June 27, 1930 – Dec. 18, 2020
Theatrical producers are known for their hits, and Roger S. Berlind ’52 had many of those, from Amadeus and The Book of Mormon to celebrated revivals of Long Day’s Journey into Night and, most recently, Oklahoma! They helped him win 25 Tony awards and induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
But theatrical careers are also defined by flops and how one reacts to them. One of his early shows was The Merchant, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Zero Mostel, who had signed to play the lead, died during previews, leaving the show without its box-office draw. Despite pressure to cancel, Berlind and his co-producers decided to stick with the understudy.
The play was panned and closed after five performances. Nevertheless, the playwright, Arnold Wesker, was touched by Berlind’s generosity, noting in his memoirs that most producers would have walked away.
It is a story that Professor Michael Cadden, former chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts and a longtime Berlind friend, tells cheerfully. “He was a real ‘gent’,” Cadden says. “It’s an old-fashioned expression, but I think it captures something about him.”
A songwriter for the Triangle Club, Berlind loved musical theater. His standards were high; Cadden recalls once telling Berlind that the Princeton theater program was staging My Fair Lady. “Why didn’t you decide to do a good musical?” Berlind asked. But he also embraced drama, ancient and modern. In addition to helping many contemporary playwrights get their breaks, he staged the works of Euripides and Strindberg. Cadden says Berlind once joked that he was the last producer to make money on Broadway with Shakespeare — a 1995 production of Hamlet starring Ralph Fiennes.
“Roger didn’t have to worry about making money because of his success in the first part of his career,” Cadden observes, “so he did what excited him.”
The “first part” of Berlind’s career was investment banking. An English major, Berlind had trouble finding employment in the humanities after graduation and ended up on Wall Street. In 1960, he co-founded a brokerage firm, which he eventually sold to American Express. Life changed irreversibly in June 1975, though, when Berlind’s wife and three of his four children died in a plane crash at Kennedy Airport. Berlind was devastated. Reassessing his path, he began producing plays. He had his first big hit with Amadeus, in 1980, belying F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917’s observation that there are no second acts in American lives.
There was even a third act, if one includes generosity to Princeton. Berlind served as a University trustee and endowed both a professorship in the humanities and a playwright-in-residence fund, which brings young dramatists to campus. In 1998, he made his most substantial gift, contributing one-third of the cost of what became the 350-seat Roger S. Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center.
“Roger allowed you to use your own voice and find your own voice,” recalls Emily Mann, McCarter’s recently retired artistic director and resident playwright. “He simply loved the theater and he loved working with artists, and that’s very rare to find in a producer.”
She and Cadden cite the old Broadway truism that one can make a killing in the theater, but one can’t make a living. Roger Berlind managed to do both — and make a legacy, as well.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is senior writer at PAW.