Having worked in theatre for more than 30 years—and with talents like Liza Minnelli, Mandy Patinkin, and Savion Glover—Keith Sherman shares memories from his storied career.
The Broadway press agent is a crucial, yet often under-the-radar, role in the business of Broadway. But the only reason you can read an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda or go into the wardrobe room of Wicked is because a press agent bridges the gap between talent, productions, and the media. Keith Sherman, the founder and leader of Keith Sherman & Associates, is one such theatrical press agent and has been since the 1970s, running his own agency since 1989.
He has represented more than 300 Off-Broadway, Broadway, and touring shows, as well as the Drama Desk, the American Theatre Wing, and the Times Square Alliance. He was the press representative for the Tony Awards for 18 years (1987-2004), and his firm expanded to do work for television, movies, music, dance, art, publishing, sports, and the corporate world. He has represented many and varied stage celebrities, among them Cy Coleman, Mandy Patinkin, Liza Minnelli, Michael Feinstein, and Savion Glover, and has had nontheatrical clients like the Olympic figure skating champion Brian Boitano, The New York Times, Marsh & McLennan, and Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. And that’s just a partial list.
Sherman fell in love with theatre as a boy, when he saw his first show: 1776 from the back row of the balcony. But as much as he loved theatre, he knew he didn’t want to be onstage. “I knew from a very early age that I had zero talent as an actor. That’s generally the point of entry for most people in arts and entertainment,” he says. But Sherman got a degree in marketing from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. One of his roommates had been taught high school English by Gene Feist, the founder of Roundabout Theatre Company. So Sherman got a job—well, today’s version of an internship—at the Roundabout. Soon, he moved up to director of audience development, but when he left he heard famed Broadway press agent Seymour Kravitz needed an assistant. “The first Broadway production I worked on was the Sherlock Holmes thriller The Crucifer of Blood [by Paul Giovanni], with Paxton Whitehead and Glenn Close,” Sherman says. He also represented concerts with people like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Diana Ross. He moved to Solters/Roskin/Friedman, where he worked on the original productions of 42nd Street and Big River.
“The agency also represented Sinatra and Streisand. We launched Whitney Houston’s career. We were handling Michael Jackson during ‘Thriller.’ I had my hand in pieces of all of that,” Sherman recalls. “I was working for Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme for a period. And that’s where I started working for the Tony Awards. Then it was time to go out on my own.”
Here, Sherman shares three of the wildest stories from his decades-long career as a press agent:
When Julie Andrews Said, “No.”
Press agents are also on the front lines when things don’t go as planned. In 1996, Julie Andrew starred as the title roles in Victor/Victoria, which her husband, Blake Edwards directed. On the morning of the nominations, May 6, 1996, Andrews’ name was called for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical; she was the sole nominee for the show. “It was a big cause célèbre that year on Broadway. And we got word on the Wednesday morning after the nominations were announced that after the matinée she was going to speak to the audience and she was going to—for the first time in Tony history—refuse the nomination.” Andrews used the phrase “egregiously overlooked.”
The agency for Victor/Victoria invited press to the back of the house to watch this announcement. Sherman was in charge of wrangling the press and then addressing them as the spokesperson for the Tony Awards. “I think at that point everybody lost,” Sherman says now. “Certainly she didn’t win the Award [Donna Murphy won for The King and I]. And I thought the image of the Tonys was slightly diminished because of her action. But we all went forward. Everyone survived. The Tonys are still around. It was just a moment in theatre history.”
Before There Was La La Land…
At the 1991 Tony Awards, Anthony Quinn was announcing the winner for Best Direction of a Musical. He opened his envelope and said, “Neil Simon for Lost in Yonkers.” Wrong award!! Simon was the winner of Best Play that night, but wasn’t supposed to be announced for another 20 minutes.
According to Sherman, it had been an accountant’s error. Quinn had been given the right envelope, but there were notes on the back of the card that Simon and Yonkers had won Best Play; Quinn had read the back instead of the front. He had to turn the card over to read the correct name for Best Direction: Tommy Tune for The Will Rogers Follies. Sherman remembers “scrambling at the Marriott Marquis hotel, at the party after the telecast, looking for both guys, Quinn and Simon,” so they could speak to the press.
“Simple human error that caused a huge uproar. People make mistakes. Even with the best of intentions, sometimes things mess up,” says Sherman. “You talk about the role of a publicist, of a press agent. I was there to work with [reporters] at the time, get to the truth, figure out what exactly happened so [they] could explain to readers and [their] editors what the story is, and report on the facts and the fallout of those human mistakes.”
Creativity in Press Events:
Back when Sherman represented Big River, the musical version of Huckleberry Finn, the agency decided to do something unconventional for the press. “I remember one year setting up a frog-jumping contest to promote Big River and I had to find 20 frogs,” Sherman explains. “We had every single television crew in New York City booked to be in front of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and about an hour before our event was taking place, there was a fire at Grand Central Station. And not one journalist showed up.”