Shaker Heights Native Onscreen in 'Leonard Soloway's Broadway'

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Cleveland International Film Festival screens “Leonard Soloway’s Broadway”directed by Jeff Wolk (Hawk House Productions)  this week.

The documentary tells the story of the Shaker Heights native, now 90, who spent seven decades working in theater, mostly as a producer.

Soloway might not have ended up in show business if he hadn’t received some bad news as he entered his senior year of high school. He said what he found out eventually proved to be the best thing that ever happened to him.

During his junior year, Soloway was the editor of the Shaker Heights High School newspaper. However, when he came back for senior year, he was surprised to learn his tenure was over.

“They told me I couldn’t continue to be the editor, because they had a restriction the editor could only serve one year,” Soloway said.

An angry Soloway returned home to declare to his mother he was quitting school. “She said, ‘no you’re not.’ I don’t know why she said, ‘why don’t you go down to the Cleveland Play House to see what they’ve got?’ They said, ‘sure, come and play here,’ and that was that," Soloway said.

Soloway quickly fell in love with the theater, although he was often the butt of good-natured pranks during his time at the Cleveland Play House.

“They tortured me,” Soloway said laughingly.

“They told me that they couldn’t find the key to the curtain, so I’m running around the Play House asking who has the key, and of course there wasn’t one. They would also send me up into the fly gallery, even though I was petrified of heights. Getting me down was a musical comedy,” Soloway said.

Soloway’s work wasn’t confined to backstage.

“I did bit parts where they would put mustaches on me and stuff, so I looked older. Of course, the mustaches came off and I would move my mouth around, so I wouldn’t lose it. That’s the way it went on. I was 17 years old, and I was playing cops who were supposed to be 40,” Soloway said.

Soloway’s passion for theater was more than evident to one his high school teachers.

“I hardly went to school my senior year. The history teacher called me into his room. He said, ‘on pages x and x and x are the questions I’m going to give you for the final exam. You are the luckiest person in this school because you know what you want to do with your life. Don’t pay attention to the principal or anyone else in the school, just go about your business,” Soloway said.

Soloway eventually found his way to New York, where he thought he would become an actor, but instead, he became involved in producing when he realized that there was more money in that role than being onstage.

Over the next seven decades Soloway would work in a variety of capacities, ranging from theater manager to producer. He would stage over 100 shows, which garnered more than 40 Tony Awards, 21 Drama Desk Awards and 3 Pulitzer Prizes. Soloway has been involved in countless Broadway productions, including “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Moon for the Misbegotten,” “Waiting in the Wings” and the 2002 revival of “Our Town” starring Paul Newman.

Given his long run as a producer, Soloway developed a keen eye for what would be a hit and what would flop, but he admits he really missed on a Broadway musical that opened in 1967, which he was sure would bomb. Instead the show won a Tony Award and received several other nominations.

“’How Now, Dow Jones’ was just terrible, but on opening night because we hadn’t sold any tickets we told the cast to invite whomever they wanted. Of course, all of those people (in the audience) who knew all the people onstage went crazy, screaming and hollering and applauding. We actually got a good review, so that was that,” Soloway said.

Soloway said the toughest part of his job is raising the money. It’s a task that has only grown more difficult over the years, as the cost to mount a production has skyrocketed.

“I did a show called “Fade Out-Fade In (1964),” it was a huge musical comedy that cost $600,000. I’m doing a straight show now, which went from a million dollars to three million dollars in five years,” Soloway said.

Soloway said the problem is compounded by the need to have a star to help sell tickets, but big-name performers will only usually commit to 12 weeks. That kind of short stay hampers the ability of backers to make money.

“The best [producers] can do is pay back the investors their original investment. It’s gotten very difficult,” Soloway said.

Soloway isn’t bothered that most people who come to see the shows he’s produced have no idea who he is.

“I don’t care. I know who I am and what I did. I’ve done more than a hundred Broadway shows and many Off-Broadway which were hugely successful,” he said.

Leonard Soloway’s Broadway” screens twice at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival, Friday evening at The Cleveland Museum of Art and Saturday afternoon at Tower City Cinemas.

Leonard Soloway's Broadway | Trailer (2019) from Hawk House Productions on Vimeo.

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