Musical producer

The “magnificent” producer Paul Blake reflects on his life in the theater

Paul Blake honed his love of theater at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York.

The future lead producer of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” — which runs at the Benedum Center from March 18-20 — grew up in the Bronx and attended the High School of Music and Art for artistically gifted children. He remembers taking a 45-minute bus ride from his neighborhood to school in Manhattan.

“I met dozens of people like me who loved music, who understood and were sensitive to theater and art,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not alone in the world.'”

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Blake graduated from City College and first tried acting.

“It didn’t go very well,” he said. “It went well, but it wasn’t enough to sustain me.”

Blake credits a girlfriend’s mother for suggesting he try his hand at leading the theater group at the West End Synagogue. While he loved the people in this group, the relationships outweighed the talent.

“They loved playing and getting attention, and I gave them a lot of attention, and they gave me a lot of praise,” he said.

After a stint in teaching, Blake spent time at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco under the tutelage of William Ball.

Although he enjoys his role as head of the acting program at ACT, directing shows, and having the opportunity to work with Pulitzer Prize winners, pay was an issue — he earned $345. per week in the expensive city of California. Looking for a bigger salary, he made the jump to television.

It was a therapist who helped him realize that it was a bad decision.

“He said, ‘Have you ever watched television?’ No. ‘Do any of your friends have or watch television?’ No. He said, ‘Why do you want to be on TV? You love theater. You should do theatre. That’s when I quit doing TV and worked non-stop from then on,” Blake said.

The move proved beneficial. He then became the executive producer of the St. Louis MUNY, America’s largest outdoor musical theater. There he ushered in what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the “2nd Golden Age” of theater. During his 22 years with the MUNY, typically over 10,000 people attended his productions each night.

In 2010, Blake was asked by the president of EMI Music Publishing to create a musical from Carole King’s catalog.

Blake’s role as producer of “Beautiful” was similar to what producers do with any new musical, he said.

“You take a sheet of paper, you write ‘Magnificent’ on it and then you fill in all the spaces below: music by, direction by, book by, scenery by, accounting by, publicity by… all those things that a person fills in .

Blake had a line filled out on his blank page when he started producing “Beautiful” – the music. When he met King, she had only one request: she didn’t want to be involved.

“She didn’t want to do interviews, she didn’t want to be the spokesperson for the show,” he said. “When we opened the show on Broadway, she didn’t come.”

Blake said the musical was just too emotional for King, but after several of her friends saw the show and commented on how good it was, she decided to attend – in costume.

“She put on funny glasses, put on a wig and sat in the seat and cried half the night,” Blake said. “Afterwards, she came on stage. The place has gone crazy. Somehow it was recorded and broadcast on the internet. From that point on, we became not just a hit, but a big hit because Carole King saw it and loved it.

The show won two Tony Awards and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.

And while the producer acknowledges the central role of music in the show, he said a good musical is more than music.

“Andrew Lloyd Webber has been asked before what makes a good show,” Blake said. “His response was – apart from the music, which must be great – there are three other elements. Number one is the book; number two is the book; number three is the book.

Blake credits Douglas McGrath with creating an exceptional book that has gone through several drafts and, despite several moving moments, is also funny.

“It says a lot about women and women in the world at that time,” Blake said. “It’s extraordinary. And it’s Doug. It’s the big break. I got the great book writer.

The producer acknowledged that acting had changed over the course of his career and had become more expensive. When Fiddler on the Roof was first staged in 1964, it cost $350,000 to produce; its latest revival peaked at $15 million.

Blake holds no grudges over the rising cost of the art he loves.

“Everyone is trying to make a living,” he says. “All these people below the name of the production I told you about, they all want to make a living and life is expensive, especially in New York.”

Asked what makes a show successful, Blake has a simple answer.

“If the show doesn’t make people laugh, it won’t work,” he said. “Even ‘Oedipus’ has a humor section, and ‘Hamlet.’ If they’re not kidding, you know it’s not well done and it’s pretentious. PJC

David Rullo can be contacted at [email protected]