Career & Life Vision Conversation with Jordan Roth '97
"When the path is not clear, build it."
Jordan Roth is the President and majority owner of Jujamcyn Theaters, where he oversees five Broadway theatres, including the St. James, Al Hirschfeld, August Wilson, Eugene O'Neill and Walter Kerr. Jujamcyn Theaters presents some of the most influential and successful musicals and plays on Broadway today, currently including the Tony Award-winning Best Musicals The Book of Mormon, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Kinky Boots and Jersey Boys Roth produced the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Best Play Clybourne Park. He hosts a popular interview series at the venerable 92nd Street Y, facilitating insightful and revealing one-on-one discussions with the most celebrated actors on the Broadway stage. He founded the website, Culturalist, that aggregates “Top 10” lists from its users. He created Givenik.com, where theatergoers can purchase discounted tickets and give 5% of their ticket price to the charity of their choice. Jordan serves on the boards of The Broadway League, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Times Square Alliance and Freedom to Marry. He writes a weekly column on Deadline Hollywood. He graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University with degrees in philosophy and theater and received his MBA at Columbia Business School. Photo by Jim Cox.
Read and watch to learn how Jordan found his way to Broadway, what it takes for him to really believe in a show, and his advice for students going off the beaten path.
1. How did you come to work in theatre?
When I graduated I came back to the city where I was from, and there were a couple of things that I didn't get to explore during school. I was a philosophy major and of course I was very focused on the theater as well, and that was kind of my one thing that I got to do. But I also was interested in photography, and fashion design, and I didn't get to explore any of those. My first year back I was floundering a little bit, exploring those a little bit, taking classes, and I wasn't really sure what I would do, though I had a sense it would be in the theater.
One of my dear friends from Princeton, Katherine Wilson’s sister Anna, was in a theatre group called “Project 400.” It was four actors, and a husband wife writer-director team, and they would make these crazy mash-up pop culture shows, and I would go to see them just in support of Anna, who was in them. She started talking to me about this show they were doing, it was “Midsummer Night's Dream” set to disco music. “We're not really sure what it is but you should come check out this workshop that we're doing.” And I went, and I fell in love with it. I started producing it in my head before I thought I would be a producer. I thought, “I think this needs a bigger space,” and, “Maybe two more dancers,” and, “This is kind of garage disco aesthetic, but maybe it should be 54 disco aesthetic.” I started getting involved in the development of this piece, and it became the first show that I produced. It was called “The Donkey Show.” It began a career in the theater that I didn't know I was necessarily gonna have in this way, but I have.
Yeah, I didn't know what it meant really either, which is kind of one of the things about it. It’s everything that needs to be done. Producing is making the show happen, running the business of the show, and putting the team together both creatively and on the business side that will make the show happen. I think a good producer is at the same time very focused on the big picture, on the whole, while also being laser focused on the details. Those two things don't necessarily all go together in the same brain, but if they do for you, come on over!
3. Was business school helpful for your career?
Business school more shaped how I lead a company than as a producer. Now a producer leads the company of the show, but in my case I run Jujamcyn, which is a chain of Broadway theaters, and we are an ongoing company beyond any one of the shows that we are producing or presenting at a given time. I always knew that at some point I wanted to go to business school, and I started to feel my window closing. I think maybe I thought my ability to engage as a student in a classroom might be waning, so I thought “Let's go.” I kind of took a multi-year approach to this and thought, “I think a year-and-a-half to two years from now I can organize my life such that I won't have any shows that I'm producing, so I’ll just be doing certain things, and I think I can do it then." So I did the first two semesters at Columbia Business School, and literally the morning of my first day of my third semester was when we announced that I was taking over Jujamcyn. I ended up doing my second two semesters in like two-and-a-half, but it completely informed how I think and how I approach our company and our team and my point of view about leading and what it is to find your voice in business.
4. What is your view about leading?
For me, leading is putting together an extraordinary group of people and helping them want to get somewhere.
