Jennifer Tepper on 54 Below, Her Career Path and Advice for Aspiring Theatre Lovers

By Nora Dominick ‘17/ Emertainment Monthly Assistant Stage Editor

Emertainment Monthly had the amazing opportunity to interview Jennifer Tepper, who is currently head of programming at Broadway’s Supper Club, 54 Below. She discussed her career leading up to this incredible opportunity and what it took to get her where she is today.

Tepper’s work on Broadway even led to her writing her own set of books entitled The Untold Stories of Broadway, which chronicle Broadway theatres, the amazing people who work in them, and the incredible performances that came and went through their hallowed halls.

How did you get started with theatre? What was your first encounter with it?

I think I started going to touring shows in Florida as a kid and I remember seeing A Chorus Line and Carousel and other shows when I was young that I loved, but it was really starting to go to summer theatre camp that really did it. I think when I was nine years old I started going to camp for theater and that just made me want to learn more shows and buy cast recordings and see more shows, so it was definitely the “gateway drug.”

What was your first Broadway musical?

My first Broadway show was actually The Full Monty, which is not a lot of people’s first show, which is what I love. My first ever trip to New York City I really wanted my first Broadway show to be something that was like an original musical and I wanted it to be something that like, I didn’t know at all that was brand new. So my Mom let us go see The Full Monty as our first show, us being my sister and I. My sister was like nine at the time. So it was definitely an experience for her, for both of us. I love that show.

So, could you talk about how you got started at 54 Below and the journey you took to get there?

Sure, So I went to NYU and I majored in dramatic writing but while I was there I studied a lot of different things like theatre producing, directing and musical theatre history which, I’ve always kind of been studying and loved. And I had a lot of great internships. I interned at York Theatre and I interned with the writers of [title of show] and that led to my first professional theatre job. I assisted the director of [title of show] on the Broadway production. And that kind of opened the door to some others jobs. I assisted Michael Greif, a director, for a while on a couple of different projects and I volunteered a lot on BCEFA [Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS] and I got a lot of short term gigs as a PA on workshops and things like that. And then my first real full-time theatre job in an office was when I worked with producer Ken Davenport as the director of marketing and promotions, and we did a number of Broadway shows. We did the Godspell revival, we did Macbeth starring Alan Cumming, a bunch of different shows. And I worked mainly in marketing but I also just worked under him and learned all of the commercial producing roles and worked on a lot of different projects in different capacities. So, that was definitely a good training ground. But, while I was doing all of those things, I was also producing a lot of concerts and benefits. And I started doing this “If It Only runs a Minute” concert series 5 years ago which celebrates under-appreciated musicals by having songs from them, original cast members, people telling stories, photos and all kinds of different stuff, and we are actually doing the 14th edition of the concert [at 54 Below]. So, I got a lot of experience at concerts and producing and putting together with that. I gained a lot of experience producing and it was actually how I got my job at 54 Below. I had done some shows here as a producer of that particular show, and so the owners of the club knew me, and the previous director of programming Phil Bond, who I knew, contacted me and hired me based on my experience doing that both here and elsewhere. It’s a great place to work. It’s an amazing place.

Patti LuPone at 54 Below. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson/
Patti LuPone at 54 Below. Photo Credit: Jenny Anderson/

You have some big Broadway names come through 54 Below like Patti LuPone but, what theatre fans enjoy is 54 Below also gets small known names like Whitney Bashor. What do you look for when you choose acts and go about the programming?

