Broadway Producer Martin Markinson: Reflections on ‘My Life in Theatre’

Now retired and dividing his time between his homes in Maui and Santa Fe with his wife of 56 years Arlena, Brooklyn-born Martin Markinson played a key behind-the-scenes role in the theater industry for the past half-century. Beginning in 1975, he produced and co-produced more than 40 plays and musicals on the Great White Way and throughout the country, including such iconic Broadway hits as Chicago and Torch Song Trilogy. He also booked other well-known shows like Rock of Ages, served as a voter for Broadway’s annual Tony Awards, and owned, operated, and renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre – Broadway’s smallest venue, formerly known as the Little Theatre – from 1979 until its sale in 2015.

In addition to his significant presence in New York, Markinson operated the Wadsworth and Brentwood Theatres in Los Angeles and the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, and produced two movies in Hollywood. And he recently released his autobiography, Come on Along & Listen to My Life in Theatre, through Archway Publishing.

Martin Markinson. Photo by Linda Carfagno.

I had the opportunity to speak with Martin about his very readable and informative memoir and to get his inside perspective on Broadway past and present.

Deb: Your life seems to be an embodiment of The American Dream – the son of Russian immigrants, born during the Great Depression, who rose from a life of modest means to an accomplished and rewarding career as a stage and screen producer and theater owner. To what do you attribute your success?

The first thing is perseverance. I used to tell my students (I lectured for ten years) that there are two qualities you need to succeed: you have to be able to take rejection; and you have to persevere. Being in the right place at the right time, and being lucky, also help.

You discussed your early job as an usher in a movie theater, through which you developed a love of storytelling and an appreciation for performers. At what age did you attend your first Broadway show, which one was it, and what was your reaction to it?

My first was when I was 21 years old. I was home in New York City, on leave from the Air Force, in which I had enlisted. The big hit at the time was South Pacific – it was completely sold out, you couldn’t get a ticket. I knew that the USO gave away free tickets, so I went there, but they didn’t have any either. Then I went to the theater in my uniform, and while I was standing outside, a man came up to me and asked if I had a ticket. I said no, so he gave me one. I told him I didn’t have the $14 to pay him for it, and he told me it was a gift, he wanted me to have it. Inside I was seated next to him, third row orchestra, and I thought “WOW!” – it really grabbed me. But I didn’t go into the theater business then, I went into insurance.

What lessons did you learn from your years in the insurance business, which were also applicable to your work in the entertainment industry?

Actually nothing, but it was the way that I got into the entertainment business. When I was working in insurance, I met a man 25 years my senior, who asked if I could raise any money for his new Broadway show, and if I would handle the insurance for it, so I did. That was Chicago, in 1975, and that’s when I fell in love with it.

Photo courtesy of Martin Markinson.

One play you singled out in your memoir as deserving of a Broadway run is Matter of Honor by Michael Chepiga. Do you think the time might now be right for it?

Yeah, I think the time is right for it right now. I recently got a call from the former director of the Pasadena Playhouse after he read my book, and he agreed with me. He asked me to put him in touch with the author, who spoke with him and made some rewrites. So now it’s a project in his back pocket. If anyone asks him if he has a show to do, that’s the one.

Which of the stars you’ve worked with stand out as not only the greatest talents, but also as the most gracious personalities and nicest people you’ve encountered?

There were so many, I don’t want to name names, because I’d worry that I’d forgotten to mention some of them! But I named my theater after Helen Hayes, and she was a delight, as were so many others. What got me through my work was that I respected all of the actors and was always willing to give them what they needed. I never once had a single adversarial moment in all my years in the theater.

How gratifying is it for you to see that Rock of Ages is back in New York playing a limited engagement at New World Stages to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its Broadway debut at the Helen Hayes Theatre?

I’m very excited about it, because it’s such a great musical and it’s a show that’s fun for young people. It’s going to be coming to Maui this fall, and of course I’ll revisit it when it’s there.

You said in your book that you should “always expect the unexpected.” But as a longtime Broadway producer and Tony voter, were you surprised by the number of shows that closed post-Tony Awards this past season?

I was not surprised by it. When I started in this business, the odds were that about one out of four show would be a hit. Now it’s something like one out of eight or nine. The cost of tickets makes audiences who love the theater and would have gone to see everything in the past now have to pick and choose the shows they most want to see. Most producers will only do a play with a major star, and that means a limited run. With musicals, you don’t need a star, but most are revivals, not new shows. You must have a good product, but I like the excitement and creativity of new work.

Photo courtesy of Martin Markinson.

Your book concludes with appendices on the average budgets for theatrical productions in 2015. Do you see any evidence that the financial paradigm for Broadway has changed much over the last few years?

The cost of Torch Song Trilogy was $250,000 when I produced it, now it’s about $15 million. As a result, ticket prices are much higher. People always ask me why a show didn’t become a hit, or why a show closed, and the answer is always the same: because we didn’t sell enough tickets. With the current costs, it’s hard to sell enough tickets to break even. You have your ups and downs, but when you see how long theater has been alive, I believe it will always be there; I’m positive about it. It can change, but it can always come back. People love live entertainment.

Martin Markinson. Photo by Linda Carfagno.

Now that you’re retired, is there anything you miss about being a producer or theater owner?

What I miss is being a member of an elite group of four that owns every theater on Broadway. With the little Helen Hayes Theatre, I was a boutique surrounded by department stores! I would miss producing more if I could do it the old way. Now you see 62 names of people producing a show above the title in the program, and you have 62 people rushing on stage at the Tonys. Most of the old producers are gone, but there was a great camaraderie among us.

Is there any one show, playwright, composer, or star that could tempt you out of retirement and bring you back into producing?

Ha! That’s a good question. I’d have to wait for that call. But to devote two years of your life waiting to see if a show’s a hit would be hard – you can’t do that at my age!

Many thanks, Martin, for an enlightening view of what it takes to succeed on Broadway. I thoroughly enjoyed your book and the insights you provided, and wish you continued success with it!

Come on Along & Listen to My Life in Theatre (Archway Publishing, Bloomington, IN, 2019) is available in hardback (ISBN: 978-1-4808-7632-3), softcover (978-1-4808-7631-6), and e-book (978-1-4808-7630-9) editions from the publisher, and can also be purchased online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


  1. Martin Markinson died on Thursday, January 7, 2021, at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after a long battle with cancer; he was 89 years old. It was a pleasure to have had the opportunity to speak with him for this interview; we send our sincere condolences to his wife of 58 years Arlena, who was with him when he passed. His memory, and his legendary work on Broadway, will live on.


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