5. Tell me about becoming President of Jujamcyn while you were in business school.
Well I was already here at Jujamcyn and had been here for a couple of years and then I started going to business school concurrently. I felt prepared, and I felt ready. I actually think, as crazy as it was to be in business school and starting to run a company, an existing company, what I was working on in the classroom and what I was working on in the office really informed each other. It was like real time, “What do you think? Go do it or start.” It was a very exciting and very fertile time.
6. Tell me about your other entrepreneurial ventures.
For me, entrepreneurship is about when you want something to exist in the world and it doesn't, you can make it. That's really freeing and liberating. To think, “There's this thing and I wish I could do this, I wish there was that, let me look for it. Ok, we can make this. We can bring this into being.” That's really exciting. Part of the joys in my business life is I get to run a company that is part of a very mature business in a very mature industry, and quite literally we steward landmark Broadway theaters that have been here for almost a hundred years and are steeped in the most beautiful, meaningful legacy. And that's one part of my life.
Another part of my life is startup. Things that weren't here yesterday and may not be here tomorrow, but we're going to try to see if they can be. That dichotomy, that tension, that combination is really satisfying for me. You know I think it's what almost all of us do on some level. What do we want to be and how do we make it so? And if we can spend our days doing that we might feel satisfied. No promises, but we might.
7. What was your major at Princeton?
You know, I think a lot, and I always have. It used to get me into trouble...not “trouble” trouble, but it used to overwhelm me, used to scare me a lot. One of the very many gifts that I got from being at Princeton was I found my way totally fortuitously to the Philosophy Department. Thinking deeply, passionately about the things that you care about, the things you have to know, because I don't know how to do tomorrow if I can’t figure this out today, that's what the Philosophy Department is, that's what the discipline is. I think that's what the whole university is, or can be if you want it to be. Whatever I was curious about, whatever I needed to know could become a course of study, of real rigorous investigation. That was tremendously powerful for me because it allowed what was going on in my brain and my heart and in my tummy to be validated, to find a place of acceptance. I have been able to continue that, or I have tried to continue it. Maybe I can't help myself. What do I think? What do I know? What do I believe? And what do I want to know? How do I make sense of this, whatever “this” is that is in front of me? So, tough as a kid, as an adult I have found that it has served me well. And I’m very grateful for the framing and the training.
It's gonna be okay, it's gonna be okay! It will make sense, it will make sense – later. It usually makes sense later. How many things make sense now? I think I grew into myself in a way that I don't know that I could have predicted when I graduated. I do wish I could have known that. I do wish that.
9. What advice would you give students going “off the beaten path?”
I've always gotten a lot of comfort from the path. If I can see the path-even if I'm not gonna take it, as long as I can see it, that there is one-I can feel okay. I think one of the challenges of careers that don't have necessarily prescribed paths is sometimes you can't see one. Even one that you're not necessarily going to take, but just to know that it’s there, that I could go that way.
One of the unique challenges and, I would offer, joys of all kinds of careers is there will be moments when the path is not clear. The path is covered, or maybe a path hasn’t even been built yet. And what you will do is you will build it. And that's scary. It's not so scary while you're building it, it's scary when you're looking for it and it’s not there. Those paths take you to places you might never have imagined. And those are the places you want to go. That's where it is, that's the place where you want to go, where it's only you, it could only be you. I'm constantly trying to find those things and do those things that only I can do. They are my voice. They express who I am. That sense of what I'm doing is wholly an expression of who I am. I think that’s our goal. It’s my goal.
10. That's beautiful. Anything else?
It can be uncomfortable to not know exactly what's next, or even worse, what should I be doing? We're very good at following the “shoulds,” right? That's how we got here, but the shoulds don't always serve us. Or maybe they get us to where we are now, but maybe to get to that next spot we need “I want” not an “I should”. That’s hard.