Sure, that’s a great question. So, I mean one of the coolest things is we have sixteen shows a week. We have a 7, 9:30 and an 11:30 and that gives us the ability to say, we want to have Patti LuPone all week at 7 but we can have people like, Whitney Bashor at 9:30 and maybe these two other people at 11:30 who are just starting out so, it’s really cool to kind be able to have everyone in one place. It’s really cool to have established people and emerging people mixing together in the audience and the dressing room and every night at the club, it’s like bringing the whole Broadway community together. One of the most exciting things to me is the Whitney Bashor’s of the community. We are able to do something that not a lot of other clubs can, which is because we have a lot of shows per week so I can reach out to a lot of Broadway people. Like, Greg Hildreth is playing 54 Below soon and he’s an amazing actor who I’ve see in a ton of shows, and he always plays the side kick like in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Cinderella. He is doing his first ever show and it’s totally sold out and it’s awesome. He has a bunch of guests that are really cool. Because I am a Broadway fan, which I have been for a long time and still am, I’m so excited to see Whitney Bashor and see people who might not have another place to do this but at 54 Below. We are the hub for Broadway concerts. We call it “Broadway’s Living Room” and we love having those people here. And a lot of the times, that show will do really well and they will end up doing it somewhere else like in California or they will do it again here with two or three performances. So, it’s really cool to grow those things with those people.

You guys also have the opportunity to bring casts of shows back together, I know the cast of Side Show and The Last Ship are doing concerts at 54 Below soon. So, how do you go about picking those reunion shows?

Yeah so, I mean the thing is we love to have the cast of Broadway shows who are currently running perform together as casts, but we also love having reunions. So that idea of having people who are in the middle, who’ve just finished a show on Broadway this season is a nice reunion. It’s really cool. Because I think of it as you are getting a ticket to the cast party. That’s what it’s like. The fun thing is these casts want to come back together and they want to do it here because they like it here, which is really special. Also, we have done a lot of reunions of casts of shows that closed like 30 years ago so they are all special in different ways. I will say it is something I have been trying to do so much more of since I started doing this. Like we did a Taboo reunion, we did a Smile the Musical reunion and I love those kinds of things. When I first moved to New York I saw a reunion concert of Elegies: The Song Cycle and it was this cast album I always loved come to life and it was just the coolest thing. And I have seen bootlegs and heard all about the reunion of Merrily We Roll Along, which is my favorite musical, and the original cast had this big reunion. So the idea of it being possible to do that with a cast of a show is so cool and so unique to theatre and we love doing it here.

So going off of getting casts back together, one really special concert you guys had last year was Hit List from the NBC show Smash. How was it putting that together and bringing those songs to life?

Definitely really special for myself and 54 Below. What happened really was Joe Iconis, who is one of my best friends who I collaborate and have worked with for years, when his songs were going to be on Smash on that second season it was like the most amazing thing in the entire world to me because his songs were going to be on national television. And I love Smash so I was so excited for Jeremy Jordan and Krysta Rodriguez, who has been a really good friend of mine forever, so it was like the perfect storm of amazing things. And you know, Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul], who I know and love, were also going to be on Smash. It was really exciting when it started happening and airing on TV. It was really through Joe [Iconis] being featured on the show that I became friends with Josh Safran, who was the show runner for season two. So, him and I and some others, we just started thinking how amazing it would be to do this live version. The actors and writers were all really into it and based on everyone’s schedules we could only do it for those two nights. So, it ended up being this really special thing that I will never forget. It created such an explosion. I went and picked up a copy of The New York Times cause they were like “Hit List is actually happening.” Having them sing it live was just unforgettable. And having all the writers in the same room together, it was just so special and I will never forget it. It’s just theatre is so ephemeral, things happens and they’re gone and they only exist in the memory of those who saw it. I would love for it to happen again but, I think this was the perfect example of it was right after Smash ended and we were all coming together to celebrate it and Hit List in a way that will exist in our memories forever. It’s one of my favorite memories here.

Do you have anything coming up at 54 Below that you are really excited about for this upcoming spring season?

Almost every night is exciting for a different reason. Like, there are 16 shows a week so there is always something to be really excited about. This weekend alone we have the entire cast of Les Miserables coming and that’s really cool and “If It Only Runs a Minute” is back so we have all of these concerts coming up that celebrate under-appreciated musicals. There are so many things to look forward to. We have this amazing show that is actually already sold out called “Broadway Meets Andrew McMahon.” His music, both Smash and not, will be sung by Broadway people. There’s so much that it’s hard to pick a favorite. The next couple of months are filled with cool stuff.

