface, there’s nothing in common with those two shows, but to me, they’re people I wanted to spend an evening with.

Do you invest in your shows or just raise the money?
I’ve always invested in my shows. I don’t think it would be fair to say, “You can put your money at risk, but I won’t put mine.” There’s certainly no obligation to do it, but I do.

You’ve been producing on Broadway for 10 years. What has changed the most?
The Internet. Every show has a website, every show has Facebook, every show makes video content that they can post. It’s definitely changed what we do.

Next to Normal was a perfect show for [the Internet]. We had a Twitter campaign where we tweeted the plot [line by line for several weeks]. Like for the first scene, it would be the thoughts in their heads: The mother would say, “Oh, I’d better make the sandwiches.” And then you could click to hear the opening number. We had over a million followers, for a long time. That’s unusual for Broadway.

photo © Kevin Berne