I am afraid every day. And I am coming to understand that that is not necessarily a bad thing. I don't understand that every day, but the days that I do are good days. People often say when you're afraid of something it’s when you know it’s something you should be doing. I don't like feeling afraid. I don't know anybody who really does naturally, but I have come to find that to be somewhat true. Not the fear that tells you, “This is really stupid and unsafe and not wise,” but the fear that is “Can I do this? I don’t know if I can do this.” The self-doubt fear. Go there. I don't say that easily. Or rather, I say it easily but I don't do it easily. But we’ll all try together.
12. How do you hire?
I'm excited about people who are excited. Who have passion and want to use it, and want to deploy it. Who believe things and want to believe things, and want to know and are curious. And want to invest in something emotionally, intellectually, and physically. To invest, and build, and be part of something.
13. You’ve said that a producer needs to be the first and the last to believe in a show. What makes you believe in a show?
Not unlike what we were talking about entrepreneurially. Stories that have to exist, stories that need to be told, are stories that excite me, interest me. A show that I can believe in early on is a story that needs to be told by people who need to tell it. I think that can be extrapolated to anything, really. A thing that needs to be done, by someone who needs to do it. That is something I can get behind.
Yeah, okay, so here's the thing. Everyone will tell you how important it is to fail. Books, books, and books, and books now about “Failure’s the greatest thing ever.” And yes, yes, yes, and yes. However, it feels really s——y. It feels s——y when it's about to happen, and when you know it's about to happen. It feels s——y while it's happening, and it feels s——y after it happens. But it won't feel s——y forever. No, I take that back. It will always feel s——y, but out of that will come growth, and value, and power.
15. Can you be more specific?
I have had several shows that have failed, and I want to define failure. Shows are often called failures when they are financial failures, and that's not the only thing, that's not the only reason you do a show. Frankly, if it is, don't do it. I've done shows that I took to be creative successes, but were not critical successes and not financial successes. I've also done shows that I have taken to not be creative successes, and certainly they were not financial successes. I'm still disappointed. I still think of those. Of what I, in retrospect, think were threshold moments that maybe could have turned it and didn't.
I think for me the biggest takeaway is how do you treat people as it's going down. You can't control a lot of things when you are in the midst of a sinking something. But what you can control is how you behave. How you talk to people and how you treat people. Who you remember and who you reach out to, and how empathetic you are. Recognizing that what your failure is probably a failure for other people, or at least affects other people. You can end up feeling pretty good coming out of an experience of anything, based on “How did I treat the people around me?”
That's true for successes too. Many, many, many successes you will look around and you will say, “Yeah, but they were horrible to each other,” so how successful is that? That's the thing you can control. Because there's a lot, a lot, a lot that will either actually be or feel like it's out of your control. On the way up, on the way down, all of the above. But how you engage with people, how you make them feel, is yours.
16. How do you define success?
Defining success is I think really important. Defining it for yourself, and defining it before you go in. Because we all probably have a tendency to say, “What I did was not really succeeding because I did it, and if it were really hard I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” That kind of thinking is part of what helps us all achieve, but it’s not necessarily part of what all that helps us be happy and feel fulfilled. I know it's hard and I don't always do it, but trying to articulate for yourself going in, “What would it look like here to be successful? How would I know? How would I know, coming out of it, if I did what I meant to do?”
I would offer this, and I offer it to myself as much as I offer it to you. Think about what do you want to be doing. Different from what do you want to have done. The “have done" is what we get to talk about, what we hang on our walls, what we are awarded for. The “be doing” is how we spend our lives. What are you doing today? How are you filling your day? What have you done and how do you feel about it when you get into bed? That's the thing to keep an eye on as we all make our moves, and dodge and weave towards our goal. The goal is usually a “have done,” but the goal could be a, "be doing.”
18. What do you want to be doing?
I want to be making things that express who I am and what I think. Some days I feel like I am doing that, and other days I do not. That will always be true, I know that. But if I can get more days of yes, I’ll be doing okay.
19. You seem to bring the theatre community together. What do you see as your greatest strength? Your superpower?
I do think bringing people together, convening conversation space, creativity is something that I love to do. And seeing people. Seeing people is a gift, and an art, and a skill, and we can work at it, we can get better at it. I like that very much.
