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140 Tony nominations later, this Jewish impresario is still energizing Broadway

Theatrical producer Emanuel Azenberg likes to tell this story about the time, more than 30 years ago, when “Jerome Robbins’s Broadway” was in rehearsal.

The show, which Azenberg was co-producing, was a compendium of brilliant musical numbers from the master choreographer’s Broadway career, but Robbins — born Jerome Rabinowitz — didn’t like the title. So he asked for alternative suggestions to be written on a blackboard in the rehearsal studio.

“One day I wrote ‘Dancing Hits by Rabinowitz,’” Azenberg recalls. Robbins wasn’t amused. “He asked who had made the suggestion. I said I had. ‘Do you know,’ I said, ‘how many theater parties I could sell with that title?’ ”

For Azenberg, one of the most successful and prolific producers in Broadway history, his Jewish connection has always been critical and meaningful.

Jewishness “is a primary identity,” he says. “Which I accept with a full heart.”

A mustachioed Manny Azenberg at the Drama Desk Awards.

A Life in the Theater: Manny Azenberg at the Drama Desk Awards. By Getty Images

Azenberg, known to almost everyone in the theater world as Manny, is 87 years old and still active in theater. He had the acumen to become an investor in the mega-hit musical “Hamilton.”

He grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in the Bronx; his father was the manager of a Labor-Zionist organization. The family lived in a $77-a-month apartment on 156th Street near the Grand Concourse.

“Part of my family died in the Holocaust,“ Azenberg says, sitting in a theater district restaurant just across 46th Street from the Richard Rodgers Theater, home of “Hamilton.” “My father was an avid Zionist, and a friend of Chaim Weizmann,” who was the president of the Zionist Organization and became the first president of Israel. Weizmann gave his father a ring, Azenberg says, when his dad left London and came to the United States in 1920 to work for the Zionist Organization.

“I went to a Labor-Zionist camp, Camp Kinderwelt,” Azenberg says. “And I never ran away from my Jewishness. It didn’t conflict with my American identity.”

In 1948, as a teenager, he saw his uncle, a veteran of the Yiddish stage, portray a rabbi in a Broadway play. It was then that Azenberg began to think of a life in the theater.

Azenberg’s uncle, Wolfe Barzell, was in Jan de Hartog’s “Skipper Next to God,” which starred John Garfield, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle.

John Garfield, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, sits on a couch with a script, a cigarette and a cup of cofee.

Paging Mr. Garfinkle: Azenberg’s uncle, Wolfe Barzell, was in Jan de Hartog’s “Skipper Next to God,” which starred John Garfield, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle. By Getty Images

Not that long after, when Azenberg saw “Death of a Salesman,” the dramatic masterpiece by Arthur Miller — Arthur Asher Miller, born in what was then Jewish Harlem, son of Isidore Miller — his interest in the stage grew. Lee J. Cobb, born Leo Jacoby, played the lead role of Willy Loman. “I remember being overwhelmed,” Azenberg once recalled.

Azenberg has produced or co-produced nearly 70 Broadway plays and musicals — two-thirds of which, he says, were financially successful — that have won more than 140 Tony Award nominations and more than 40 Tony Awards. He himself has won nine Tonys as a producer, including a 2012 Tony Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2008, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

His producing career began in 1966 with James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter.” He produced more than 20 plays by Neil Simon — that’s Marvin Neil Simon, born in the Bronx — starting in 1972 with “The Sunshine Boys” and including “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues,” “Broadway Bound” and Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers.”

His Tony-winning productions included the Fats Waller musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ”’ “Private Lives,” “Children of a Lesser God,” and “The Real Thing” by Tom Stoppard — born Tomáš Sträussler in Czechoslovakia. He also co-produced Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Azenberg has kept his Jewish connection throughout his career. “Woody Allen wrote a piece in The New York Times condemning Israel during the First Intifada,” in 1988, Azenberg says, “and when asked if he had been to Israel, he said why should he go to Israel when he could go to Sweden?”

“So I had a conversation with the then-Israeli cultural attaché, and we discussed antisemitism among the Semites. And I said you shatter it by bringing people to Israel.”

“And so beginning 30-something years ago, almost every year we brought theater people and students — from when I taught at Duke University — to Israel. Sometimes two or three groups a year. You can ask around the industry and you’ll find that a lot of people have been on that trip. Its importance was to shatter preconceptions and stereotypes. I think we were successful.”

These days, Azenberg is a consultant with Baseline Theatrical, a general-management firm whose Broadway shows include “Hamilton” and “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the improvisational rap musical. “Some people call up every once in a while,” he says, “and I give them my version of wisdom.”

Of all the shows he has produced, does he have a favorite?

“Neil Simon always had an answer for that question,” Azenberg says. “‘Yes — the one I’m doing now.’ But if I look back on it — what becomes a favorite is not the best show you’ve done but the ones that you’ve had the best times with, where there wasn’t a hassle — and those two would be ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ and ‘The Real Thing.’”

Simon Sits: Neil Simon on the set of the Broadway production of his Azenberg-produced play “Broadway Bound.” By Getty Images

“They were both successful and they were good. I think that ‘Brighton Beach’ and probably Neil’s ‘Broadway Bound’ will be done, when the Neil Simon dust settles, as plays representing a period in American history, or New York history. And ‘The Real Thing’ — Stoppard is arguably the best living playwright in the English language, and that’s one of his good plays.”

And the most important play?

“That’s a tough question. The most important play in my life was ‘Death of a Salesman.’ I don’t think I ever did a play that I found important. That would be arrogant. Being in the room with Stoppard is a highlight. So all of those would go on the cheshbon hanefesh — the accounting of my soul.”

Looking back, is he satisfied with his choice of a life in theater, and his embrace of his Jewish heritage?

“Without question,” he says. “I think I’m one of the lucky people. My personal life is terrific. I have five great kids. My kids know who they are. We are not religious. We are secular Jews. They have all been on trips to Israel. Being Jewish is part of their identity.”

“That sense of continuity, from my father to me to my kids, is very satisfactory.”

And way more than a half century on Broadway? “Who would have dreamt of that?”

Mervyn Rothstein was a writer and editor for 30 years at The New York Times, where his positions included chief theater reporter and theater editor of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. He was a writer for Playbill Magazine for 30 years. And he was a member of the Nominating Committee for Broadway’s Tony Awards.

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