Ted Chapin and Jennifer Tepper at an event for The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volume 2. Photo Credit: David Gordon/
Ted Chapin and Jennifer Tepper at an event for The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volume 2. Photo Credit: David Gordon/

So, diving into your books, have you always wanted to write a book? And did you know you wanted it to be about Broadway and theatre?

Yeah, I always have said that it was my dream to write a book someday and I’ve been saying it for years. But it wasn’t until I started experiencing the theatres themselves by working in them that I thought that writing a book about the Broadway theatres themselves would be interesting. Even then I met the publishers of the book because I met them through friends and working on Godspell and networking. One of the publishers, I met her when she came to one of the concerts of “If It Only Runs a Minute,” and that was one of the things where she was like “I’m starting this publishing company and I don’t know if you want to pitch a book and talk to us about this.” So it was really a combination of things. I think if she hadn’t done that, I still would’ve written this book at some point. But this was the perfect situation that came up to write a book. My publishers are the greatest. So, I pitched them the book based on the idea that each chapter is a different theatre and I would interview different types of people that work in them. And in the beginning we thought it would be great because all of the theatre’s would be in one book, not even realizing how many people I would end up talking to and how many people it would make sense to be part of this. So, it was a process. I always knew I would write a book, but I couldn’t have told you I would do it at this age, at this time, about this subject.

So off of that, what was it like interviewing all of these people and touring these amazing venues?

I mean what was so cool was that it was all happening at the same time. One day I would be interviewing Lin Manuel Miranda at a random coffee shop and he would be talking about doing In the Heights at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. And the next day I would be getting a tour of the Richard Rodgers Theatre from the house manager, Tim Pettolina, and I would be thinking “Oh my god that’s where Lin’s dressing room was,” and “this person I interviewed last week said they would have a special memory from over there,” and “the original Chicago was here.” So it all kind of connected, but some of the coolest times I got were actually from the people who work in them regularly. Actors, directors and all those people come into the theatre for one show and then they go to another theatre so, it was really cool to talk to the house managers, the doormen, the ushers because they stay in that one theatre for a long time. So they tend to know the secrets of like, “this is the window where this happened,” or “this is the secret room.” I got a lot of those from people who were really awesome. For the Marquis Theatre I got a tour from the doorman, and the Marquis Theatre actually was just renovated and the entire backstage area was changed along with the box office. At the time I really didn’t know that it wouldn’t look like this in a year. So, I have thought about that a lot and it’s chronicled in my book of what the theatre looked like at the time and now it’s gone. So, that is really cool. And of course, the Cafe Edison, which was so important to the Broadway community. I wrote about that in my book and we didn’t know it would be closed a year later. So, being able to get those things on paper and preserve them and people’s memories and the places that are gone are the coolest parts of this and one of the saddest.

Just a final question, what would you say to someone who wants to be involved in Broadway and the theatre community?

Honestly, the best thing to do is to be involved. I think one of the best pieces of advice for anyone who just wants to work in the theatre is to just do it. Getting hired in the theatre is a hard competition because there are so few jobs and a lot of people want to work in the theatre. So, while you are applying for jobs, you can be putting on your own theatre. Whether it’s in a basement for 20 people or in an apartment with pizza, it’s about creating things and doing things. That is a huge stepping-stone and will lead to more. I also think the internship thing is important. Apply for a lot of things and even if it isn’t exactly what you want to do, it’s just about meeting people that will help lead you to another job in the future. I wrote so many letters and unsolicited emails just saying I loved their work and if they ever needed someone I was available and would be willing to learn. Also, if you are doing something involving theatre that is important to you, invite people that you admire. I think this is a huge part and is something so special to theatre. Theatre is taught person-to-person, so people love reaching out to the next generation because we are all part of the same thing. Put yourself out there and do a lot of theatre.

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