It’s funny, because we talk about service in our business all the time, and what we mean is the service and hospitality welcoming people into our theaters and creating an experience for them. Whether they are attending the show or creating a show, we make them know that they belong here and only desperately want to come back. And that is a kind of service. It struck me as interesting because I know what we mean when we say community service or "In the Service of All Nations," we mean helping people and we usually mean that as this thing I do in addition to what I really do. And it doesn't necessarily have to be that. And I'm not talking just about people who go into service and philanthropy or organizational charitable, governmental service, public sector work, which is hugely important. But I think all of us, in whatever our field, if we think, “How am I changing anything for the better today?” That’s not a bad frame to put on. And I would argue that we all, in whatever we're doing, have that power. And not by doing something else in addition. By doing the things that we want to be doing, how can we be doing that? What is the service in that? The service that really changes the world is the service that serves me and you. What I mean by “serving me” is not being self-serving. It’s serving my soul and maybe yours.
21. Does creating serve your soul?
Yes, expression. Expression, I think. Creating is a way of expressing. It is maybe not the only way, but it is a very powerful way. I think there are two pieces of expressing. A lot of people express without actually gathering first, so to me, expression is: Who I am? What do I think? What do I believe? What I feel? What do I need? What do I want? How do I make sense of this? What do I see? And then, how do I share that? How do I help you know that about me?
And I say then, but it's not necessarily a one-two punch. I think the coming to know and the coming to share feed each other. That's what it is to express, to know myself so that you can know me. And if I do that for you, and you do that for me, we’ve got something.
22. Any tips for young people to “come to know themselves?”
Be purposeful about that, about yourself. Think of all you have achieved in your life and how purposeful you were out doing that. You wanted to be successful in school, you were purposeful about it, you were driven about it, you gave it time, you gave it, you were practice. You made sacrifices for it. You wanted to come to Princeton. You were deliberate about it, focused on it, driven towards it. You gave it time and your attention. That's what we think of we do in our work, but not on ourselves. You mean you want me to be thinking about who I am, and how I feel, and how I see, and what I think, and what I know, and what I want to know? Take that as a project. Being deliberate about yourself. Being deliberate about your relationships. Offering that the same kind of rigor you do for your academic goals, for your professional goals. We are powerful, powerful people, and if we turn that focus, that powerful focus inward. That’s where I think the power comes from, right? Not just I know who I am, but I want to know who I am. I want to dig in there.
I'm actually really excited about all the things we've talked about today. I appreciate the opportunity to do what I say, which is to think about: What do you think? Where are you? How'd you get here? Where are you going? These are good things to think about, every once in a while, not daily - the daily thought of that will kind of paralyze - but the checking in. The consistently checking in with: Where are we? How do we get here? Where we want to go? And what do we mean? I don't mean what do we mean, like “What do I mean to the world?” I mean, “What is my intention? What do I mean to be doing?” I think that's a good thing to check in with. So thanks for letting me do it.
24. Back to your philosophy major. Do you use it in your job?
When I came to Princeton I knew I wanted to be in the theater, but I also knew that I wasn't done with my academic work. What was so attractive about Princeton was that it had such a robust theater ecosystem, but not a major. So I deliberately boxed myself into this corner of not having a vocational major available to me. Literally stumbled into the Philosophy Department just because I had taken a moral philosophy class freshman year to fulfill requirements, and I thought, “This is something you can study? Like, what is it to be a good person, and what should we be doing? This is study? Great! Love this! Let me at it!” And then I just took another and another and another, and unintentionally freed myself to major in something just because it fascinated me. And I have ended up using that every day of my life, and I don't think anything could have served me more for my career than my completely not career-focused philosophy major.
25. Any final advice?
So the thing I would offer is you don't always know in your brain how it's all going to add up. But, your heart knows what it wants to be doing next, and so a little bit of listening to the heart, and knowing that the brain will make sense of it later goes along way.
This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13